How to make online workshops better


Joe Hill


Virtual meetings may have been an invaluable tool in this crisis, but it’s fair to say they also have their limitations for longer, group meetings.

Spring Impact certainly felt the immediate impact of this, as a large part of our work normally involves in-person workshops all over the world, helping mission-driven organisations and funders to develop and implement plans to scale their impact.

We had our old workshop techniques down to a tee – from the best opening ice-breakers and ways to manage team energy, to when to start asking the difficult questions that will help a group to get somewhere.

When those in-person sessions came to an abrupt halt we had to quickly and intensively adapt our approach. After some trial and error, we have found that it is possible to deliver an engaging and interactive workshop, and the results can still be meaningful and help organisations build skills and capability.

Here are our top tips on how to get it right.

1. Actively re-plan any content or process being delivered remotely
This might seem obvious but don’t just take your normal planning process, exercises, or processes even if these are well-tested and assume they will work when delivered remotely. Everything takes a bit longer, requires more time to digest, and you need more breaks!

2. Ask targeted questions and have a structure to how people answer
It’s harder to ask open questions and have people spontaneously respond. Instead, ask direct questions, or go around one by one to make sure that all voices are heard.

3. Follow the rule ‘individual – pair – group’ where you can
Ask people to reflect on questions or an exercise individually, then put people in pairs or small groups to work together (Zoom’s breakout rooms are great for this). This means that there is always a speaker/listener and the discussion isn’t dominated by one voice! Then pairs can feedback to the wider group.

4. Use simple, easy tech that people are familiar with
There are a lot of high-tech, paid for options out there with great functionality. However, most of this isn’t essential, and takes some getting used to. Simple platforms like Google Docs/Sheets/Drawing fulfils most purposes, are free, and tend to be more intuitive.

5. Provide frameworks that enable participants to continue activities offline
Provide participants with questions and prompts and let them work through an exercise themselves recording it on a Google Sheet while you support.

This is even more important because you might not cover as much ground in a remote session as normal, so leave your participants with an easy exercise they can go away and do in their own time on outstanding questions. This also equips them with a tool they can use in similar situations in the future.

6. Send materials in advance to avoid tech issues
Send any documents or helpful reading in advance in case people have technology issues, so they can still access materials. If tech is going to be a major concern, recommend that people have printouts if possible.

Joe Hill, is a consultant at Spring Impact

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