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Six recommendations for facilitating remote workshops with virtual whiteboards

Michael Henry 7 April 2020

Lessons from a three-day remote workshop designing a data platform with a government partner.

IDinsight’s work to support evidence-based decision-making often involves hands-on workshops with clients and partners. In-person workshops allow all parties to have their say and generate consensus quickly, particularly on complex topics like developing a theory of change. Because all meetings have gone online during the COVID-19 crisis, we are sharing some suggestions for others hosting remote workshops or moving their teams online.

The goal of our workshop was to make collective design decisions for the first-draft prototype of a data portal. There were 10–15 participants from the government, IDinsight, and other organizations; it was critical that decisions were collectively made and accepted by all partners because this prototype will scale up to a finished product. We aimed to bring in the expertise of all participants, while ensuring that the government team responsible for the portal could drive final decisions.

We originally planned the workshop as an in-person exercise but switched to virtual collaboration because of the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation. The virtual exercise was mostly successful, and the workshop participants’ technical strength made the collaboration easier. We suggest that the reader thinks through how to simplify some of our recommendations if you’re working with a less tech-savvy group.

We worked with a technical design sprint agency, Parallel Labs in Bangalore, who led the workshop to build the prototype. Many of the recommendations we present below include the agency’s ideas and input.


1. Use a virtual whiteboard tool along with a video call; invest time up-front to organize clear activities and outcomes.

Your online collaboration tool should match your needs and goals. If you’re not sure where to start, this guide from IREX can help prioritize which format and tools to use. We used Miro, a paid virtual whiteboard service, to conduct the workshop. We found it effective and would recommend it to other teams. For teams looking for a similar free service, this list could be a good starting point. Some, including Klaxoon, have offered free long-term trials during the Covid-19 outbreak.

For leading a workshop, we found a virtual whiteboard is effective because it allows all participants to give input at the same time (unlike in a phone conversation). However, it is not efficient for workshop participants to engage with every whiteboard tool. Instead, prepare a structure before the workshop begins that allows participant ideas to be recorded in a visible, organized way that can be used for clear decisions. Participants should only have to navigate to different areas of the whiteboard, type ideas, and move objects. This structure also makes it easy to take screenshots and send out daily reports.

However, a whiteboard does not replace video call and screen-sharing. We recommend starting the day on Zoom by showing participants’ faces and then screen sharing the day’s agenda. For the rest of the day, you can keep the Zoom voice call on while showing the whiteboard video.

Planning the structure of the whiteboard before the workshop

2. Identify “technical champions” in each partner group before the workshop to support the team with any issues

There is a learning curve with most remote collaboration technology, even if you’ve structured the tool beforehand. It’s therefore important to ensure there is one individual in each participating organization who can guide others if challenges arise. This “technical champion” does not need to be the most senior person, but they should have enough background to provide guidance and speak for their organization if others are unable to follow.

3. Have a moderator and a decision-maker, take breaks, and only do a half-day at a time.

Good workshop practices are even more important when it’s virtual. First, ensure that one participant is leading the exercise as moderator, and one person is the clear decision-maker. The decision-maker can break deadlocks and circular discussion, which can happen more easily virtually. The decision-maker does not have to be senior or even come from the organization that is making the final decisions. They could be a junior, technically inclined person who knows how to take input from the senior participants and facilitate consensus.

Second, because it’s easier for participants to lose engagement when virtually connecting compared to in-person, it’s important to take breaks regularly. After the break, schedule quick activities that facilitate engagement by requiring input from all participants, for example, brainstorms where everyone submits several ideas in two minutes.

Finally, it does not seem feasible to engage partners for full days virtually. We recommend capping the workshop at four hours per day.

4. Ensure that everyone has a chance to give their input at least once every 30 minutes.

Workshops are most useful when participants need to give in-depth input. We recommend using whiteboard activities to regularly solicit input from all participants, because some may be less inclined to speak up by themselves. Additionally, we noticed that certain participants (often men) tend to take over conversations, and in the virtual setting, this can cause others to drop off. It is useful for the moderator to call out participants by name and actively incorporate everyone’s opinions.

5. Give participants time to think individually before bringing ideas to the group, but limit individual work periods to five minutes.

It is important to give participants time to brainstorm, sketch their own ideas, and read over ideas generated by the group. However, in a virtual workshop, every minute of individual work is an opportunity to lose engagement. We, therefore, suggest capping individual work sessions at five minutes. Most whiteboard tools have a visible and audible timer option which the moderator can use to ensure all participants finish the task.

6. Make decisions using three activity types: (1) mandatory idea submission, (2) anonymous voting, and (3) collaborative prioritization of ideas.

We found the following three activity types, which were led by the design sprint agency we partnered with, effectively drove collaborative decisions. These capabilities should be available on any whiteboard platform, but please note that another platform’s users may need to set these activities up differently than shown here.

1. Mandatory idea submission: Structure a specific area of the whiteboard with a set number of boxes or post-its for each participant. Require everyone to write down a specific number of ideas or opinions on the post-its within a set time.

2. Anonymous voting: Put a list of participant names in the whiteboard interface and create a fixed number of dots next to each name. Ask participants to put their dots on ideas they like; once dots are placed, there is no way to tell who voted where.

3. Collaborative prioritization of ideas: Once participants have submitted and voted on ideas, physically move the boxes containing these ideas to show which received the most votes. Collaboratively identify which ideas are repetitive, which can be combined, and which few to move forward with.

We hope these suggestions are helpful. Please let us know in the comments if you have other advice for leading virtual workshops.