Making People Love Workshops Again

Lessons from the Field

Many people find it hard to make virtual (or hybrid) workshops as much fun as they were when we could all get together.

The CEO of a global consulting firm mourned the loss of face-to-face collaboration when Covid forced everyone to work from home.  “You have to hear the side comments, to smell the sweat and to sense the kindness,” he said.

Here are 10 rules for making any workshop work better.



1. Streamline the ask and the participant list

Virtual workshops make it possible to infinitely expand the invitation list.  But when people see a long list of participants, they conclude that someone else will “do the work.”

It is better to work with a small group (6 – 8 active participants are best) and get everyone to aggressively engage.  This is the kind of intense human connection people look forward to and find inspiring.

If a larger group is required, go to breakout groups.  This raises the bar on facilitation planning, skills and group leaders, but an investment here is worth it.

Finally, narrow guardrails around subject matter are most likely to produce results.  People stay focused and dig deeper for breakthrough ideas when their thoughts are not scattered across many competing topics.

2. Share the Brief

There is no reason to keep the workshop purpose a secret.  Sharing the intent, the desired outcome and what it could mean for the organization gives participants a sense of purpose and increases their commitment.

It makes them feel like “insiders” in an important process.

This level of emotional engagement leads to deeper insights and higher quality contributions.

3. Make pre-work fun and optional

People love workshops largely because they often bring a sense of “play” to the workplace.

When we play, we drop our inhibitions and our fears.  We engage at an emotional level.  We can be more creative, expressive and carefree.  Memories from playful experiences are often the most enduring.

So why is “pre-work” often the first step?  It breaks the rule of play and sets the wrong tone for the experience.

Try giving yourself this challenge:

I can’t force anyone to do my pre-work, so I must make it optional and present it in a form that will make people want to do it. It is up to me to earn their avid participation, right from the start.

For pre-work content, here is a simple framework:

  • Share the problems or insights that will be used to inspire discussion in colorful, persuasive terms.
  • Back them up with the data points participants should keep in mind.
  • Present relevant, inspiring case studies, especially out-of-category solutions (it is fun to think about different categories for a change).

Finally, putting anything in the form of interactive tools and short surveys is generally well received.


4. Reward every contribution

People want to be recognized for their ideas.

Visibly capture every contribution, especially from shy contributors.  Flipcharts in F2F workshops serve this function.  Find a virtual substitute.  Remember that it is too early to edit the initial capture for quality at initial idea generation.

If you highlight “best ideas,” do not miss the opportunity to explain why they were selected.  People learn from this and factor it into their thinking.

The best F2F facilitators use side comments and body language to give special rewards for certain contributions.  They keep a mental tally to make sure rewards are distributed equally.

Find suitable reward surrogates for virtual workshops and use them.

5. Park off-topic ideas

A rule that we all know, and that is often broken, the off-topic parking lot gives us a chance to accomplish two things:

It recognizes contributions even though they stray from the brief.  And it gently reminds participants that they will be required to stick to the agenda, which they quickly learn.

Parking lot entries typically diminish over the course of a long workshop.

6. Follow the 80% rule

Workshops must move at a certain pace to hold interest.  It is best to target the fastest thinkers, not the slowest.

Remember that workshops are often an early step in a longer process.  It is not necessary to complete each task and to reach full consensus.  By announcing upfront that this is intentional, you can avoid the implication that incompletion means failure.  Prepare people to feel frustrated when an active topic is ended mid-stream.

The 80% rule applies to the agenda also.  Welcome course corrections when the opportunity presents itself.  Allow for time-shifting across different tasks.  Refrain from setting timeframes for individual tasks to keep people from watching the clock.

However, always finish on time.  A reputation for running over gives people a reason to avoid your workshops in the future.

7. Include independent tasks

People cannot contribute at the highest level in a group for an extended period.  They benefit from independent “breathers” that allow them to think on their own and get ready for the next group activity – especially for introverts who may hold back in larger groups.

This is risky online because it invites double tasking.  Time these activities carefully to make sure people stay focused.

Try to collect all independent work – also hard to do virtually.  Many good ideas will not be discussed due to time constraints.

8. Neutralize detractors

This may sound harsh.

A good facilitator does not allow a detractor to destroy the productivity or intended purpose of a workshop.  It undermines output (the facilitator’s deliverable) and is disrespectful to people who are expending time and effort to engage.

This is easier to control online.  When this occurs, first try a “plan B” agenda item in case that solves the problem.  If this fails, move to an independent task while you try to negotiate a course correction or an exit for the detractor.  Be firm.


9. Augment before you edit

The synthesis process inevitably begins with digesting mountains of workshop output, which must be expanded before it can be edited down to ideas of greatest interest.

First, search through output for glimmers of ideas that were not called out in the workshop but have importance after the fact.  Build these out.

Second, disaggregate and expand idea clusters that reside within a single idea.

Finally, identify references to products, apps, publications, websites or any external source that were shared during the workshop.  Cite links and provide analysis to highlight relevance.  Consider using them in briefing tools for future workshops.

10. Continue to solicit builds

When your workshop is over, it is not over.  If the emotional environment of “play” did its job, people will continue to envision builds in their mind’s eye.

Take advantage of this by providing an easy mechanism for people to contribute follow-up ideas and acknowledge them for it.

This will further amplify workshop output and will support the belief that, “your first idea is probably not your best idea.”

I first wrote this outline in 2006 and, after years of applying it to real-work experiences, it evolved into a “lesson from the field.”  Those lessons come from decades of transforming brands ranging from global corporates to non-profits, where I always stayed close to the work, close to the process and close to the target.  Please share your ideas for making people love virtual workshops during the pandemic, and beyond.