Sharing our tips for fully virtual workshops

Sharing our tips for fully virtual workshops
SparkOptimus Team
Written by
Wendy Rudder, Aron Hartveld & Jantijn Kromwijk
The SparkOptimus Blog Team
March 20, 2020

The Corona crisis is forcing businesses to adapt fast and resort to fully digital solutions. As we work very closely with our client’s teams, this means finding virtual ways to continue fruitful collaboration. When one of our teams realized that a client workshop (scheduled on the morning after the Dutch government had requested everyone to work from home) would need to be rethought on the fly, we decided to take on the challenge to figure out how to host virtual workshops successfully. In this blog, we’ll share our first findings with you.


While regular meetings are easily replaceable by conference calls, workshops are an entirely different story. There are several challenges to overcome in order to have an energizing and successful virtual workshop. For example, compared to an in-person workshop, it’s harder for the presenter to notice if the attendants’ energy levels are running low or when people are having difficulty following the content. Some participants might be distracted by other things on their computers or struggle to speak up when they don’t understand something.

Similarly, due to the lack of eye contact and social conversation, it can be difficult to establish a personal connection and create an open environment in the workshop. If the presenter is working with the participants for the very first time, the participants might be less inclined to engage and contribute. Finally, proven methods that involve moving around in the room and using physical props like sticky notes and white boards are not available and digital alternatives need to be found.

Key ‘rules of the game’ for successful virtual workshops

We have formulated five key ‘rules of the game’ for successful virtual workshops:

  1. Ensure a solid process
    Since improvising can be difficult when other presenters and the audience are not in the same room, it is even more important than usual to prepare the presentation and all activities thoroughly. Share the planned timeline and all links or programs with the participants beforehand in one overview email. Make sure each moderator or presenter knows their role and start the meeting a little early, so you have time to properly set up the technical side.
  2. Enable digital interaction
    There are a lot of handy methods to break up the classroom situation in a workshop, like breakout-sessions or prioritization with sticky dots. How do you translate these workshop staples to a digital environment? This is where you can get creative. Prepare virtual breakout rooms for the participants to have discussions in smaller groups. Instead of a white board with sticky notes, use a Trello board. Ask participants to write down their ideas in short chat messages and have the moderator paste them (including the name of the contributor) to the Trello wall. That way, the moderator can easily steer the ensuing discussion by addressing everyone by name. Depending on the size of the group, considering having two people facilitate – one person to control capturing ideas, and one to steer the conversation.
  3. Establish ground rules
    All talking at the same time or suddenly not hearing anybody anymore – video calls can lead to awkward (and sometimes exhausting) situations. Laying down a few ground rules helps to ensure a smooth experience for everyone. These can include ‘Do’s’ like muting yourself when you’re not talking, always keeping the webcam turned on and letting others finish first before talking. A big ‘Don’t’: getting distracted by other activities or simultaneously working on something unrelated. The facilitator should explain the necessity of these rules in the beginning and inform everyone that they will be called by name to answer questions.
  4. Activate participants throughout
    In the beginning, each of the participants should introduce themselves and describe their role. Later, the facilitator can involve everyone by addressing people directly with questions like: “Maria, how do you think xyz relates to your role?”. This method might feel uncomfortable at first, but it helps to keep everyone engaged and prevents people from talking at the same time.Additionally, plan regular breaks for reflection and questions. Minimize interruptions by asking participants to drop their remarks in the chat while you’re presenting and then discuss them during a break.It’s also important to acknowledge the irregularities that might result from working from home. Life happens – a child may interrupt to ask for help, dogs may bark, or a roommate may walk past the webcam while a participant is in the workshop. Communicate upfront that it’s OK if this happens and encourage people to re-engage as soon as they can.
  5. Ask for feedback
    At SparkOptimus, we believe in working ‘customer first’. For virtual workshops, this means having the discipline to ask for feedback right away, even if the participants are well-known to the presenter and to each other. This is particularly important if you are going to work with the participants again in a virtual setting and want to improve the experience and the effectiveness. Take the time to review people’s comments and make clear what you will change when you do this again.

The team who pilot-tested this approach is now about to host their third virtual session. The big insight from the experience so far – participants all report not only a ‘better-than-expected’ experience with a fully digital workshop, but even a ‘better than in-person’ experience in many cases. As one participant said: “The full digital experience exceeded my expectations. Nice and structured and at the end the results were immediately digitally available.”

With these ‘rules of the game’ your virtual workshop will be set up for success!

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