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How to make your online workshops better than face to face

How to make your online workshops better than face to face

Remote working is the new normal. But how can you make workshops remote when they are typically tactile?  

How can you avoid a video conferencing talkfest where the loudest voice dominates?  

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 continued to run 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.  

The first client concern: will it work for me?  

As the Covid-19 crisis was breaking one of our clients wanted to cancel an upcoming workshop, fearing that face to face was the only option for an effective workshop.  

And it’s true, digital workshops risk becoming like a video-conference at the UN, with each person standing up to say their piece rather than working together to build something new. This tendency could be compounded by delays in mics coming on and off. The result risks looking like a long formal meeting of “he said” “she said” that goes nowhere.   

How to overcome it 

1) Work with a seasoned facilitator  

Have you ever walked out of a workshop and been completely energised and engaged by the facilitator? This doesn’t happen by mistake. Facilitation, like any skill is honed over years of practice, figuring out what works for what audience. Online facilitation is no different, you need to work with people who know how to deliver engaging digital sessions which meet their intended purpose.   

2) Choose a platform that facilitates activities 

Just because it’s videoconference, it doesn’t have to be all talk and no activity. There are platforms like Miro, Stormz, GroupMap or Mural that help online collaboration. In a recent workshop with healthcare workers, the first activity was the drill into the challenges faced by hospitals and patients. We chose Mural, an online whiteboard where people can write on virtual post-it notes and group them in themes just like they would in a face to face workshop.  

If you want a faster, easier user experience (with slightly less flexibility but a huge range of pre-made templates) try GroupMap. With GroupMap, participants simply type responses in the fields you design and then can move, group, vote on them.  

At ThinkPlace, we carefully choose our platforms depending on client needs and activities.  

Example of a GroupMap template: the Lean Canvas   

Group Map Lean Canvas Template

3) Use break out rooms to get people working in small groups  

You will maximise the output of your whole workshop if you create small breakout rooms, preferably each with a facilitator.  

Creating virtual breakout rooms can be cumbersome over videoconference. A platform like Stormz that integrates with Zoom helps create small sub-groups within a zoom call who can each work on the same activity.  

Try and have a facilitator for each room, particularly if you don’t know the personalities in your rooms. If you don’t have enough assistant facilitators, you could check in on each room, making sure people understand instructions and see if they need more time.  

Mural Wall

4) Chunk your session into small parts 

Design workshops are often an action-packed day in length. This simply won’t work in a digital context where people have children or other caring duties. Aim for 3 hours or less. Similarly, in a workshop we might have activities that are 20 to 30 minutes each. That’s too long for someone to keep engaged online, even in a breakout room. Keep your activities short, around 20 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.

The second client concern: will it be expensive?  

Clients might be concerned that a virtual workshop will be expensive with extra platforms and extra staff to manage the technology. Working with a facilitator means clients don't have to pay ongoing monthly fees for online platforms, rather costs for platforms will be paid just once.

The good news is that often an online workshop is cheaper:  

  • Virtual workshops can be a lot larger than face to face ones, meaning you get more inputs and can run fewer workshops 

  • They can also be quicker – done right you can get 50 people typing fast into fields and not having to walk around the room sticking up post it notes 

  • The write up after a workshop is often a lot quicker and sometimes very minimal as clustering can be completed as it’s developed 

  • And of course, there’s no travel and no catering! 

The third client concern: what if we are prevented from using some types of technology?  

It’s critical that you are technology neutral.

At ThinkPlace we work hard to be technology agnostic; we are not aligned with a particular whiteboarding or brainstorming platform.   

Some clients won’t use zoom for security reasons, in which case Microsoft Teams calls or Cisco’s WebEx are better solutions. Some clients want to integrate with Microsoft Teams to keep all their project work in the same place, for this Mural is excellent, the integration is seamless.  

We pick and choose platforms to suit our clients’ needs and they range from the highly technologically savvy through to very basic – for example you could just use a good old telephone for conversations to supplement a platform like GorupMap.  

The most important thing to remember is that form should always follow function. Ensure your goal or desired outcomes are crystal clear and then work backwards to decide what technology you should use to achieve this. At ThinkPlace we have a wealth of knowledge on specific tools and are happy to discuss your needs.  

The wrap  

Virtual workshops like Airlabs can be just as effective (and sometimes more effective) than face to face workshops if you run them well.  

Choose your platform carefully to facilitate activities and your client can watch as participants quickly write out content, draw pictures or make recordings.  

If you want your virtual workshops to work for a large range of clients, don’t tie yourself to a particular platform and always be willing to go low-fi, even a phone call can be matched with online activities.  

Part 2: How can you meaningfully engage with your participants in a virtual workshop

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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