How to run an online workshop

March 22, 2020
Mint line brushstroke

Building on our previous blog post, “How to run a brand workshop”, here are our tips on how to run an online workshop.

We are in unprecedented times.  In the UK, we may be only just starting to see the impact of Covid19 on our home and work lives, but one thing’s for sure – face-to-face gatherings are not an option and we need to find new ways of working wherever we can.   We’re seeing lots of face to face events canceled/postponed, but here at Brand by Me, we think there’s another way. With events, it can be complicated. The decision to move online has many implications. This article from Google is a great starting point if you’re trying to work out whether to move your face-to-face event online.

But for a workshop, it’s different. A genuine workshop (as opposed to a meeting, presentation or marketing event) is one where you convene a group of people to generate potential solutions to a known and defined problem. And these type of workshops don’t need to be canceled just because they can’t happen face-to-face. If you’ve planned a workshop and don’t know if or when it’s going to go ahead, why not move the workshop online?

Planning an online workshop can seem like a tricky task.  How will people engage? How can people work together? What technology should be used to make it happen?  

We’ve run a LOT of online brand workshops.  Whether it’s for groups of remote workers, global teams, or simply on days where transport has been a nightmare!  So here are our top 10 tips to help you deliver your workshops online.

1. Know your platform

We love using Zoom for online workshops, and Skype for Business works just as well.  However there are many online workshop platforms out there – the key is to use the one that you feel comfortable with, that people can access easily and that works for your organisation.  No matter what platform you use, make sure you know it inside out before the workshop – it’s frustrating for you and attendees if you’re spending time working out how to do the basics during the workshop.   Most platforms will have online tutorials and support so use them! Also do a trial run (or a couple) well in advance and make sure you have people join you (rather than doing it on our own) so that you can iron out any bugs.

2. Set homework

It doesn’t need to be a full online workshop manual, but you should give attendees homework in advance of your workshop.  This is good practice for any workshop, but essential for an online workshop, because you won’t be able to give people as much time and space to think during the session.  Don’t overload people with tasks though! A few quick questions to think about, a short bit of reading or a video will be enough to set the context and help people prepare.

3. Have a co-facilitator

In our previous blog post, we explained the importance of the facilitator’s role.  When you are running an online workshop, it’s useful to have a helper on hand to support you in running the workshop. They can support you by moderating comments in the chatbox (see point 9), communicating the tasks, being on hand to answer questions throughout and draw your attention to any feedback and helping with the logistics of any small group/partner exercises during the session.  Make sure you brief them in advance and take them through the session so they know exactly how it’s going to work – and our tip is to use WhatsApp or text to communicate between the two of you during the session (in case anything goes wrong!).

4. Don’t just present!

It’s tempting to create a big Powerpoint deck, share screens and let this run for your whole session but this really limits your ability to interact with and involve your attendees.  Feel free to use a few slides to structure your workshop, but remember to come out of the presentation for discussions, feedback and exercises. And if you must have the slides on screen, try and make that they don’t affect your ability to see your attendees – if so, then don’t use a presentation! (or change platform).

5. Do stuff in small groups

For a webinar or online presentation, one of the benefits is that you can invite large groups to join.  But it’s different for an online workshop. Remember the definition of a workshop in our original post? To get the best from participants, it’s really important that people can work in small groups. For us, a smaller group means 6-8 people at once as any more than this makes it difficult for everyone to interact.

If you have a larger group, you can create break out groups during the session.  Zoom has great functionality for this and it works seamlessly (we haven’t tried this in other platforms).  However even if you’re using a free platform or version that doesn’t have inbuilt breakout room functionality, you can still create separate mini online spaces for the group work, giving people set times to return to the main online workshop.  You can use conference call numbers or What’s App to allow smaller groups to discuss and work together too. If you are taking this approach, make sure you are clear on the task and timings – and that you create a communication channel (WhatsApp or text works well) for people to contact the facilitator with any questions during the group work.  

6. Pause frequently

We know it can be easy to forget to take a breath or pause for questions when you’re in full flow.  However, when you’re running an online workshop, it’s even more important to stop for questions, comments, and general interaction.  You can’t see always participants easily so you need to check-in. Our rule of thumb is to create a space for interaction every 5 minutes at least – by asking a question, asking people to comment or doing a quick exercise.  

7. Remember – you’re on camera!

Don’t get distracted by the sight of yourself on video, but do remember to use the camera. Make eye contact by looking directly into the camera, smile and bring your personality on to the screen.  If you must take notes, do so quickly and flag that you are taking your eyes away from participants. Or better yet ask your co-facilitator to help you with this. Nothing is more off-putting than only seeing the top of someone’s head when they are meant to be leading a session!  This is why we like Zoom – it allows you to capture and record the session so there’s no need to take copious notes in the moment.  

8. Plan for tech fails

Everything won’t work perfectly. And that’s fine.  But you need to have back up options. For example what if your Internet connection drops?  Or people can’t see your screen when you share it? We always have a dial-in just in case the connection fails or WiFi goes out.  We make sure we send materials to all participants in advance. And we start the beginning of our online workshops by reminding people what to do if they have tech issues.


9. Involve everyone

In a face to face workshop, it’s easy to see who’s really getting involved and who’s holding back, preferring to listen and absorb what’s going on. However, in an online workshop, this can be more difficult. So make sure you involve everyone, but do so in a way that takes into account different learning styles and personalities.  For example, have exercises that require solo writing before feeding back. Use the chatbox to ask questions and allow people to reflect as you’re talking. Rather than waiting for people to volunteer, create a random way of choosing people to feedback (e.g. call names alphabetically or by birthday).  And constantly check-in – we like to ask people to ask a question, comment or just give a big thumbs up! This means you’re not pressuring people to answer but you do involve and interact with everyone.

10. Have fun!

This list might feel like a LOT but the most important thing is that you relax and enjoy your online workshop.  Start with smaller groups and shorter sessions to get used to the new way of working and include fun stuff throughout which makes people relax and laugh too.  It’s a WORKshop but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

That’s it!  Good luck planning your online workshops and please let us know any tips you have, as we’ll add it to the list!  And do share this far and wide – in these volatile times, it’s really important that we can keep going rather than cancelling everything, and online workshops are just one way to make this happen.

If you’d like us to help plan or facilitate your online workshop, we’d LOVE to, no matter what the topic, so please get in touch

ALL of our services are able to be delivered online so do check out how we help organisations build bold, brilliant and meaningful brands here.