How to engage people during a virtual session?

We had started successfully run a series of workshops face-to-face but then came the travel restrictions. After a while some of us started working remotely, which is, of course, a privilege in the current times. Then this question came up: how to get people engaged in virtual workshops?

Man workin on laptop
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The need

We had a goal to have a workshop with all our teams during March. We created a great plan for face-to-face workshops, booked a room for the whole month and got it ready for action. Face-to-face workshops were a success, people were participating actively and as a facilitator one felt so privileged to work with all the amazing teams participating.

The change

Then the world turned upside down. Two-thirds of the workshops were still to be held. As the travel restrictions started already earlier than the remote working, we had already planned for a partly virtual workshop as one of our teams is located in two different sites. With this plan we then decided to try out a virtual workshop. Quite soon – while running the four-hour-long workshop, we realized that we were not sufficiently prepared for an ALL-virtual workshop. We were not able to keep all the people engaged enough. It is too easy to hide when participating in a virtual session.

The plan

We surfed and found good inspiration on how to make our workshop more engaging.

  • Engage everybody from the beginning
    Nowadays we start the workshop by going around the table to hear how everybody is doing. This way we get everybody involved from the start and check out that all microphones are working as well.
  • Get people inspired
    The next step is to watch a short two-minute-long animal video together to inspire us all. After the video we discuss what we can learn from it and how it can support us during the workshop.
  • Use online quizzes instead of lecturing
    Then we are finally ready to start for real. Instead of lecturing about new terminology and new processes, we are using a fun, online quiz to teach it all in an interactive way. The quiz is done one question at the time. When everybody has answered, we discuss why people answered as they did and make sure the message gets through. Everybody is kept involved in by asking randomly for the explanations.
  • Split lecturing to smaller piecesThe other part – which would come from a speaker in our face-to-face workshop –  was going through the input material. We still need to go through the input material, but we go through it in smaller pieces and after every piece we collect input from the team into an electric notebook, a writing pad. This has a real time web-based collaborative editor that can be used by multiple users at the same time. After people have contributed by writing down their thoughts in the writing pad, we discuss the topic together before moving forward to the next piece of input.
  • Use breakout sessions
    The next phase of the workshop is done very much like it was done in face-to-face workshops by using the me-we-us approach. First, everybody thinks alone and writes down their thoughts to an e-mail draft to be able to copy-paste their thoughts easily when we start sharing.
    In the next phase we have breakout sessions for smaller groups. All groups have their own Microsoft Teams session and their own writing pad. In this part, a group needs to agree on what they want to present to the whole team as their common proposal. Finally, we gather back to the common Microsoft Teams session and to the common writing pad to agree on team’s common view on the topic.
    After this we use the world café format, the same way as we did in the face-to-face workshop. In the world café the team is again split into the same smaller groups as before and they use the same separate Microsoft Teams sessions as before.
    The difference is that this time each café has their own writing pad, which the groups use in turns. This means that one group uses one writing pad at the time and writes down their proposal to the specific writing pad.
    After 15 minutes all groups start working with another writing pad. This time they have already some input from the previous group in the writing pad, and they can improve the existing proposal or make new proposals. The procedure is repeated until all groups have visited all cafés.
    Finally, we gather to the common Microsoft Teams session and to the common writing pad. The last team visiting a café copies the proposal to the common writing pad and presents it to the whole team. Everybody has still the chance to propose improvements at this phase.
  • Vote virtually
    Voting also works perfectly in the virtual sessions, if necessary. In some sessions there have been far too many proposals, so voting has been essential. Voting is done in the common writing pad by giving all team members four votes, which they can use all for one proposal by adding “+4” after the proposal or by dividing the votes between different proposals by giving “+3”, “+2” or “+1”, just keeping in mind that each has four votes in total.
    The other way we have used voting is to write down a statement or several statements in the Microsoft Teams’ chat window and ask people to vote by using the different emojis.
  • Reflect with a quiz
    Our workshop ends with a reflection. In the face-to-face session we used fist of five voting and writing stickers. However, in the virtual session we made another online quiz and went through the results together and asked people to share their thinking after each of our three questions.
  • Use workout bingo

Workout bingo


As our workshops take approximately four hours, it is a long time to sit down next to your desk. Therefore, we are challenging the teams to use Workout Bingo during the workshop. The idea for this came from a bingo in paper format found from Twitter (link in Finnish). We created a digital version of it as not everybody has a printer at home. Nowadays we can together celebrate that finally there is echo on the line! BINGO!

The result

Now we have a working plan. After the workshops held so far, we have seen people being fully engaged and actively participating and contributing.

The best thing is that we have realized that some parts of the virtual workshops can be used also in a face-to-face workshop, for example:

  • Using an online quiz to teach people about a new concept instead of lecturing about it with a slide show
  • Splitting a long input presentation to smaller pieces to get people moving and talking
  • Using Workout Bingo, but in a paper format to be able to have the laptops closed and with happenings related to a face-to-face session

One thing to keep in mind when arranging virtual sessions is that they require a lot more preparation work. In the face-to-face workshop after the original planning, we only had to wipe out the whiteboards clean and make some small adjustments to the input slides to suit the specific team, send out the invitation and that was it.

Now there is much more to be done as you need to reserve several Microsoft Teams sessions, create several writing pads, add template text to the writing pads, create the quizzes needed and divide the team to smaller groups (something which happens automatically in the face-to-face sessions). Finally, all this information needs to be added to the slide set and to the invitations.

You can facilitate face-to-face sessions alone after the first trials, but in a virtual session there is so much more to do in the background that it is not possible to handle them alone.

But all in all, it is possible to keep people engaged also during long virtual sessions, but it requires thinking and some extra work!

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For further development in working remotely we recommend reading 9 ways to lead with empathy from home

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