How to host online workshops: virtual collaboration and problem solving

Apr 12, 2020|By atomix
Read time: 6 mins

Develop innovative solutions as a team with remote workshops

We love them, and they can be helpful in a huge variety of circumstances. However, like any standard gathering or two or more people during COVID-19, workshops will now need to shift to an online setting. But how can you bring your team online and keep them as engaged and as productive as before?

We’ve put together a guide below so you can hold engaging, productive workshops with your team, develop innovative solutions to your business challenges, and create meaningful outcomes.

Be clear on the objective and purpose

Workshops are only insightful if you set a clear objective and focus; otherwise, you’ll be shooting in the dark. Set a clear objective and have a goal or focus in mind. It could be really broad or quite specific, but there needs to be a guiding principle in place that helps to keep the team focused and engaged with finding a meaningful outcome. Sometimes – as much as we love them – a workshop might not even be the right method to finding the solution. It’s all about finding your purpose.

Some things to ask yourself when thinking about holding a workshop:

  • What is the problem or challenge we’re trying to solve or overcome?

  • Who do we need input from? Who are the key stakeholders?

  • Do we need real-time input from everyone or could we complete some ideation independently and come together for analysis and discussion?

  • What kind of preparation or pre-work might be required?

These questions will help guide your thinking as to the outcome or objective you’re seeking, and what type of workshop activities are most appropriate for your needs:

  • Discovery: understanding the current and future states of your company or brand; understanding your goals or challenges; understanding who your customers are and what they need.

  • Ideation and design: generating a large number of ideas or insights and using these as ‘kick-off’ points for further analysis or exploration.

  • Prioritisation and critique: ensuring that solutions or ideas align with your users’ needs and business goals; prioritising goals, solutions or ideas for action; narrowing down a broad range of ideas into a smaller, more achievable list.

  • Mapping: exploring the full lifecycle of your customers and how your business aligns to this.

Have a clear agenda and structure

Everyone hates sitting through meetings that have no clear agenda or direction. An agenda and clear direction will motivate your participants and help them to feel engaged and excited about what’s to come. Based on the purpose or objective you’ve identified, and the type of workshop you think is most suitable, you can start to create an agenda of activities that will help to achieve the outcome (or outcomes) that you’re seeking.

Choosing digital workshop activities is very much like choosing activities for in-person workshops. The only thing that’s changing is the execution of the activities. Consider your objective and select activities that will help your participants to think creatively or critically.

We recommend running at least one less activity than you would normally have in an in-person workshop. Things can take a little longer to complete online, so factor in some learning or adjustment time. Our top tips for setting your workshop agenda:

1. Kick-off with a ‘break the ice’ activity

When your attendees arrive, invite them to get creative. Draw, tell stories, create something new – just get those creative brains working. You might be tempted to extend the fun, but stick to just a few minutes, a maximum of five is plenty. Share the results with the team and get them laughing – it’s all about relaxing into the day and injecting some fresh, creative energy.

2. Start broad and work your way in

Once everyone’s had their fun, jumping straight into something that requires a high level of strategic or critical thinking can be a bit jarring. Start broad with some ideation, discussion or quick-thinking activities, and use the natural increase in participant concentration as a way to start digging deeper and analysing or critiquing these ideas.

3. Create a parking lot

Inevitably, some ideas, questions or thoughts will come up that are completely valid and important, but not along the same lines as your intended outcome. To help keep track of these ideas, create a space for a ‘parking lot’ and come back to them later for further discussion, time permitting.

4. Set timers and stick to them

The time you have together is precious. Even in real-life workshops, things can easily get out of hand if you’re not keeping track of time. Set some timers and keep careful watch of the clock to make sure everyone is working effectively.

Get the right tools for the job

When conducting any collaborative exercise online, the tool or platform you choose can make or break the experience. Choosing the right tool or software will depend on your audience. As a group of people with advanced digital knowledge, sometimes what our team might consider easy to use isn’t the case for our participants. Workshop time is a valuable resource, so don’t expect users to spend the time to learn a new tool.

To avoid any awkward moments or incompleted activities due to your participants not knowing how to use a tool, do some careful research and planning. Try to get a sense of how advanced your participants are in their digital or online skills, and select tools that will be simple for them to use.

We’ve listed a few of our favourite tools below.

For record-keeping, note-taking or visual aids:

  • Google Slides: use as a reference point for workshop structure and agenda, or as a way to present your findings post-workshop.

  • Google Docs: the perfect place to add shared notes, with multiple people able to edit at the same time.

  • Google Sheets (pictured below): analyse and visualise data, and enable smaller break-out groups to work on individual sheets within a larger document.

Screenshot of a document and Atomix team members

For conferencing and screen-sharing:

  • Google Hangouts Meet: great if all participants have a Google ID, with screen-sharing, integrations with G Suite and chat functionality.

  • Zoom (this is what we use): a popular online conferencing and webinar software with screen share capability, recordings, and the ability to create ‘breakout rooms’ for smaller discussions during a larger conference call.

For real-time collaboration, design and ideation:

  • Google Drawings: great for quick ideation sessions or illustrating an idea.

  • Figma: a collaborative design tool, great for designing, drawing, wireframing and collecting feedback.

  • Sketch: a design tool more suited to advanced users, with templates and cloud file storage for easy collaboration.

  • Mural (pictured below): like an online whiteboard with customisable structures, templates and post-it notes with real-time interactions – set timers, hold private voting sessions and colour-code your notes.

A screenshot of a mural board and Atomix team members

Try to replicate the in-person experience, online

Try to replicate real-life interactions or props as much as possible. Whether you use playing cards, post-it notes, coins, sticky dots, coloured markers – there is a huge variety of ways to recreate that creative workshop experience

Here are a few of our picks:

For prompting the speaker order in break-out groups, we often like to use a deck of cards. Each team member draws a card, and the highest value goes first. This online Deck of Cards tool is a great way to stick to a known and understood system.

A deck of cards

For any fun or ‘ice-breaker’ activities where you’d normally use coloured markers, try an online drawing game. One of our favourites is Drawasaurus. Depending on the size of your workshop, you could break the participants up into smaller groups to encourage more active participation from all attendees. Between three and five participants for each game is ideal. Encourage them to take screenshots and share their artwork with the wider group, too!

Screenshot of Atomix team playing an online Pictionary game

If you’re looking for a way to vote where you’d normally be using sticky dots, try Pollev (pictured below) Typeform or Google Forms. They’re easy to set up and simple to use – and they collate the answers for you. Pollev, in particular, provides live feedback on participant responses, enables response via SMS and integrates with Zoom. For more advanced users, Mural has a function available where you can provide your participants with a given number of ‘votes’ that they can use. When your participants are voting, they can’t see anyone else’s movements, helping to encourage free expression of opinion.


Recruit your team

Online workshops will require more co-facilitators than an in-person workshop. You’ll need people to fill the following roles:

  • Lead facilitator: the lead facilitator’s role is to lead participants through activities, encourage group discussion, and provide context and purpose. Their job is to ensure the discussion remains related to the objective of the workshop, and keep everyone focused on the outcomes you’re seeking.

  • Co-facilitator: co-facilitators (you might have just one, or two to three, depending on how many participants you have) are responsible for replying to any questions that may come up, providing specialist advice or comments on particular topics, recording any opportunities for further exploration in the parking lot and taking notes. Co-facilitators will take part in breakout room sessions to help assist teams in any activities and ensure the group stays on task. Ideally, it’s great to have one co-facilitator per group of 4-5 people.

  • Technical support: you will need to have on standby a dedicated technical support person, to help clear up any technical issues. This will ensure you’re not wasting valuable workshop time on troubleshooting your tech.

Invite your participants

When it comes to your participants, it’s a good idea to invite a cross-section of the business to ensure you have input from a variety of different viewpoints. Any team member that has a stake in solving the challenge or problem at hand should be invited to attend and provide their input.

When taken online, it might seem like you could have an infinite number of participants, but smaller groups actually work better in this case. Larger groups are more vulnerable to disengagement and distraction and will require more co-facilitators to keep everyone on track. Additionally, the more participants you have, the more refresher or ‘fun’ activities you will need to keep everyone engaged. Stick to about 10-15 participants, and make sure you have the right team behind you to facilitate and stick to your schedule.

Atomix team on Zoom

Common challenges with online workshops

Technical difficulties

When working with any online technology, you will always run the risk of things going wrong. Issues arise and problems occur and that’s life, unfortunately. There is no way to guarantee that things will always run smoothly, but you can do a bit of preparation to minimise the disruption.

1. Be patient and provide some instructions

Just because you can easily use the online tools you’ve chosen, doesn’t mean all of your participants will be able to use them. There might be a bit of a learning curve; make sure to factor this into your timing and schedule in a quick introduction or crash-course session to each tool as you go.

2. Install any new software before you begin

If your participants will be using software they need to install, ask them to install it at least an hour before you begin. Be available to assist with any questions they have during this hour, so you can ensure everyone is ready to go and knows what they need to do.

3. Send out some instructions a week before

To pre-empt any new tools or software you might be using, it could be a good idea to send out an email reminding the team to install the software and test it out in advance. Ensure they can contact you if they have any questions or concerns. You can also use this email as a friendly welcome email, with a reminder of any ground rules (no phones or email), the objective of the day, and how long it will take.

Engagement and attention

Online workshops are much more susceptible to unwanted distraction or interruption. All of the tools and gadgets that we use every day – including social media, email, our phones – are hardwired to be addictive and immersive, creating distractions that might draw attention away from your workshop activities.

Online workshops also require a lot more focus and engagement measures than in-person workshops. When someone is working from their home office, they can easily have a couple of tabs open at the same time in their browser or they could have their phone open next to their laptop while they work. While you can’t be in the same room, you can implement some rules and take some measures to retain engagement and participation.

1. Set some ground rules and commit to them

At the beginning of any workshop, we often go through some housekeeping rules. Be clear about the rules and expectations of the workshop, and encourage everyone to turn their phones off, close their emails and keep focused on the task at hand. You could even run a short exercise where participants can create their own rules, including ‘phones go on silent in the desk drawer’ and ‘no checking emails for the next hour’. This might help them to keep each other accountable.

If they’re looking a little anxious about not being able to check their notifications, reassure them that a scheduled break time is approaching and they’ll be able to do all the admin they need. Often, we find the first break is when everyone reaches straight for their phones, eagerly checking on what they’ve missed. On realising they haven’t missed much in the short space they’ve been away, they tend to use the second and third break times as actual rest and rejuvenation time.

2. Get feedback in real-time to encourage active listening and collaboration

Use a polling tool to get feedback data from the team during your workshop. One we like is Pollev. You can link up these real-time responses into your slide deck.

3. Use timers and keep to a schedule

As we mentioned further up, when setting your agenda it’s wise to include some time boxes. Let your participants know about how much time they have available for each activity so they understand the limitations they need to work within. Stick to the schedule and make sure to keep everyone focused on the current task.

4. If background noise is an issue, use the mute button

Encourage your participants to find a space or room they are comfortable in that is nice and quiet. If their ‘quiet’ space is still a little rowdy, ask them to mute their audio to avoid any unnecessary distractions or interruptions such as dogs barking, road-noise, sirens or children playing (the BBC reporter in the video below knows exactly what we mean).


Workshops are a huge load on the brain: a lot of energy is used in a short amount of time, and exhaustion can quickly set in. Online workshops are even more brain-draining (not to mention eye-straining). Ideally, online workshops should be broken up into digestible, 3-hour maximum chunks, with some strategies in place to help you mitigate signs of burnout or fatigue.

1. Cameras on

While working from home, it can be tempting for people to switch their webcams off and sit behind a display picture. This is a bit of a trap. Try to encourage cameras on, and let everyone know it’s an important part of contributing to be able to see everyone’s faces. This allows you to read visual cues such as body language and facial expressions that might indicate when a break is needed. You could even use it as a nice ice breaker or conversation starter: kick off a round of “show and tell” with a random object from your desk, or give everyone a chance to show off their home office.

2. Schedule tea breaks, stretch sessions and games

Include a quick break or game in between blocks of strategic thinking to give everyone time to rest their brain and prepare for the next activity. You could also use this time to get up, move and stretch, grab a glass of water or a cup of tea, or simply have a chat.

A cup of hot tea
A cup of hot tea

Online workshops can be just as successful as they are in-person.

It’s all about the tools and the preparation. Try to stick to just a few key tools, and don’t overwhelm everyone with a new tool for each activity. Sometimes, simpler is better – and when it comes to workshops, you don’t want your participants tuning out when you need their attention most. Most of all, workshops are meant to be enjoyable and fun – so be creative with your activities and icebreakers. Encouraging creativity from the outset will get everyone’s frontal cortex humming, and you’ll be on your way to innovative solutions in no time at all.

If you’d like any advice on how you can enable collaboration and innovation while working from home, we’re here to help.

Ready to explore what’s possible in 2022?

Share this post...