Since March 2020 we’ve run many online workshops. These can work particularly well for smaller groups, but what do you do when the project necessitates bringing together a large group of stakeholders?

Whether you’re working with a large digital team or a charity board and SMT together, we wanted to share our learnings about how to run a successful online workshop for a big group. 

These online workshops can inevitably be full on. There are more stakeholders involved, it’s harder to keep people focused and there are more moving parts (eg multiple breakout sessions). An additional challenge can be if a day long session is needed; for example, if a board wants to turn its traditional face to face offsite into an online workshop. However with the right planning it can be productive, collaborative and fun. 

James Murphy, Zoe Amar and Jen Lowthrop from our team have pulled together their learnings based on recent workshops. 

Before the workshop

  • Whilst everyone has now used some video platforms before, not all will have used the platform you’re using. Microsoft Teams is different to Zoom, which is different to GoToMeeting, etc. Do some basic orientation (gallery view, chat, scrolling between screens, etc). Point out the seemingly obvious.
  • Some delegates may have IT systems which are locked down or poor connectivity so could struggle to access tools like Mural. So a backup option (e.g. we have a workaround of ‘post your ideas for the whiteboard in the chat if you can’t access it’) is a good idea. 
  • Be realistic on group size and feedback. If you have 30 people in your session it’s going to be difficult to have 30 people feedback or share their thoughts after a particular exercise. Be open from the start, we have time for 3, 4 etc to feedback and try and ensure you pick different people each time. The chat function is great for everyone to answer questions and put their thoughts in at the same time and then pick a few to share verbally. 
  • Don’t be afraid to give prep work before a workshop, even if it is just some time to think about something or find an example of something. It helps people feel more prepared and generally means instant engagement 
  • Ensure people know ahead of the day what technology you are using and encourage them to check they can open links, test online whiteboards etc before the day begins. 

During the workshop

  • A 2-minute paired exercise can work well to show how breakout rooms work and to recreate online the real life exercise of ‘turn to the next person and introduce yourself’. Doing this ahead of 30-minute breakout rooms in groups help people get warmed up and energised. 
  • If people are willing to learn and do things differently (even if it makes them uncomfortable) they will be able to get a lot from the day. Acknowledging that and encouraging people to ‘go with it’ at the start of the day helped.
  • Don’t be afraid to use online whiteboards with delegates who are new to digital, but be prepared to do lots of hand holding at the start. You may need to hold your nerve at this point with a large group as it will feel chaotic. Be prepared for lots of comments like – ‘Can’t connect, which window?’, ‘Who deleted my sticky?’, ‘Oh my god my stickies are enormous!’ ‘Whoops I didn’t mean to scribble – how do I type?’, ‘Where’s the whiteboard gone?’, ‘How do I zoom in?’

    However, this can end up being a great icebreaker. At one recent workshop a delegate started laughing as they got to grips with the board, and this gave everyone permission to chuckle at themselves. Everyone visibly relaxed at this point and the ideas delegates came up with flowed more easily and were really creative as a result. It started the session off on a fun note and made capturing ideas into a game.
  • Having 30 people working simultaneously on one whiteboard is spectacular! It fills up really, really quickly and is a powerful and visible representation of just how productive working in this way can be. Seeing it can quickly convert the sceptics in the group. Be sure to make your Mural/Miro board have enough space.
  • Lockdown your whiteboard furniture (headings, boxes, images) or they will be moved, bent or deleted by eager participants.
  • Include breaks regularly and for a meaningful time (an hour at lunch without a task, 15 minutes between sessions, not 5 or 10). A recent 6 hour session (10-4pm) after intro and summary really only had 4 sessions, of which each had an intro and summary of their own and 30 minutes of breakout discussion. Describing this upfront made the day seem much less daunting to participants – yes, we’re here for 6 hours, but there are lots of breaks, periods of receiving information, and short bursts where you will be ‘performing’.
  • Mixing the breakout groups keeps the discussions fresh. Ensuring each group is balanced (manually planning them in advance to ensure a good mix) helps to smooth the outputs, though build in time in the break to recreate the groups ahead of each session. Also, be mindful that the crisp delegate list that you were provided with may not match the names who appear on the screen – especially if participants are using their wife/husband/kids device to connect… You may need to do some detective work.
  • Some will struggle doing group discussion AND capturing notes on whiteboards. Mix things up and be mindful of this. Encourage sharing of room leadership, scribing and reporting roles – even if the group choose not to mix things up. Offer to scribe for groups stressing that the discussion is the most important bit (we can often scribe much faster than our participants). But also recognise that whoever is scribing is also filtering, so check the end board with everyone to ensure it reflects the discussion and is truly inclusive. 

After the workshop

  • Allow opportunities after the workshop for participants to contribute further. We introverts have our best thoughts after reflecting rather than in the session! Send links to your clustered and deduped boards a week later. This will also allow those who couldn’t make the session to be included – and potentially other groups too.
  • As you begin to think about returning to the office, we recommend planning workshops that are either entirely in person or online. Online workshops work best with everyone dialling individually. Avoid a few in a room and extra individuals online as this will create the feeling of a workshop session with remote observers, rather than a cohesive whole – even with the most skilled facilitator. The same experience for all is vital.

A year ago we would have wondered if 30 people could spend a day productively brainstorming from 30 locations online. But with planning and the points above it can work. Feedback from a recent online workshop was that their remote session drew much more group participation and engagement than they’d ever previously achieved in face to face sessions. They’ve already said that they should run future ideation sessions this way, and that face to face is likely to play a more pastoral, networking, supporting role.

We’d love to hear if you have any other tips for running successful online workshops.