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Making online workshops engaging

How can you meaningfully engage with your participants in a virtual workshop?

One of the major benefits of a face to face workshop is that it is engaging for people. We love how tactile the experience is and we try hard to design activities that get people drawing, building, even going for a walk. 

As the whole world works from home, how can you keep participants engaged in a virtual workshop, when technology can get in the way?  

At ThinkPlace we have run thousands of design workshops, bringing diverse people together to solve complex problems. Before the Covid-19 crisis, ThinkPlace had been using our online workshops, Airlabs, when face to face was not an option, such as engaging mining communities in remote Australia or running innovation processes with Australian public servants stationed overseas.  

Since the Covid-19 crisis, ThinkPlace has been running Airlabs on a daily basis. In this series of blog articles, we discuss some common client concerns with online workshops and how you can help overcome them. In Part one, we talked about how to effectively design your online workshop 

Once you have the ncessary tools in place, how can you bring real engagement. Let's delve deeper. 

1st client concern: the technology will be a nightmare 

We recently had a client with a high-profile project who was worried that an online workshop would be mired by technology glitches. In another example, a client told us that they weren’t tech-savvy and suggested we didn’t invite older participants who might struggle. And it’s true, no one likes hearing “sorry guys, we’re having technical troubles” 

But there are lots of ways to make the technology much easier.  

How to overcome it 

1) Have tech support or moderator for your workshop  

A superhero comes to save the day. Only this time, it’s a tech superhero. At ThinkPlace when we run Airlabs we always have one person (not the facilitator) in charge of technology. Not only does this person help design how the virtual workshop will work, tests the platforms, runs the checks, but on the day is 100% dedicated to managing the platforms, making sure they are working, participants know what is going on and have someone to reach out to if they need help.  

This has been critical to our Airlabs running smoothly. It doesn’t have to be expensive, in fact this role makes sure the workshop runs smoothly and results in the outcomes our clients want.  

2) Script rigorously  

In a face to face workshop, it’s often possible (and desirable) to be a bit spontaneous. It’s so much harder to do that digitally. At least while you’re getting used to online workshops, make a detailed runsheet of instructions, with a lot more detail than you would for face to face workshops.  

Make sure that each activity has a slide with detailed instructions for participants, so they don’t have to interrupt the whole group to ask questions. Unlike in a face to face workshop, you might not see people filling in the wrong template.  

3) Practice run your session. Aim for twice 

One of the keys to avoiding technology problems is to practice your session including going from one activity to the next and practicing break out rooms. Aim for two practice runs initially and consider inviting your clients.  

4) Limit the number of platforms you choose  

For every platform, there is a hurdle in getting to know it. Limit platforms to two per session. One of the reasons we love Mural is that you can have one Mural board for the life of the whole project so clients and participants can come and go, building skills in a low-pressure environment. Choose a videoconferencing system that your clients are familiar with.  

5) Open the session early  

Open the session 30 mins before the workshop (no one likes waiting to log on and some people get confused). Tell people explicitly that they can join early and you will help them in that time to get familiar with the platform. At the beginning of your session, spend some time training people on the platforms and giving them opportunities to see how they work. For example, use a simple ice breaker that functions as a get-to-know-you and a learning experience.  

2nd Client concern: How can you make it engaging?  

Our clients often ask how an online workshop could be as engaging as a face to face one.  

How to overcome it 

1) Short activity-based sessions  

Choose a platform that facilitates activities such as Miro, Stormz, GroupMap or Mural. Mural looks and feels a lot like an actual whiteboard. But it can be fiddly for participants to use (a common problem is to accidentally make a huge post it or to struggle to line things up). If you want a faster, easier user experience try GroupMap.  

Aim for your virtual workshop to be 3 hours or less and keep each activity short, around 30 mins or less. The good news is that people are often faster at typing than writing out activity sheets so you’ll be surprised how much they can get done in that time.  

Choose a platform like Stormz that allows break out rooms and integrates with videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. As you would do with workshops, join virtual break out rooms to reiterate instructions, see how people are doing with activities and ask if they need more time.  

2) Get rapid feedback in the moment  

Make sure you have really easy way for people to give you feedback on how the workshop is going. In person you’d be able to tell if someone looked uncertain or that they were about to ask a question. Give people the option to ask questions over the chat function or use a polling platform such as Slido to get feedback on whether people need more time or understand the instructions.  

3) Pause more when facilitating 

After asking participants questions, or before moving on to the next activity or conversation, pause for much longer than you would in person. This gives people time to put on their mic and overcome the formality of speaking via videoconferencing.  

4) You need to work a lot harder to make sure people are staying engaged  

As a facilitator in control of the technology you have a lot of power. Videoconferencing also creates formality and prevents people building rapport. This is exacerbated by technology that creates lags and delays in taking mics off.  

Don’t just say “interrupt any time with questions”. You need to be a lot more proactive in asking people if they understand. Use your technology support to ask people in different ways (such as over the chat function or using a Slido poll)  

3rd client concern: Looking at a screen is exhausting  

Employers around the world are grappling with out to keep their staff healthy now that they are spending eight solid hours a day looking at a screen.  

How do you limit screen exhaustion during your workshop?  

We have already discussed reducing the length of the workshop and the activities. Here are some more tips,  

How to overcome it 

1) Don’t dismiss non-virtual activities  

Don’t’ be beguiled by all the shiny online tools. Good old fashioned drawings and activities still work wornders. You just have to design them carefully so that you’re confident participants have all the materials at hand.  

For example you could get people to draw a picture for a prototype or an ice breaker and send in a photo.  Other options include short film clips.  

In one workshop we did an activity to build people’s skills in prototyping by asking them to build towers using only paper, scissors and a ruler. The result was fun, memorable and skill building.  

Airlab non-screen activity 

2) Where appropriate you can put activities up before and after a workshop  

We think of a workshop as a time when everyone is together. But in the context of Covid some participants might have to step away to help their children with homework. A platform like GroupMap or Mural or Miro means people can contribute their thoughts before, during and after activities.  

3) Allow breaks of 15 minutes 

It’s much harder for people to concentrate on a screen, 5 minute breaks don’t cut it. Allow at least 15 minutes for people to stretch their legs, get some fresh air and allow their eyes to reset.  

In one recent example we ran yoga exercises for participants during breaks.  

The wrap  

With a bit of creativity and hard work you can make an online workshop very engaging. Think carefully about how you are going to get participants to build rapport and don’t dismiss a hands-on ice breaking activity.  

Make sure your virtual workshops are short and sharp to prevent people being distracted from all those emails and messages.  

We find that if a workshop is fun, interesting, fast paced and short, people will stay engaged and you’ll get great content for your client.  

Part 3: How to make virtual workshops safe? Coming soon...

You can find out more about Airlabs here.

View our Airlabs guide

Get in touch about airlabs:

Australia: +61 2 6282 8852 | airlabs [at] (subject: Airlabs%20Enquiry)

New Zealand: +64 (04) 472 1212 | info [at] (subject: Airlabs%20Enquiry)

Singapore: +65 9046 0340 |  info [at]


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