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Facilitator's guide to a productive digital workshop

We're all familiar with that unsatisfied feeling after a day full of digital meetings. You wake up, grab a coffee, open your laptop at your improvised desk/kitchen table, and then you fall from digital 'team meeting' to digital 'update' to digital 'recap session'. Before you know it's 5:30 pm and you close your laptop with a sigh and an unsatisfied feeling.

After our digital Design the Future event about 'Social potential' of society during and after the Corona Crisis, we got a lot of compliments from participants that they enjoyed working so effectively with each other. One of the participants said, "Finally, I felt that people worked efficiently and accomplished something tangible in a digital workshop".

That is why we want to share our tips and tricks with you guys so that more and more people can have productive and efficient digital workshops in an energizing way.

First and foremost to create a successful workshop, it is really important to empathize with the participant. How does he/she/they experience a digital meeting in general? What does he feel and think? Ask yourself which digital workshops, webinars, and meetings you liked and didn’t and why that was. What made them energizing or exhausting.

Hereby our practical tips and checklist:

Before the workshop

1) Test all programs and functions three times

Since most facilitators will use one, two, or even more programs (and actions) they haven't used before, it is important to test those actions and steps. First for yourself, then with a person who doesn't know how to use the program(s). After that, test it with the timing and new adjustments. Normally, facilitators tend to find their way out of every unforeseen situation. However, with technical issues, you cannot foresee how long you need to fix the problem. People will get annoyed much faster since they cannot talk to each other or help you with the issue.

2) Have a second pair of eyes and hands.

First of all workshops with participants above eight people or two groups, need a second pair of eyes and hands. It is the same as in real life. However, now you need them to read the comments in the chat, write down actions, questions, and/or check-in with the different groups.

Second, you need at least one person who has a full overview during the entire workshop, and another person who can fix the problems which definitely WILL pop up. Give that person unlimited access to accounts and information. For example, at least for one participant, a specific technical issue will appear but the rest has to go on.

3) Digital restrictions in facilitation roles

When you have a co-facilitator be aware that the various platforms and programs have different settings for host and co-hosts. Check out the differences for the program that you are using and divide the rolls accordingly. The official 'host' of the meeting doesn't need to be the main facilitator- if that is not handy for the digital capabilities and task division.

4) Have a default plan

Tell people at the beginning of the meeting what they should do when the workshop promptly ends or they get disconnected (just click again on the link in your preparation e-mail).

Here are some questions we answered for ourselves to do risk management:

  • What happens when the host of the meeting gets disconnected?

  • What happens if we get disconnected from the meeting/internet in the different stages of the meeting?

  • When is it good to resume the meeting when you are going for an alternative option?

  • Which alternatives are there? ( Instagram/Facebook lifestream; record a video; have a collective call and not using a video platform)

Have all phone and email addresses ready to contact them.

Have an 'emergency' message ready to send to everyone.

5) Simple preparation mail (7 Points) aka. ‘No one is reading the preparation e-mail’

Be aware when using different platforms or programs that even if you are sending out preparation emails that people don't really read them. Make the preparation email as short as possible using only these 7 points:

- Topic and time (1 sentence)

- Expected results (1 sentence)

- Video call link and password

- Be on time

- Make sure you have a good internet connection

- Install these programs beforehand

- Video on, Microphone off

Take the time during the meeting to explain the programs you are going to use, why, and how!

During the workshop

1) Awareness for participants situation

When meeting digitally, people are much more distracted, they have to deal with extra digital circumstances and don't have as much capacity to interact in the workshops as in real life.

We are used to analyzing people by their body language, now we have to interpret a person and what they are saying by delayed audio signals and bad visuals. That is hard and is extremely exhausting.

2) Check your voice and video set up

Since the digital environment is restricting our body language it is important to create the best visual and audio circumstances.

How can you set up your computer and camera as a facilitator to have a professional look and feel?

- Put your laptop or computer on a little box so you have to look up to look in the camera ( that gives you a positive and upright body language and you look thinner than looking down and creating a double chin ) ;)

- Don't have windows behind you.

- Have a window behind your computer or put a lamp there. So you have no shadows in your face which makes it easier for people to see your face and understand what you are saying.

- Wear classic cloth were you feel comfortable in and modest colors

Audio adjustments

- Have an upbeat attitude and put a smile on your face. People can hear smiling in your voice. Take deep breaths between sentences, keep calm but keep the pace in the meeting.

Before starting the digital workshop, start a video call just for yourself and check your video and audio quality.

3) Give the early bird participants a test environment

Give people the possibility to enter the meeting half an hour before. Be there as well and be prepared to help people out with technical questions. Create a test environment in programs you are going to use so that you can give the people who are early in the meeting something to do and the feeling that they are not wasting their time. You also could use the time before the meeting for a REALLY short questionnaire.

4) Max. 3 programs/apps

Since you have to assume with all digital tools you are using that participants haven't used them before it is important to not overwhelm them with too many programs/apps. To explain each new tool costs also time, so for your agenda's sake, keep it simple. Work with what you have!

5) Start on time

Start at the scheduled time. And if you have to wait for a group of people, don't wait longer than 5 minutes. Give the people who came later the opportunity to ask questions when it is time to ask questions. People are impatient when they are waiting alone in front of the computer.

6) Activation Icebreaker

Start with a positive and moving activity. Probably everyone is sitting quite a lot. So let them be in action. For example:

- Show us your office/ workspace.

- Make a good first impression: Stand up and smile and wave at the camera for everyone.

(Good moment to take a group picture :))

- Share three highlights of the day in the chat

- Show us your favorite object in the room and explain in the chat why

- During the workshop, you can do a quick poll to keep participants engaged

7) Create an EXTREMELY logical workshop structure & overview

Show people a logical step by step process of the workshop topics.

And really show it to them in a visual overview. Normally, we just show them the agenda with the times. However, now it is only important for them when it ends- the timing in between doesn't matter. You will guide them. Make the structure extremely logical. When starting a new point of your agenda says so."Now we are starting, with the topic called:....") Before starting the next topic summarize what you talked about, ask if there are any questions, and check-in with your co-facilitator if he/she/they want to add something. It seems logical, but it is extremely important to not forget this part. Come back to your main overview whenever possible and show them where you are in the process.

8) Breakout Groups

Give clear and (a little bit) guided questions. The question you give people for the breakout sessions should be simple and clear. If you want them to be creative. Be aware that participants don't have the same mental and physical capacity, they normally have to interact with each other as we mentioned earlier.

That is why you should give them some expectations or guidelines. For example: "We came up with some ideas around our new strategy. However, we were wondering how to implement it. Can you come up with solutions/ideas?" etc. So You don’t ask: “What should we improve in our company?”. Here we framed it around a specific topic ‘Strategy’ and an action: ‘How to implement?’.

To facilitate a Design Sprint check-out the amazing Facilitators Digital Design Sprint Guide from our Partner Mario P. Schwery.

- Create groups

Make sure people understand what their tasks are during the breakout sessions.

Don't use general messages to all breakout room since people tend to overlook them

Show them with visuals/ screenshots what they will see and have to do in the break out rooms

In addition, post a short and simple description of their tasks in the break out rooms again- that makes the start of a breakout session much easier.

- Clever group constellation:

  • create break out groups in the first 15 minutes of the workshop / Now you know exactly who actually came.

  • an experienced facilitator

  • a person experienced with the working space/digital whiteboard

  • a person experienced with Question/ process

- Get to know your breakout group: exercise

There is so much going on- don't forget to give the group time to get to know each other a little bit better.

- Get used to your digital working space/whiteboard

We know you want to get fast through this, however, there are always people who don't know how to use specific programs and app or there are technical issues

- Template or structure for digital whiteboard

Normally, people have time to adjust to their surroundings and the material while you do the introduction. Now they have to adjust when they get new material or programs/apps presented. Fasten their adjustment process by creating a pre-structured overview or template. The best is to also add the task and timing of each part in the breakout.

After breakouts

- Let people present their own ideas by sharing their screen

- However have an alternative solution ready, for instance: get a screenshot of the team's results via e-mail or have access to the working space (digital whiteboard) of the breakout group.

9) Allocate actions and time

Make sure that all participants know what has to happen with the results of the meeting. When are they going to get the results of the meeting?

When and how are they supposed to act on them?

When is the following meeting?

10) Time for Questions & Closing

Always check with everyone on the end: "Is there anything else?", "Any questions?" or Has the co-facilitator something to add?

Close with the similar way you started the meeting- For example: 'a one-word close'

After the workshop

1) Create space that participants can connect with each other after the workshop

Normally at workshops we connect and network with the people we find interesting. It is hard to do so within a digital setting. Make sure to either give them time during the workshop to exchange contacts or create a LinkedIn group/intranet group.

2) Send a Summary

We all have so many digital meetings we don't know what was said anymore or which actions we have to attend to. So send a short summary of the workshop/meeting:

-The agenda,

-Decisions and actions,

-Ask if there are any more questions or ideas

Create this overview and questions already before and ask for help from your co-facilitator to add all the information during the workshop/meeting. Send this mail within the next three hours after the workshop.

2) Plan the next meeting with the key stakeholder, always

Ask the main people involved when they will be able to do their following actions and plan a meeting to talk about the actions with them. Then they feel much more urgency.

3) Follow-up (more important than ever)

Yes, you know that. But now it is really important. Normally, you run into each other in the office and can ask extra questions or check-in. Digitally, you won't. So to make a project happen or to act you have to check in with each other and ask the hard/extra questions.

Tip: create a standard mail for after your meetings and schedule that it will be sent automatically a week after your meeting. Just ask how it is going after the meeting, with the actions and if they have questions or you can help with somethings.


Text: Skadi Mobius & Larissa Baars

Visuals: Skadi Mobius

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