Facilitating Inclusive Online Workshops (Part 1) — Smashing Magazine

Running a workshop can be an effective alternative to traditional, long-standing meetings. However, if workshops aren’t designed with inclusivity in mind, participants may feel apprehensive about contributing, fearing criticism from others. To help ensure the success of a workshop, Ben Shih introduces the concept of an inclusive workshop. In Part 1 of the series, you discover the fundamentals of inclusivity and get some solid guidance on how to plan an inclusive remote workshop.

Have you ever found yourself trapped in an hour-long meeting, listening to someone’s endless talk without understanding their main point? Or sat through a discussion where everyone speaks, but no actions are decided upon in the end? Or perhaps felt like the meeting you’re participating in is simply a waste of time?

If you have, you’re not alone.

According to a survey conducted by Clarizen and Harris Poll (2017), three in five employed adults reported that preparing for a meeting “takes longer than the meeting itself,” and 35% of those who attend status meetings called them a waste of time. In fact, 46% of employed Americans would rather engage in any unpleasant activity than sit in a meeting.

Meetings, when organized well, can serve as an effective way to share information and make decisions. The harsh reality, however, is that many meetings are poorly structured, ending up as a drain of resources.

One of the possible ways to replace meetings with something better and more effective is the implementation of workshops. But while workshops can be a highly effective way to foster collaboration and generate innovative solutions, they often require active participation from everyone involved. Yet, not everyone feels comfortable voicing their thoughts or taking the lead in a group setting, even though these quieter voices can be just as valuable and insightful. This is what led to the concept of an “inclusive” workshop — a workshop that ensures everyone feels heard, connected, and comfortable expressing their ideas.

What’s Inclusivity, And What’s Its Impact?

Before we dive into the concept of an inclusive workshop, let’s first talk about the foundation. At its core, inclusivity means recognizing, appreciating, and respecting the diverse tapestry of human individuality. It’s about valuing the uniqueness everyone brings to the table, from attributes like ethnicity, gender, age, and religion to less apparent characteristics such as cognitive style or socioeconomic background.

Inclusivity is deeply rooted in the social identity theory, introduced by Tajfel & Turner in 1979. This theory suggests that our identities — who we think we are — are partly defined by the social groups we feel part of. It’s human nature to seek acceptance and to want to belong to a group that appreciates us for who we are. This need for social acceptance influences how we view ourselves and how we interact with others.

An inclusive environment embraces this diversity and uses this as an advantage to create a collaborative environment. Think of an orchestra, for example. Every instrument, whether it’s a violin, a trumpet, a cello, or a drum, brings with it its unique sound. Some may play a melody, others a harmony, and some keep the rhythm. Each of these sounds is different, but when combined, they create a harmonious symphony. In an inclusive setting, each person, with their distinct qualities, comes together with others to form a symphony of collaboration and understanding.

However, people are beautifully complex, and although this complexity is what often breathes life into a workshop, it can also introduce an element of unpredictability, which, if not managed well, can potentially lead to discord among the participants.

The only thing we can do is acknowledge the fact that not everyone will be comfortable speaking up, particularly in group settings. There could be various reasons for this, including individual personality traits, cultural backgrounds, past experiences, or simply the fear of judgment. As a facilitator, it is your responsibility to ensure that every individual in the room feels comfortable expressing their opinions and ideas. In the remainder of this article, I will be introducing some practical principles and techniques that could guide you in facilitating an inclusive workshop.

Feature Panel

Preparing For An Inclusive Workshop

If you are familiar with design thinking and design in general, you’ll find similarities between the design process and structuring an inclusive workshop. In design, we start by trying to understand our users, identifying their goals, and then crafting an effective user experience to guide them from start to finish. The same principles apply to designing an inclusive workshop:

  1. Understand the participants,
  2. Recognize their goals,
  3. Plan an engaging experience to achieve these goals.

Here are some “pre-works” you can do to better prepare for your workshop.

Step 1. Make Sure You Include The Right People

The most important thing in any meeting or workshop is including the right participants. Failing to do so could prevent you from guiding the team in order to reach the goals of the workshop.

If you are facilitating a workshop for your own team (or within your company, which you know well), ask yourself the following questions so as to decide if a person should be included:

  • Is the meeting relevant to this person’s work and core responsibilities?
  • Can this person provide critical information, aid in the decision-making, or contribute meaningfully to the conversation?
  • Is this person’s presence necessary to achieve the meeting’s goals?

On the other hand, if you’re facilitating a workshop with an external team, provide a list of criteria that outlines what the ideal participant looks like and ask your client to include all the relevant individuals.

At this stage, bear in mind that adding a new participant not only means that you are bringing in a new viewpoint but you’re also increasing the number of necessary agreements among the members of the group. This could potentially lead to more disagreements and conflicts among different parties. Have a look at the points of agreement graph (below) to better understand how this mechanism works.

An image that shows the number of agreement points between 3 people (3 nodes) and 7 people (21 nodes)
Point of agreement. The number of agreements in a meeting between three people (left) vs. between seven people (right). (Image credits: Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, a book by Kevin Hoffman) (Large preview)

Step 2. Know Your Participants Well

Once your participant wish list is set, it’s important to invite all the participants to the workshop in a manner that is welcoming and inclusive — for example, not just sending a calendar invite and expecting them to show up. If it’s feasible, try to arrange a pre-workshop call or meeting with each participant to gain a better understanding of them. Building these personal connections before the workshop is important in ensuring your workshop activities are inclusive and productive.

Here are some more detailed steps to consider.

Personalize The Invitation

Instead of a generic invite, personalize your invitations. Clearly outline the workshop’s purpose and activities and why you think they would be a valuable addition. Be open to participant’s opinions and concerns about attendance. If there’s uncertainty about their availability or relevance to the workshop, offer them an option to contribute asynchronously if they can’t participate in real-time.

An example message could be crafted along these lines:

“Hey Lewis, I am reaching out as I am planning to run a workshop with Max to brainstorm around how we can build the AI dashboard (which is the next initiative on our roadmap), and I would love to invite you to the workshop as I believe your front-end knowledge will help us a lot to understand the tech limitations. How does that sound to you? The workshop will be approximately two hours long and is scheduled for next week. Here’s the high-level agenda…”

A message like this — where you can explain what the workshop will be about, who will be involved, and how they can contribute to the workshop — will help the participant decide whether their involvement will be useful or not.

Schedule Pre-Workshop Conversations

If possible, have a brief, informal chat with the participants, especially if you’re unfamiliar with them. This could be as simple as a quick coffee chat where you just talk about your hobbies and favorite movies. Such interactions can help build rapport before the workshop and provide insights into the participant’s goals and expectations.

Identify Personality Types And Preferences

The personality traits of your workshop participants can be grouped along two main axes: their preference for group work (individualistic vs. collaborative) and their communication style (introverted vs. extroverted). By understanding and accommodating these preferences, you can create a workshop environment that truly values and harnesses the benefits of diversity.

  • Individualistic participants
    They may prefer tasks they can work on independently and discussions in smaller groups. Designing certain portions of the workshop that allow for individual thinking and ideation can help engage these participants.
  • Collaborative participants
    They enjoy large group discussions and team activities. Incorporating collaborative tasks where everyone can contribute can keep these participants involved and motivated.
  • Introverted participants
    They might feel more comfortable with structured turn-taking or with written contributions. They might not voice their thoughts as readily in a group setting, but that doesn’t make their ideas any less valuable. Establishing clear turn-taking rules or offering opportunities for written input can help ensure their voices are heard, too.
  • Extroverted participants
    They might be more engaged in free-flowing discussions or roles that involve presenting to the group. Ensuring that the workshop format has room for open discussions can cater to their preference.
A matrix that helps a facilitator to map the personalities of the participants. The image is split into four squares, and there are two double arrows between them, crossed in the center. Top arrow reads ‘extroverted,’ bottom arrow reads ‘introverted’, right arrow reads ‘collaborative’, and left arrow reads ‘individualistic’
A matrix to help you map the personalities of the participants in your workshop. (Download the FigJam template: Personality Matrix) (Large preview)

Step 3. Plan The Workshop Steps

Once you have defined your participant list and understand the participants well, the next step is to plan the workshop accordingly to meet their needs.

In the next section, I will share some high-level tips relevant in particular to inclusivity.

The specifics of planning an entire workshop is another topic altogether — I recommend reading a few books on this topic, such as Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo and Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, as well as Smashing Magazine articles that will help you dive deeper into the specifics of crafting a workshop. You might also want to look at the 4C framework developed by AJ & Smart, which can guide you in structuring your workshop logically.

Start By Defining The Break Time

No matter the nature of your workshop, it’s important to plan regular breaks which will promote an inclusive environment.

Catering to individuals’ unique needs, be they physical or cognitive, is very important. Breaks help counter the “Zoom fatigue” prevalent in virtual workshops and respect cultural sensitivities by allowing time for personal and cultural practices.

Numerous studies indicate that people can generally focus effectively for about 45 to 50 minutes at a time. Hence, consider scheduling a 5–10 minute break every hour. These intervals offer participants time to relax, regroup, and reset their mental focus, thereby maintaining engagement and productivity throughout the session.

“Excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought out, and you become less collaborative. So what do we do then? Focus or unfocus? In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.”

— Srini Pillay, “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus” (Harvard Business Review)

Choose The Right Tools

The selection of tools in a remote environment can substantially influence participants’ experience. Complex or unfamiliar tools can affect the effectiveness of even the most well-planned workshop. Thus, it’s important to select tools that can help with collaboration, address diverse participants’ needs, and are accessible and straightforward to use.

Below, you’ll find a list of some popular tools for facilitating workshops, including their advantages, disadvantages, and best-suited participant types.

Whiteboard Tools

  • Miro
    Miro is a popular and user-friendly digital whiteboard tool known for its intuitive interface and collaborative features. It’s great for visual learners and those who thrive on a free-form canvas. Additionally, for facilitators, a wide range of workshop templates is provided so that you don’t need to start from scratch. However, this tool can be overwhelming for those who prefer more structured interfaces. In addition, in Miroverse, there are more than 1000+ templates for you to get inspired by and to better plan your workshop.
  • Mural
    Another alternative digital whiteboard platform, Mural, is known for its ability to onboard new users easily. People can join and edit your Mural board without the need to create an account, which reduces friction. However, for facilitators who wish to have more powerful features such as AI, tables, charts, and integrations, Mural might not completely satisfy their needs.
  • FigJam
    FigJam is a top choice for designers and those familiar with Figma. It combines the flexibility of a digital whiteboard and design-focused features. This tool suits visually oriented and design-minded participants alike but may feel less intuitive to those unfamiliar with design software in general.
An example of a Miro Template (screenshot)
Miro is a popular tool for online collaboration, including remote workshops; and in Miroverse there are more than 1000+ templates available. (Large preview)

Video Conferencing Tools

  • Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet
    These are the “traditional” tools that almost everyone knows how to use. While their interfaces may lack extensive interactive features (which leads to a somewhat basic look and feel), their key strength lies in their consistent performance and accessibility. Their familiarity among users ensures a low learning curve, contributing to smooth and efficient workshop sessions.
  • Butter
    This tool is purpose-built for running interactive workshops, offering creative features specifically focused on workshops and collaborative meetings. Butter can cater to a broad range of personality types. For extroverted participants, it enables easy active engagement in discussions, while it also allows more introverted participants to express themselves using reactions, emojis, or GIFs in a less confrontational manner.
A screenshot of Butter that shows the ability to interact with other people via emoji reactions
Butter offers many features that make it easy for participants to react and interact with facilitators and other people, including reactions, soundboard, comments, and more. (Large preview)

Group Discussion Tools

  • Mixerchat
    This platform facilitates interactive group discussions. Participants can freely navigate different breakout rooms, engaging in breakout sessions or world café-style activities.
A screenshot of Mixerchat that shows the ability to switch between different breakout rooms easily. The right side of the Mixerchat window is occupied by nine webcam views, each one with a person in the center of it
Mixerchat makes it easy for participants to switch between different breakout rooms. (Large preview)

Choose The Activities And Communication Methods

The next and perhaps most critical step is to carefully choose activities that cater to the diversity of your participants. Use the personality types and goals you identified in Step 2 to guide your decisions. Here are some suggestions to help you get started.

If most of your participants are Introverted & Individualistic.
These participants prefer to think through ideas independently before sharing them, and they may be more comfortable in a quieter setting. A few activities for this group of people could be:

  • Silent Brainstorming: Each participant works individually to generate ideas and write them down. After a set period, everyone shares their ideas one by one. This approach gives introverted participants time to think and formulate their ideas before sharing them.
  • Silent Dot-Voting: These tools allow participants to share their views or vote on ideas anonymously, which can be less intimidating than speaking up in a group.

If most of your participants are Introverted & Collaborative.
These participants may enjoy working in groups, but they prefer quieter, more thoughtful discussions. A few activities for this group of people could be:

  • Small Group Discussions: Divide participants into smaller groups of 3-4 people to discuss a topic or question. This setup can feel less overwhelming than large group discussions.
A screenshot of a group discussion Miro template
Miro template of a small group discussion workshop. (Download the template: Breakout Groups & Collaboration) (Large preview)
  • Think-Pair-Share: In this activity, participants first consider a question or problem individually, then they pair up to discuss their thoughts, and finally, they share their ideas with the larger group.
  • Fishbowl Conversation: A small group sits in a circle (the fishbowl) to discuss a topic while the rest of the participants observe. After a while, allow participants to switch places, ensuring everyone gets a chance to contribute.

If most of your participants are Extroverted & Individualistic.
These participants enjoy expressing their ideas and might prefer to work independently. A few activities for this group of people could be:

  • Lightning Talks: Each participant prepares a short presentation on a topic related to the workshop’s theme. This activity allows participants to express their ideas and share their expertise.
  • Idea Gallery/Lightning Demo: Participants work individually to create a visual or written representation of their ideas (like a poster), then everyone walks around to view the “gallery” and discuss the ideas.
    Note: The idea is not new and is also known as a “Poster Session.” The goal of a poster session is to create a set of compelling images that summarize a challenge or topic for further discussion. Creating this set might be an “opening act,” which then sets the stage for choosing an idea to pursue, or it might be a way to get indexed on a large topic. The act of creating a poster forces experts and otherwise passionate people to stop and think about the best way to communicate the core concepts of their material.
A screenshot of the lightning demo activity from Design Sprint
The lightning demo activity from Design Sprint is a perfect example of an “Idea Gallery” type of activity. Find out more about this example: AJ&Smart’s Remote Design Sprint. (Large preview)
  • Jigsaw Activity: In this exercise, each participant becomes an “expert” in a specific aspect of a larger topic. They then share their knowledge with the group, allowing for individual exploration and public speaking.

If most of your participants are Extroverted & Collaborative.
These participants enjoy the energy of group discussions and collaborative work. A few activities suitable for this group of people could be:

  • Open Discussions: Provide a topic or question and allow the conversation to flow naturally. Extroverted participants typically thrive in this open format.
  • Group Projects: Split participants into teams and assign a project related to the workshop’s theme. This could be anything from creating a mock-up for a new product to brainstorming strategies for overcoming a business challenge.
  • Role-play: This group activity allows participants to act out different scenarios or perspectives related to the workshop theme, encouraging dynamic discussion and cooperative problem-solving.
A screenshot of Disney’s brainstorming method template on Miro
Disney’s Brainstorming Method is a good example of what a fun role-play activity looks like. (Download the template: Disney Brainstorming Method) (Large preview)

Step 4. Estimate The Right Time And Allocate An Extra “Buffer”

Once you have completed planning the workshop activities, if possible, try to conduct a pilot run so that you can decide the appropriate duration for each activity.

Time management is critical for inclusivity since participants may have other engagements, and if time management is out of control, both the facilitator and the participants may feel uncomfortable as they may need to shift focus to other commitments. Therefore, it is crucial to estimate the appropriate time and allocate extra “buffer” time to avoid rushing participants during engaging discussions.

I usually like to add a 20% buffer to each activity to ensure there is always some time to spare in case some people are slower. For instance, if you have set a 10-minute brainstorming session, schedule it to be 12 minutes so that you can have some extra buffer.

Step 5. Send A Pre-note Out

Inclusion often starts before the workshop even begins. A pre-workshop note can make a significant difference in setting the stage for inclusivity. It allows all participants, regardless of their background or understanding of the key topic, to start from a common ground.

For example, if you’re conducting a workshop on project management, your pre-note could include an outline of the topics to be covered, such as agile methodology, risk management, or team leadership. You could also include a brief case study for participants to review before the workshop.

The pre-note can also include logistical details such as the workshop date, time, location (or virtual meeting link), any software they need to install (like Zoom or Microsoft Teams), and what they should bring with them (like a laptop or a notebook). By sending a pre-note, you ensure that all participants come prepared and are aligned with the workshop’s objectives right from the start.

A screenshot of a prenote template that the facilitator can use to send out pre-notes
A template that you can use to create your own workshop pre-note. (Get the template from Figma Community) (Large preview)

Step 6. Bonus Tip: Personalize The Experience

Once you’ve established the framework of your workshop, it’s time to season it with some personal flair. This “secret sauce” could be a unique icebreaker or an element of surprise that sparks laughter and lightens up the atmosphere.

For instance, I’ve often incorporated the pets of my colleagues into the Miro board during my workshops. The sight of familiar furry friends not only brings a smile but also fosters a sense of community and connection within the team.

A screenshot showing how cat photo avatars can be used to replace normal dots
Instead of having a standard dot-voting session, replace the “dots” with cats or dogs (of your colleagues, if possible) to create some fun during the workshop session! (Image credits: Official Remote 5-day Design Sprint, a Miro template by Steph Cruchon) (Large preview)

Conclusion

This was the first half of our journey exploring inclusive remote workshops where we’ve “peeled back” the layers of their essence and highlighted some critical techniques and approaches to lay out the groundwork. Remember, the key to running a successful inclusive workshop is to know your participants well and to create a space where they feel at ease. Take the time to understand them and shape the workshop activities in such a way that they match participant’s personal preferences. The most important bit, perhaps, is that every attendee should feel valued and heard.

In the second part of this two-part series, I will dive deeper into what you can do during and after the workshop in order to better tailor the experience to the workshop attendees, and I will also introduce you to the P.A.R.T.S. principle, which stands for Promote, Acknowledge, Respect, Transparency, and Share.

Smashing Editorial
(mb, il, yk)