Article | by Becki Hemming

Virtual workshops: the good, the bad and the lessons learnt

At Freestyle we aren’t new to many remote working realities, but it would be a lie to claim that we knew all of the ways we could adapt in full lockdown. One of our values is to ‘be better than yesterday’ so it’s in our DNA to keep our eyes open and welcome opportunities to improve. An obvious area for me is our virtual workshops. In heading up the insight function at Freestyle, I’ve facilitated and contributed to many a workshop and continue to learn from all they entail - from garnering collaboration with different personalities in the room to how to take off a post-it to stop it curling (pull don’t peel lads). 

Enter 2020 and all the gifts it brings. Obviously workshops look a little different right now. But instead of shouting about how well equipped and capable we are from the LinkedIn rafters, I’m going to take you through what is working well for us, things that haven’t worked so well, the feedback we’ve had and the lessons we’ve learned during lockdown.

I've split this up into two main sections:

  • getting the most out of our tools and
  • getting the most out of our participants. 


Getting the most out of our tools

Facilitate from one room (safely).

Preparing for isolation stations (and previous experience) meant we had a good idea of the set up we wanted. One of the decisions we made was to come into the office (in a socially distant manner) and deliver workshops together in the same room. This means no more than two of us facilitate a workshop, we sit at opposite ends of the boardroom and we agree clear requirements that mean we won’t need to come too close to each other (for example only one person draws on the whiteboard). It also means that we can run the workshop far more smoothly (you’d be surprised how useful physical cues and shared glances can be) adapt quicker if necessary and work more efficiently off camera in workshop breaks and downtime than if we were delivering the workshop apart. Being together was also key in building camaraderie when delivering the workshop (which we’ll cover the importance of further down in ‘Break the virtual ice and connect’). We’ve found this to be a welcome change of view for our clients, providing a more dynamic virtual environment. It’s also very helpful for us to see their faces on the big TV screens we have - far better to judge their facial expressions and reactions.


Client feedback:

You both being together in the office worked well. The running of the workshop was smooth and it made a nice change to see them in the boardroom.

Having said this, it wasn’t without its challenges. The greatest of these was the sound quality. Having two people in a large boardroom, in a converted barn with beams and high ceilings isn’t the recipe for perfect sound. This is still something we’re looking to improve and I’m open to any suggestions you might have on this one!


Client feedback:

The acoustics weren’t great, although they didn’t stop us hearing you. The boardroom created quite an echo and at times it sounded like you were shouting from the other side of a tennis court.

Not quite an ace then.


IMG_5811-min (1).jpg

Keep the call tech simples.

I’ve found there’s absolutely no need to overcomplicate an exercise or process with tech capabilities. If one conversation will get you where you need to be, I’d always err away from breakout rooms, Q&A, screen takeovers and all the other shiny things available. For me, it’s often a Zoom call, with the audio recording and screen sharing. Minimum distraction from your focus on the workshop objective is ideal in my book.

Client feedback:

We’ve had no feedback on the call tech, which for me is exactly how it should be. All eyes on the task at hand.


Visualise it live.

There’s nothing like a bit of live sketching to capture the discussion and create a visual reference and it’s definitely worth keeping this as a core workshop tool in a virtual environment. Whether it’s scribing the session, note-taking for the whole group to see or sketching solutions, the visual aid is ideal both during the workshop and as ready to use documentation afterwards. For us, this is often sketches of digital functionality, page wireframes, user journeys, roadmaps and plenty more. I have the privilege of working alongside our Creative Director, Ben, whose sketching led to one client asking if he’d been illustrating comic strips in a former life. The value is clear, as not only do we collaborate and update the board in real-time, but all workshop attendees feel like they have been heard and see how their input contributes. Another telling result is that our workshop outputs receive no amends when shared afterwards because we’re all on the same page.

This is made possible by facilitating the workshop together from our boardroom. Rather than faff about lining up a camera to face our whiteboard, we have installed Kaptivo. This not only captures the marks on the whiteboard live, but also shares it to the Zoom call as if you were sharing your laptop screen. The accuracy is impressive and we found it invaluable in workshop collaboration. 

Client feedback:

Writing on the board and amending wireframes live was really good to see. 


Open access vs control.

We’ve used a number of different tools to collaborate in exercises, and a personal favourite of mine is Mural. It’s the digital answer to covering a wall in post-it notes with plenty more functionality to go with it. Everyone in the group can be editing live and the voting functionality is a great addition to have, amongst others. However, I have found that it’s not always best to unleash everyone with access in a workshop. It can get pretty chaotic if more than three people all try to contribute to the same exercise at the same time. Multiple people brainstorming in their own sections on the board - yes. Multiple people trying to feed into the same user journey - absolutely not. With far fewer visual cues on what someone else is about to do when collaborating virtually, it’s easy to overlap and confuse each other. This has led to us often keeping control of Mural boards ourselves and updating them in full site of everyone in the workshop, informed by the group discussion and decisions. 

Client feedback:

The structure of our exercises worked really well with a good energy and focus on the task at hand. 

Getting the most out of our participants

Set an agenda with timings and stick to it.

Now this one wasn’t an obvious choice for me. Anyone who’s been involved with workshops in the past will know that they rarely run exactly to the planned time. New subjects are raised, discussions get sidetracked and we have to bring the focus back to the task at hand. Two important skills needed for an effective workshop are managing people’s focus and the ability to be flexible in the room when necessary. With this in mind, alongside all prior workshop experience and my expectation that we would progress slower in virtual format, I didn’t allocate specific timings in the first post lockdown workshop we ran. Instead, I had personal notes with a rough idea and took it from there. This turned out to be a mistake.

The nature of virtual workshops being well virtual, it’s easier and more socially acceptable to dip in and out, rather than committing to the entire time. Add to that the nuance of people working from home and the inevitable distractions that can bring, alongside intense workloads and evermore virtual meetings… It’s pretty certain that one or more workshop attendees won’t be able to make all of the exercises. And without clear timings, this can be an issue. If people are going to have to duck out and join other calls or commitments, strict timings can allow you to keep on track and let them know the critical times that you want them back for. Particularly if they’re the key decision maker or stakeholder in the virtual room. Without this, the workshop is destined to run inefficiently and over time. 

Client feedback:

We could have used the time better and been more efficient.

Take two and I had times in place, which were made visible to everyone and we stuck to. People dropped in and out but we didn’t run overtime and covered the exercises and deliverables needed. Everyone was happy and we received no feedback suggesting a better use of time.




Break it up.

I knew screen fatigue was going to get us nowhere fast, so we needed plenty of breaks. Even with workshop attendees dipping in and out, regular breaks are very necessary. I certainly don’t want to contribute to people feeling they haven’t moved in the day or like they’re tied to their screen. Breaks that allow for movement and time away from not just the workshop, but also the screen is highly important for our collaboration and creativity.

Client comment:

I have an exercise class between 12pm and 1pm that I need to make

To my surprise, additional breaks didn’t cause the workshop to run much slower in real time. When attendees returned, they were focussed and ready to crack on.


Regular recaps.

In a traditional workshop environment, the outputs from previous exercises are left up on the walls in clear sight. In a virtual environment, you lose the benefit of people being able to glance back at a previous exercise for reference or in a break. This calls for more recapping throughout the day to bring everyone back on the same page and get us in the best possible position to progress. This was something I hadn’t planned for the first time around.

Client feedback:

It would have been useful to have more visual references to the previous exercises and recaps of what we’d done in the morning.


The next time around we worked much harder to refresh on what had gone before and remind everyone with visual recaps. Lesson learned. 


Break the virtual ice and connect.

We all know that it’s far harder to make connections and feel at ease on a virtual call. Tech issues, awkward silences and people speaking over each other all work against the attempts to bring people to ease (another reason why delivering the workshop from the same room is key). There’s something more intense about the constant visual reminder of how you’re coming across and the virtual perception you’re portraying on screen. Critically though, a feeling of being at ease and enjoyment is conducive to creative thought, problem solving and confidence in sharing ideas. It’s this very reason that I don’t want to skimp on the small talk or skip the icebreakers (no eye rolls please) when it comes to virtual workshops. If anything, I prioritise these more highly now and jump on opportunities to build a rapport. 

Client feedback:

The introductions, icebreakers and early content did a great job of setting the scene.


Onwards and screenwards...

I’m continuing to learn and add to these virtual considerations alongside my fab colleagues. One positive from this is that we’ve uncovered some virtual ways of working that we’ll keep in place when we’re back in the office together, both to improve ongoing collaboration with clients and our own efficiencies. All of these elements feed into our ability to tackle the myriad of challenges our clients are facing. This was vocalised at the end of our last workshop, “thank you so much for approaching our complex offering in a logical and clear way”. Well, we are in the business of distilling complex digital problems into simple solutions, so that’s always reassuring to hear.

I’ve shared this in the hope that we can be honest about the challenges we face, learn together and move towards the ways of working that provide the best outcomes for all involved.

Happy workshopping to you.

Zero Day - the crisis roadmap digital workshop


What does your customer experience during a crisis look like?

What do your customers want from you?

What’s the best way for you to deliver a top-notch customer-centric journey even during a World pandemic?


Find out more about the ZERO Day workshop

Related articles