Top Tips

A lesson in how to (and how not to) run virtual workshops

The disruption from COVID-19 means remote working and virtual meetings are the new normal. But how do you take the next step... a virtual workshop?

By Reason Digital · March 31, 2020

Last week, I ran a fully remote, three hour workshop with St Ann’s Hospice. In 2021, it’s their 50th birthday and they want to celebrate in style. The workshop was an opportunity to collaborate on the structure and content of a birthday microsite, and come up with some really creative ways to engage their audiences.

But then, along came the government advice – don’t make unnecessary journeys and start practicing social distancing. We knew we would only lose time if we postponed the workshop.

In these COVID times, things change at the drop of a hat and we need to be more creative and flexible than ever before. We decided to take our workshop online…

In a bid to provide some insight to other organisations or charities who may be slightly apprehensive about delivering their first virtual workshop, we’ve put together some learnings. From prepping like a pro, to the potential pitfalls, here’s my guide for how to (and how not to) run virtual workshops.


As a former project manager, I’ve always been a bit of a planner! For the session to run as smoothly as possible, I needed to be as prepared as possible.

  • There are loads of tools out there you can use. I chose to use Miro, simply because I have used it before and we already had a subscription. Prior to the workshop, I made sure to spend some time getting used to any new features I’d be using, like dot voting and video calls. I would recommend this!
  • I asked my team to do a run-through of all the exercises with me, the day before the workshop (thanks Lucy and Jack!). As a result, I made changes to the flow of exercises, and their feedback was really helpful to understand the workshop participant experience.
  • I created bitesize instructions for how to use Miro for St Ann’s, based on the problem areas that Lucy and Jack had experienced in the trial run.
  • In case it all went a bit Pete Tong, I created a plan B. This would involve collaborating over Google slides with a Microsoft Teams video call.
  • I created a really detailed session plan and shared with all participants. This helped me think through the sequencing of the three hours, and exactly how it could run. However, I was prepared to chuck it out the window if things weren’t working.

The session itself  

With lots of people on a video call, it can be difficult to replicate the free-flowing conversation you’d find in a face to face workshop. But if you follow these handy tips below, you’ll banish the awkward silences and get everyone collaborating in no time.

  • Open the session with some ground rules, like muting mics when not speaking and using the chat function to shout for help during the workshop. This helps to prevent interruptions and keeps things flowing.
  • Assign roles and responsibilities for facilitators. I did the session with my colleague Jess. We decided her role was to scribe, take notes and provide tech support if anyone had any difficulties. My role was to chair, move the conversation along and most importantly, keep to time.
  • When chairing, make sure you direct questions to people, instead of leaving them open-ended. Instead of ‘So what does the group think?’ go with ‘Andrea, what do you think about that last point?’ There are way fewer awkward silences and it makes for a much more productive session!
  • We’ve all got new co-workers, be they dogs, babies or other people in our houses! Let people know it’s ok to step away at any point during the session if someone else needs them more.
Ground rules established at the beginning of the session

Remote exercises 

We had to adjust three exercises we typically run face to face, and make them work virtually. Let’s take a look at how they ran as part of the virtual workshop.

Card Sort Exercise

This exercise defines the different types of information a user would want from a website, and organises it into a logical structure. I asked participants to shout out, one after the other, the different types of content users would want from the new microsite. Jess scribed on the Miro cards. Once we had all the content, Jess moved the cards into logical groupings whilst the group discussed.

Tone of Voice and Character  

The purpose of this exercise is to define the tone and character of a new brand or sub brand. The exercise itself is straightforward, but generates lots of really interesting discussions.

Now it was the participants’ turn to start using the Miro Board themselves! I assigned each participant a colour, and asked them to put their colour star where they thought the tone of voice should be. We then had a discussion about each tone pair, and why they had chosen their answers.

Crazy 8’s

These are a really fun and quick way to generate lots of ideas in a short space of time! Fold an A4 paper in half three times, so you have eight squares. You then have five minutes to draw out eight ideas individually. Each person presents back their ideas, and then you vote on your favourite ideas.

I definitely wanted to keep the offline element of drawing on paper. So I got participants to draw their 8 ideas, and email/WhatsApp them over to me to place on the Miro Board. After everyone presented their idea, they voted using three red dots.

What did I learn? 

This was a massive learning experience and I’m so thankful for all the participants for providing feedback after the session!

  • Just because a solution exists, doesn’t mean you have to use it! After I created my plan B in Google slides, I realised it would have probably been easier for me and the participants to use this instead of learning to use all the new features in Miro.
  • Don’t over complicate things! Workshops are a way to get people to collaborate and extract information, so bring it right back to that. Even if means splitting people into groups of two, and asking them to go away for an hour and work on the problem.
  • Schedule in lots of breaks to let people step away from their laptops and stretch their legs. Facilitators, try to use this time as your own break too. I made the mistake of trying to prep work within the breaks, and left myself feeling exhausted by the end!
  • The exercises took less time to run than when I’ve done them face to face. This was because there was a lot less free flowing conversation. I used the entire time though, as I had to give much more detailed instructions about each exercise.
  • With all the news about isolation and anxiety that goes with that, it was really great to connect and focus on something positive. It really took everyone’s mind off the 24 hour news cycle.

Thanks so much for delivering a great workshop and getting everyone to be engaged and creative whilst we're all working remotely!

St Ann's Hospice (Twitter)

Top tips for tools to use

  • I used Miro, which costs $12 per user per month, plus $3 per person per day for your participants. It’s worth noting that Miro are offering 15 free day passes at the moment.
  • Other members of our team have also said good things about Mural, a very similar tool. They’re doing a 30 day free trial, then it’s $12 per user per month.