July 10, 2020

Shifting to Remote Facilitation: Lessons from the Home Office

Designing Experiences

By Aryanna Martin and Allison Yu

As we reflect on best practices for in-person workshops and redefine them to fit a remote setting, we will have to make some important decisions on whether we return to a “normal” way of working, or a “new normal.” In the future, as social distancing and travel ban policies are lifted and companies start welcoming employees back into the office, how will these new practices for remote facilitation fold into in-person engagements? What will these new practices for in-person client and user engagements look like?

In-person dot-voting


Dot-voting reimagined online

Regardless of the endless speculations we can make about the future, what grounds us are the principles and overarching goals of design thinking workshops. A successful workshop in brightspot’s process is participatory, agile, and practical.

Participatory, Agile, and Practical: Guiding Principles for Remote Facilitation

The key to having successful workshops lies in the intersection of a participatory, agile, and practical process.


  • Design and facilitate the workshop with empathy: Plan the activities and the workshop with ease of usability in mind. The workshop is an experience in itself and as facilitators, our goal is to make this experience as delightful and easy as possible. Understand that using new tools and technology can be intimidating for some people and patience goes a long way.
  • Ensure equal access to participation: Participants might have varying levels of access to and experience with tools and technology that might prevent them from participating in a remote workshop. Make sure to provide other avenues for participants to share input.


  • Remember Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong and, oftentimes, paranoia about the littlest things is valuable. Remember that it’s harder to be adaptable with technology, so plan rigorously for back-up options and different directions. Conduct a dry run to identify points in the workshop that might be a challenge.


  • The tool is only as useful as the information it elicits: If the technology and tools you planned to use are hindering the conversation, don’t feel like you have to stick with them. Keep the conversation going by probing and asking questions.

Comparing In-person and Remote Workshops

Just as faculty have shifted their teaching online and have learned that good online learning requires more planning, a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities, and ongoing check-ins with students, successful remote workshops also require a different strategy to keep participants engaged in the process.

Participation, agility, and practicality are incredibly important in any workshop or engagement. In remote workshops, these components remain important, but may be realized in different ways through more careful and thoughtful planning.

To further compare how we might plan, facilitate, and wrap up an in-person vs. a remote workshop, we’ve created a detailed comparison in the table below.

Time of workshop- Time scheduled for workshop accounts for activities, break-times, and actual presentation
- Time assumes a low learning curve to orient participants
Time scheduled for workshop accounts for orienting participants to the technology and tools that will be used in addition to normal activities
Activity design- Activities can be a mix of 2 or 3, some of which can be multiple parts that build off of one another
- Activities tend to be highly exploratory, touching on different perspectives
- Activities tend to be limited to just 1 or 2
- Activities tend to be straight-to-the-point, directly providing input to a specific prompt
Activity materials and preparation- Materials include physical plots, paper worksheets, or toolkit cards
- Workshop materials are typically designed and printed in advance, with some room for workshop dry run, depending on complexity of activities
- List of potential participants are provided; confirmed participants not necessary
- Involves tools and technologies that allow for simultaneous collaboration (e.g., Google Suite, MURAL, etc.)
- Workshop materials are typically designed in advance using chosen tool, with dry run as a necessary component regardless of complexity of activities
- List of confirmed participants are provided in advance and are updated continuously prior to the workshop
Supporting materials- A device/laptop and projector/screen for presentation purposes; internet connection not necessary
- Materials such as sticky easel pads and bulletin boards; Post-Its, colored pens, scissors, and tape
- Camera/phone camera for documentation
- Needs strong internet connection, own device/laptop for both facilitators and participants
- Videoconferencing technology like Zoom or GoToMeeting
- Other backup video or audio recording tools like Quicktime or Otter
Flexibility of changing the workshop materials on the flyWorkshop materials are easy to cut, edit, erase, cross-out on the fly using existing materialsWorkshop materials have to be reorganized if there are dependencies in the activity layout
Preparing your participantsTo ensure limited workshop time isn’t spent on reviewing content, pre-reads of presentation decks are sent for participants to get familiar with content- Pre-reads of workshop materials are also sent, but pre-meetings might be set up to teach participants how to use technology
- Other tools and methods may be used to solicit supporting information
Transitioning- May involve a typical flip to a slide that introduces activity
- Facilitators or co-facilitators can start passing out worksheets (passive) or leading everyone into the activity posters
- Involves a typical flip to a slide that introduces the activity
- Clear and distinct transition from presentation to the workshop platform
- Shift from presentation mode by facilitators to use of collaborative tools
Troubleshooting- Easier to address multiple people at once for any questions or clarifications
- Helping one participant does not typically dominate or interrupt the rest of the participant conversations
- Facilitators address questions or clarifications within their breakout groups
- Addressing questions or clarifications in terms of content and technology may be distracting to other participants as assistance happens in the same breakout room
- Can be challenging to troubleshoot any tech difficulties without seeing what’s happening
Coordinating with teamEasier to regroup as a team and discuss any changes in plansChallenging to coordinate with teammates due to isolation; if teams are all isolated, extra measures for coordination has to be established while in workshop
User ParticipationHighly collaborative; high chance of participation and engagement as participants can see what others are doing or can immediately tap someone to ask for more details/instructionsClarifying instructions can be mentally draining; difficult to individually connect with fellow participants
Documentation- Materials are either collected for analysis or photos are taken while materials get discarded
- Information is converted and typed to a digital format
- Little to no effort to move digitally since information already lives in chosen digital platform
- Information may be further collated for synthesis purposes
Debrief and further engagementParticipants can talk to each other and to facilitators after the workshopPost-workshop conversations have to migrate to another platform

In essence, remote workshops take more time and effort to plan, are more challenging to improvise and change on the fly, and require backup technology and tools. Practices on communication among participants and between facilitators may need to be established beforehand to avoid confusion during the workshop. On the other hand, documentation requires less effort since information already lives digitally and only needs minimal refinement as live notes may have already fully captured key ideas.

Potential Challenges of Remote Workshops and Workaround Recommendations

It goes without saying that remote workshops take more planning and time. This is especially true when engaging with different campus audiences, from project teams to leadership teams to student users. Additionally, different workshop strategies may be implemented depending on the participant group. For example, a user workshop may involve a greater number of interactive activities to capture user input, which requires much greater coordination between platforms (e.g., Zoom, MURAL). On the other hand, a workshop with a project or leadership team may involve minimal and straightforward activities and the use of Google Slides as this platform is more familiar to them, thereby overcoming the higher learning curve of technology while still capturing feedback on an interactive, collaborative platform.

Below are strategies to address a handful of specific challenges.

Limited timeBudget extra time for the high technology learning curve and potential technical difficulties
High learning curve of technology- Set up pre-meetings to teach participants how to use technology
- Solicit potentially complex information through surveys or other methods
- Limit tools/applications to be used to just 1-2
- Design simple and easy-to-do activities (think simple functions like drag, drop, and type)
Greater chances of technical difficulties and troubleshooting needs- Ensure that you have good audiovisual technology and a strong internet connection (preferably a wired connection)
- Ask participants to share their screen to help them navigate a certain platform
Less flexibility with changing workshop materials on the fly- Have a low-tech back-up platform that is easy to transition to in moving the conversation forward
- Continue probing or asking more questions while taking notes on the background
Managing conversations while managing a screen/ presentation- Plan for having 1 or 2 more facilitators for every ~10 workshop participants to better manage the group. Give facilitators a specific role (e.g., notetaker, presenter, chat scan, etc.).
- Have all the tabs and windows you need open on your screen before the workshop. Close out anything you don’t need so you don’t confuse yourself.
Genuinely and naturally connecting with the participants - Consider a level-setting warm-up that can be facilitated remotely to orient people to the workshop
- Give participants a task or a question to ponder on to give yourself time to prepare for the next set of activities

In summary, because of the high learning curve and potential technical difficulties that remote workshops present, pre-meetings, dry runs, and pre-reads are critical for participants to understand and properly process potentially complex information. Having good audiovisual and technology resources is key and can be best supported by low-tech backup platforms and extra facilitators should technical difficulties emerge.

Extra: MURAL Tips and Tricks!

You’re now ready to plan and design your remote workshop! One of the tools that we absolutely love using for remote facilitation is MURAL. MURAL is a digital workspace that enables teams and individuals to think and visually collaborate. We’ve used MURAL quite often at brightspot to conduct our workshops. This platform is typically paired with a remote conferencing technology so we can converse and collaborate on a board at the same time.

UC Berkeley MURAL Steering Committee UX Workshop

We’ve asked our colleagues to share with us some best practices and here’s a rundown of those tips and tricks for using MURAL:

Planning and Pre-workshop

  • Send tutorial videos ahead of time for tips on how to navigate and add content on a MURAL board. 
  • Design the activities so that they are simple and easy to do. Participants may have varying comfort levels with technology so, if it is possible, get the information you need by just moving shapes around or creating stickies.
  • If it’s easier for you to design activities using another layout design tool (e.g., Indesign, Photoshop, etc.), you can do so and save those as images that you can import into the board.
  • For voting activities, you can use MURAL’s built-in voting tool or provide tokens with participant initials on them. 
  • Plan for time cushions between navigating MURAL and moving in and out of breakout groups.
  • If you are entertaining participants more than 30+, you can assign one team per board and so participants don’t get overwhelmed.

Facilitating the Workshop and Troubleshooting

  • Before sending participants into the MURAL board, share your screen and provide a virtual tour of the whole board and instructions on how to fill out the workshop board. 
  • Let participants know that they will be potentially entering as an anonymous animal. To know which ‘anonymous animal’ they are, they can check the leftmost avatar at the bottom-center of the page.
  • Make sure at least one facilitator in the room is familiar with MURAL to help with troubleshooting.
  • Mention to participants that they have the option to hide cursors if they find the interactivity overwhelming.
  • Teach participants how to use the key map and hand button at the lower right hand part of the interface to navigate and drag the board and other materials in it.

Wrapping Up and Post-Workshop

  • If participants are encouraged to continue answering the board after the workshop, export the board immediately after the workshop to have your own external copy. You can always export a new version after participants have completely answered.

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