What happens when your company unexpectedly announces business travel restrictions? For hundreds of thousands of workers, this has already become a reality. And while working remotely is increasingly familiar to most professionals, collaborating virtually on an innovation workshop is still largely unchartered territory. Nevertheless, innovation doesn’t wait. And deferring key projects until you can meet in-person is not a viable business strategy.

That leaves most companies scrambling to figure out how they can facilitate a high impact virtual innovation workshop to keep their business on the cutting edge.

Let’s face it…virtual collaboration is challenging. After all, human beings are intrinsically programmed to crave face-to-face, human interactions. In fact, one study conducted by the MIT Sloan Management Review found that only 18 percent of 70 global business virtual teams they assessed were found to be highly successful. Nevertheless, with the right selection of collaborative technology, workshop design and expert facilitation, you can deliver as good, if not better, outcomes with a virtual workshop than a face to face workshop.

Here are three recommendations that I have based on over a decade of designing and facilitating virtual creative problem-solving workshops: Human Centered Virtual Design, The Technology, Stupid and Design for Delight!

Human Centered Virtual Design

Human centered design is a philosophy that places the user, and their needs, at the center of the solution. Regardless of the workshop format, your design must consider not only the business outcome you’re after, but the human experience. After all, workshops demand our attention for hours at a time and can be both physically and mentally exhausting. Here are my top, human centered design considerations:

Early Engagement: “It’s easy to get people’s attention. But what counts is getting their interest.” In a world of diminishing attention spans, you must get the attention and interest of participants right away. I always begin with exercises that encourage participant interactions across the group. It signals that they will play an active and important role throughout the event. Exercises that provide for everyone to contribute early and often are more likely to validate the participant role and the value of their contributions. One way we get early involvement is to use game mechanics (e.g. playing ‘Two Truths and a Lie’ or ‘Workshop Jeopardy’) so everyone can contribute equally, have fun and get involved in a low-risk manner. It puts participants at ease and increases the likelihood that they will engage when it counts.

Entertainment: Never underestimate the power of entertainment. As a facilitator, your role is to guide the group. But with the ever-present temptation of email and social media, you will also find yourself playing the role of the CEO, or Chief Entertainment Officer, trying to fend off competing distractions. One simple technique is alternating facilitators on-screen so as to offer different speaking and presentation styles. A second, and a bit more sensational, is the setting up of an inexpensive set that looks, and feels like, a talk show. Rotating “guest stars” to come and present will keep people guessing and interested. The change of pace and background can make the virtual experience highly entertaining and engaging.

Speed: It’s essential that you ‘turn-over’ activities quickly. In live sessions, pregnant pauses can be effective at encouraging audience contributions. However, in a virtual setting, it can signal disengagement. Speed and alignment are essential. One way to control the pace is to time-box activities. Provide just enough time for participants to complete an exercise so that the virtual session doesn’t feel like it is dragging on. Additionally, by setting a countdown clock and/or alarm, you can ensure participants are focused on the activities. One last tip is to randomize your session lengths. Set one exercise for 5 minutes. Give another 20 minutes duration. By mixing the time elements, it will prevent participants from falling into a static and predictable pattern.

Sensory Input: Fact to Face workshops are immersive and create natural sensory input. Virtual sessions do not. When you are working remotely, or even by yourself, there’s no shared physical experience during the deep-thinking exercises. To change the environment, there are a few things you can do to create a multi- sensory experience.

  • Aural: Play music to fill voids and aurally stimulate the group. You can solicit playlists from different team members and acknowledge that this is “Dan’s Favorite Song.”
  • Visual: Turn the cameras on. No exception. Regardless of bad hair days or curious house pets. Also, incorporate injections of video to augment storytelling and stimulate the visual senses.
  • Tactile: For specific exercises, I am a big fan of incorporating touch by giving participants instructions on how to use physical artifacts like playdough, Legos or other materials into exercises

The Technology, Stupid: At the risk of stating the obvious, your technology choices will have an impact on your design and outcomes. In some cases, you may not have many choices because your corporate infrastructure is restricted. In other cases, you may have carte blanche. The good news is that collaboration options have vastly improved and are widely available. The challenge is seamlessly integrating your technology solutions into your exercises so that it is intuitive for your participants.

Video Conferencing Solution: This is perhaps one of the lowest impact decisions now. The ‘old days’ of custom video conferencing solutions that required special rooms are gone. Today, there are numerous players — Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, WebEx — each offering relatively comparable features (e.g. file sharing, screen-sharing, messaging, polling) to make it easy to participate in a workshop. All you theoretically need is a laptop, screen, web camera, speakers and a good internet connection.

Video Conferencing Design: What is a more complex decision, is deciding how to design your video conference experience. The three options are: (1) Local-Remote (i.e. satellite conference room(s), (2) Distributed (i.e. All individual participants logged in remotely) or (3) a hybrid model. Local-Remote allows the facilitator to provide a mixture of virtual, and in-person, exercises which goes a long way in terms of engagement. That said, it also requires having a local assistant(s) to support the local set-up and help with testing and troubleshooting. The distributed option is the most common option. The upside for the distributed model is that everyone is on a level playing field in terms of their presence. The downside is that this format can become isolating and boring. What I recommend in most cases is taking a hybrid approach. Maintain the local-remote dynamic by having a single, room camera that is zoomed out enough to capture the in-room dynamic. However, request that every participant connect ‘remotely’ via the video conferencing tool for both video and audio. That way, every individual is fully connected, present and accountable. It creates a much more immersive experience.

Virtual Workshop Tools: Selecting the right set of virtual tools is important in creating a coherent and connected virtual workshop experience. You can start low-tech and use google docs, pre-built templates and the videoconferencing whiteboard. Alternatively, you can push the customization up a level and weave in collaborative tools like Mural, IdeaFlip and PollEverywhere to stitch together a highly interactive workshop experience. Alternatively, you can use a fully integrated solution like Klaxoon that can help you simulate the full workshop experience. Whichever approach you choose it is essential that you familiarize participants with the tools in advance so they can focus on the content and not learning a new technology. My advice is to design a quick game to introduce the tools at the start of the workshop to make sure everyone understands how to use them and has time to talk about their thoughts or experiences while using them. Doing so makes it much easier for people to stay focused on the substance and not the form.

Knowledge Management: Here’s where virtual workshops can have a massive advantage over a traditional, face to face workshop. In a traditional workshop, it is likely you will end up with leaves of inconsistently labeled easel paper and loads of post-its. After the event is over, we then begin the laborious task of connecting our notes to the physical artifacts and try to digitize them (e.g. take pictures of all artifacts). Whereas, a virtual workshop can be fully digitized, recorded and indexable for the future. It becomes a living artifact whose value extends far beyond the individual event. To make this happen, I strongly urge you to create a centralized repository, workshop output taxonomy and pre-built templates. This will enable the recording, reporting and sharing of workshop exercises and outputs.

Test, Test, Test: Your audio might be muffled. Your video connections might drop. The clarity of your video may be grainy. There will be technology problems for sure. But what are you going to do about it? That is why we must test, test and test some more. Start with a simple exercise that lists ALL of the reasons why your virtual experience might not work well. That list will undoubtedly include camera angles, sound issues, internet speed, clumsiness of the collaboration tools and many more. Once you have listed all of the reasons why this experience might fail, your next question is what you can do right now, in the event it happens, to mitigate the problem. That list will become your team troubleshooting bible and will guide you in the contingency planning process. Lastly, when preparing your design, build in time to your agenda to allow for the fixing of potential technical problems or other issues that may come up during the workshop.

Design for Delight!

Here’s my double, top-secret piece of advice: Do not just deliver a workshop or a virtual meeting. Delight your participants! Go beyond their business needs and create an experience that is memorable. Think of this workshop as a party that you want your participants to share with all their friends and co-workers afterwards. Here’s how you can delight them.

Give Them Fuel: At an in-person workshop, coffee is always available when you want it. Meals and snacks arrive right when your stomach growls. Breaks happen when our energy and attention is flagging. As the designer of an in-person workshop, we can provide the “fuel” for everyone simultaneously. But in a virtual experience, it is easy to ignore these needs. Rather, we must increase our planning and preparation efforts for ALL of our participants. And it’s not just food, coffee and breaks. We must also account for the physical stimuli that we miss out on as virtual participants. The periodic use of physical energizers is an effective way to encourage people to cleanse their mental palate and stretch their bodies. It also turns out to be a great way to foster camaraderie. One recent example is that we invited 20 participants to stand-up in front of their webcams as they competed in a rock, paper, scissors duel..We invited 2 participants at a time to appear on the screen simultaneously and battle it out. The winner played a new, randomly selected participant until we got down to a couple of finalists. It got participants moving around, laughing and helped to refuel them before another round of work.

Little, Unexpected Gifts: Giving an unanticipated gift stands out because it catches your participants by surprise. Small acts of thoughtfulness go a long way in winning over your workshop participants. Let me give an example of an unexpected virtual workshop gift: The workshop care package. About a week before a virtual workshop, we arranged to have workshop care packages delivered to each of our remote participants. The care package was relatively inexpensive and mostly practical. We included post-it notes, sharpies and building clay. But we also included non-perishable, healthy snacks, coffee pods and a few goofy wrapped gifts which we numbered and told them to not open until the workshop. This simple, playful act demonstrated that we cared about them and signaled to them that this workshop was going to be different from most others.

Create a Community: One of the top quips about virtual experiences is that it is isolating. Although the purpose of a meeting or workshop is to produce a business outcome, if you start by building a community, people are more likely to work as a unified team. There are a number of things we often do to create a problem-solving community in advance of the workshop.

Create an event community ahead of the event. Creating an event page makes the event real for participants. It also builds connection amongst participants in that they share a common experience. Post stories, articles, videos and other relevant content in advance to curate the experience. And be sure to setup a small mission to prompt participants to visit, enroll and contribute to the community.

Form teams and assign missions. Forming small tribes within the tribe is a great way to promote camaraderie and familiarity. But for the tribe to have purpose, they must also have missions to get them to go on a journey together. This is a perfect time to introduce a tool that you plan to use during the workshop. Challenge the team to collaborate on a pre-work exercise that requires them to experiment with one of the more complex virtual tools for example. By working together as a team, we increase psychological safety and begin to form a team dynamic.

Set Meeting Agreements: Agreements are the basic rules of engagement that everybody will abide by. While they are tricky to enforce in an in-person workshop, they are even harder in a remote environment. Obviously, a remote workshop means that people will be using their laptops and smart phones, and as such, ensuring people are not multi-tasking is difficult to enforce. To that end, we make it a point to set agreements such as closing your email and instant messaging down at the start of the as well as giving their phones a rest until the break time in the agenda.

Virtual Workshop Sign-Language: Verbal communication doesn’t always work in a virtual workshop. Sometimes we find ourselves talking over one another or hearing echoes. Chatting, or messaging, can be effective but it can come at the expense of feeling impersonal. To delight our participants, we use virtual workshop sign language. In advance of the workshop, we distribute a customized poster that includes several basic signs that we can use during the workshop. For example, giving a thumbs up to indicate agreement or a raised hand to signal that they would like to ask a clarifying question. You can add your own silliness to it to entertain the group. You can also invite teams to create a couple of their own team sign language. By creating a set of signs, it limits participants from talking over one another and it also can delight the entire group.

Virtual workshops are complicated and require as much, if not more, preparation and design time as traditional face-to-face workshops. But if done right, the payoff can be massive. So the next time your geographically distributed group plans to host a team workshop, think of these three areas of recommendation to create a memorable virtual innovation workshop experience.