Remote workshop re-work

How do you facilitate a workshop when you can’t be in the same room? The BizLab team had to pivot quickly.
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The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) ceased on 8 January 2021.

The PSIN was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work.

The content on this page has been kept for historical purposes and may not be accurate.

See previous PSIN content on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.

You’ve been asked to run a face-to-face workshop for 20 people. You’re well prepared with whiteboards, post-it notes, sharpies and other workshop essentials. But two days before, you’re bowled a googly–a global pandemic and strict social distancing directives.

This scenario faced the BizLab team in our department. Human-centred design leads, Lucy Hayes and Aimee Reeves, swung into action. They researched alternatives and offered their client a virtual workshop alternative.

While a blend of online and in-person-but-at-a distance was possible, they were happy with the choice to go fully online. ’When everyone is online, they’re all on a level playing field,’ Lucy said.

They had the green light to experiment. They set to work and came up with some tips and principles for others.

Key innovation principles

To rework your remote workshops follow these principles:

  • Research best practice.
  • Trial first to understand the user (and facilitator) experience.
  • Keep it simple.

Practical tips

Do your research

Aimee and Lucy quickly crammed about the best tools and practices for hosting virtual workshops. And they drew on their own experiences in human-centred design to bring it all together.

Skype, Powerpoint and Mural were their go-to tools (though alternatives exist for each).

Run a trial

‘We’d used Skype for Business and Mural but we weren’t proficient with all the functions. And we couldn’t assume that the attendees would know how to use the tech,’ Aimee said. ‘We stepped into our users’ shoes and ran a trial the day before to get ourselves comfortable and iron out any glitches.’

Set expectations

‘We had to set the expectations of participants so we sent an email saying: This is how we’re going to run it tomorrow. We’ll be trialling new tech, it’ll be experimental so bear with us,’ Aimee said.

‘We told them what equipment and materials they would need, and gave them the templates we’d be using.’

Tutor in tech

On the day, Lucy and Aimee were both facilitators and tech support.

‘Knowing that they’d need some support, we made ourselves available 15 minutes prior to the workshop starting. And we opened with tips in tech, best practice, and a quick tutorial on how to use the platforms,’ Lucy explained. ‘Our tech support continued for the duration.’

Delineate responsibilities

For group activities, participants were assigned responsibilities. One person was the typist, another chose to call everyone in their breakout group, and someone else shared back to the larger group.

As Lucy facilitated the discussion, Aimee kept time and was in the background clustering key information into themes in Mural. The output was later shared with all the participants.

Challenges and solutions

As with all experiments, there were challenges and work-arounds.

‘Remembering people’s names without name tags is hard. With a large group, names don’t appear on the bottom of the screen,’ Lucy said. ‘I found myself thinking Sue has the plant behind her head and Ralph has a stripy shirt. It wasn’t foolproof but it worked.’

‘Another challenge was knowing when people had re-joined the call. I recommend asking people to say their name when they come back online.’

She said pivoting on-the-go was also an issue. ‘In our trial, we focused on the user experience, not our own as facilitators, which meant we were sometimes scrambling to change course rapidly.

‘In a face-to-face workshop when a template isn’t quite right, you just grab a whiteboard and quickly redraw the template in front of everyone, change the words, and then refer to it. Whereas you can't as easily jump into digital tools and tweak them on the sly.’

Lessons learned

Both Lucy and Aimee agree that the key lessons from their experiment were:

  • Keep it simple, don’t complicate the technology or the activities.
  • Build in buffer time to deal with all the potential technical issues.
  • Cut down on the number of activities you’d have in a face-to-face workshop because time is limited.


‘The feedback was very positive overall,’ Aimee said. ‘The client got the outcome they wanted and the participants thought it worked well. An unintended positive consequence was upskilling–they are thrilled to now know how to use the different technologies.’

Lucy and Aimee marked their experiment 7.5/10. They learned a lot and are now refining their approach. If you want to learn more, contact us below and we can put you in touch.

See also

The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.

See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.