How to Involve & Engage in Online Workshops

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Ole Jepsen

Online meetings and workshops are here to stay. However, so many of them are boring and fail to involve and engage participants. If we don’t involve and engage people, we will never create ownership for the results from the workshop.

What you want

Nothing beats face-to-face in terms of meeting effectiveness, so we want to get as close to face-to-face as possible despite the glass barrier (the computer screen) between the participants. We want to find ways to convert successful face-to-face workshop techniques into something similar that can work via web-tools.

In other words, we want to run online workshops, where people “forget” that it’s actually an online workshop and act as if they were in a face-to-face workshop.

Tips for involving & engaging people in online workshops

1. Create something together

Like in face-to-face workshops, you want the participants to create something together. You want to involve & engage people and have everyone contribute. Using Google Docs, Miro, Mural or another collaboration tool, where everyone types, moves, formats and deletes text or notes simultaneously is one highly recommended way to get involvement in an online workshop.

(When someone from the other side of the planet corrects one of my typos seconds after I make it, I feel connected and it feels great!)

2. Everybody has “hands” 

To involve and engage everyone in online workshops, everybody needs to have “hands” – same as they have in a face-to-face workshop. For example, in face-to-face workshops, everybody can pick up a pen and write something on a Post-it note or whiteboard.

In online workshops, we need to copy this – and we do this by making sure that everyone has their own computer and thereby their own keyboard and mouse – the equivalent of the face-to-face pens and Post-its. 

The natural thing to do when you have smaller groups of people in the same physical locations is to have them participate as a small group, sharing one computer, one keyboard and one mouse. While there are good things to say about this approach (relatedness, togetherness, etc.) – there are more disadvantages to this approach in the workshop – the biggest problem being that we limit their hands-on participation. 

3. Collaboration tools need to be implemented – not just installed

While the online collaboration tools are only 10% of an online workshop – the tools are a prerequisite for the remaining 90%, which is the content. Therefore, it needs to be someone’s main responsibility to make sure that the tools are well understood by the participants – to a degree that nobody really thinks about the tool anymore.

There are a couple of things to say about this: 

  • When the IT-department is responsible for the tools, they most often think that their job is done when tool is installed (or works) on everyone’s computers. While this is true from a pure technical standpoint, it creates no value whatsoever if the people do not feel comfortable using the tools as a natural part of their daily work.
  • For the first few times a new tool is used for collaboration, it works really well to have two facilitators for online workshops: A: One technical (co-)facilitator, who’s not just taking care of technical issues, but who also cares about how/if the participants seem to be able to do what they want to do via the tool. B: The other facilitator can then focus 100% on the people and the flow of the workshop.

4. Your dream tools

Remember, that we want online workshops to be as close to face-to-face workshops as possible. Therefore, the tools we want should be as close to Post-it notes, whiteboards, physical things as possible.

That means the tools should be: 

  • Visual (so it’s easy to create visual elements)
  • Collaborative (everyone can work on the same artifact simultaneously)
  • “In your face” (as if the stuff was on your wall – by having a projector or big screen that displays the stuff at all times).

We want to have both a collaboration tool to give hands, and the meeting tool so that we can talk with each other, see each other and take advantage of break-out rooms.

5. Back-up channel 

Until you’re very familiar with a certain tool, it’s very helpful to have a parallel connection on the phone for solving technical problems. It’s just too hard to solve Teams or Zoom issues via a bad Teams or Zoom connection.

Key takeaway: mimic face to face

Mimicking a face-to-face workshop process is the best way to create ownership for the results because you’re involving and engaging your people.

Remember you need a meeting tool (to see and talk with each other); a collaboration tool to “give people hands;” and finally, the facilitation process used in any kind of workshop as your backbone.


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