How to Plan & Run Effective Virtual Workshops

Thought Leadership /
Posted on 6th August '20


Top Tips for Pharma and Healthcare Brand Teams

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives and changed some things for ever, from the personal (the way we as individuals live and work) to the professional (the way companies and organisations, both large and small, interact with their employees and customers and the way they make decisions).

Pharma and healthcare brand teams are no exception, and COVID-19 brought challenges by way of travel restrictions and the shutting down of corporate offices amid multiple ongoing workstreams which were suddenly disrupted.

Workshops are ubiquitous in the calendars of pharma and healthcare brand teams, useful for a range of business-critical challenges, from strategy development to idea generation. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven an inevitable shift in the way these workshops are delivered from face-to-face to virtual.

In the six months since the beginning of the pandemic, (February 2020 to July 2020) – we at Strategic North have run over 60 virtual workshops   – we share our latest thinking on how to plan and run effective x-functional virtual workshops amidst the coronavirus outbreak and beyond. We present the benefits for pharma and healthcare brand teams and make it clear that, in our experience, virtual workshops are by no means a compromise.


What Makes a Successful Virtual Workshop?

In our experience ,the combination of 3 ingredients makes the secret sauce for delivering a successful virtual workshop. First begin with the end in mind, be clear on what is the one objective you must achieve as an output. Second the workshop must be designed to engage participants and stimulate thinking to best address the challenge at hand, bored attendees who are not listening don’t generate great solutions. There must also be experienced facilitation that supports the team in collectively moving through the process by challenging and stretching the thinking, in order to achieve the objectives of the workshop (exhibit 1). Ensure someone owns the facilitation and that they have experience of facilitating workshops. These three elements are crucial to the success of both face-to-face and virtual workshops, but the logistics of the virtual workshops means that developing clarity on the workshop objectives and design of workshop activities requires more dedicated and focussed time at the preparatory stage.


What Are the Steps to Planning and Running Effective Virtual Workshops? 

We have identified five steps (exhibit 2). Each is set out below:

1. Define the key objective or challenge of the workshop:

Defining the objective or the challenge you are trying to solve with the virtual workshop is crucial to its success. It avoids time spent focussing on the logistics and perceived limitations of virtual platforms because everyone understands the higher purpose. Start this process by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What must I/we be able to do as a result of this workshop?
  • What one thing must I/we come away from this workshop with?
  • What will the outputs of this workshop be?

This first step is crucial to the success of any workshop and will provide clarity to the next steps. The high level objective of most workshops falls into one or a combination of the five categories – Ideate, Discuss, Input, Align and Inform (exhibit 3). The optimum number of participants and number of virtual workshops sessions you will need depends on the objective of a workshop. For example, you will require multiple sessions and a small cross functional team if you are ideating a particular solution, whereas you can present a brand plan to a much larger audience in a single session.


2. Design each virtual workshop exercise with a clear goal:

When planning a virtual workshop, ensure that all exercises and frameworks genuinely aid the realising of your objective. Do not be afraid to break down these exercises over multiple sessions. Plan a variety of session styles and activities to engage different personality types, as not everyone learns or interacts in the same way. If you have a bigger group, then split participants into break-out groups; then regroup them for share back  sessions.

In terms of the technology, it is important to choose the right technology platform, based on the objective of the workshop and also what you are familiar with. A virtual workshop is not a place for novelty in technology. You will normally need two platforms: the primary platform for audio and video functionality with which participants are familiar and a choice of secondary platform (idea generation and capture platform) based on the objective of the workshop, enabling participants to engage but also helping you achieve the goals within the overall objective (exhibit 4).

In one of our recent Sprint workshops, Google Meet was the primary platform because the client team uses it internally, but we used a team collaboration platform called Klaxoon as a secondary platform for brainstorming sessions for its sticky note and polling functionality. Similarly, for one of our tactical planning workshops we used Zoom as a primary platform because it makes breakout rooms easy and Google Slides and Google Sheets as a secondary platform to enable multiple participants to work on the same document.

3. Develop the content:

Investing extra time in planning and developing the content and materials to be used before and during the workshop helps you deliver the virtual workshop effectively. Create the content that enables you to achieve the following:

  • Share short pre-read content with challenge questions to get the attendees thinking prior to the workshop
  • Develop draft content for the workshop exercises so that you are not starting from a blank canvas. This also provides the attendees a starting point or stimulus for their thinking process. This also helps the critical minded get started with “let me tell you what is wrong with this” just make sure to then ask them how they would make it right. Problem thinking without solution thinking is just lazy so make sure everyone is stretched to think of solutions.
  • Develop briefing slides with clear instructions covering the objective of the exercise and the process including time for the exercise and final output. Include screenshots or any codes on the slide of the secondary platform
  • Develop back-up energisers and exercises to respond to any topics that might come up during the workshops

4. Deliver the workshop:

  • Conduct a technical dress rehearsal prior to the workshop: Arrange a 1 to 2 hour kick-off call a couple of days before the workshop. Here you can share an overview of the objectives, the workshop approach and the agenda for the workshop. During this call invite participants to experiment with the technology platform – this enables any potential IT problems to be identified and addressed.
  • Have clear roles for facilitators and a running order: Creating an itinerary for facilitators establishes roles and responsibilities during the virtual workshop. As a guide, try to keep each session to a maximum of three hours with regular breaks scheduled in. More than three hours makes participant engagement hard to maintain. Breaks allow for a refresh in thinking and enable participants to move around.
  • Encourage participants to use video and ask them to mute themselves if they are not talking
  • Start the meeting with an energiser that enables the participants to warm-up but also helps them to practice using the secondary platforms.
  • Share the 4Ps of the meeting with the participants:
    • Person: Who will be facilitating the sessions?
    • Purpose: What is the purpose or objective of the meeting?
    • Process: What will be the process or agenda of the meeting? How long will each of the session of the meeting take?
    • Product: What do we expect to deliver at the end of the meeting?
  • Allow time for discussion and check people’s understanding: Pause during the sessions to check participants’ understanding. To avoid awkward silences, call out people’s names to start discussion.
  • Allow time for discussion and be flexible: Be prepared to be flexible with the agenda – when a particular issue needs more time, adapt the agenda to allow valuable discussion. However, if an issue arises that is high priority for one individual but is not generally relevant for the moment, use a ‘virtual car park’ to address the topic offline to avoid disruption.

5. Document the workshop outputs/feedback:

Write up a clear summary of the workshop sessions, key conclusions and actions. Remember if it doesn’t get captured it is like it never happened. If you are running multiple virtual sessions then the outputs from one session can be distilled/refined to build a strong foundation for the next session.

Collect feedback from participants after the event in order to keep improving. It is always beneficial to have feedback on the content and organisation of the workshop. This will help learn and improve for the future, but it also helps participants articulate their key learnings from the event.

If you are running multiple sessions – ask for a shorter feedback at the end of each virtual session and detailed retrospective on the full workshop at the last session.


In the ‘New Normal’ Post Covid Will We Only Have Virtual Workshops?

In the last few months, we have regularly been asked this question. Our response to that is “That depends!”. There will still be a place for face-to-face workshops where you will have x-functional teams coming together in one location for an important discussion. Workshops are not just about flying people to one location, but is also about networking, team building and those coffee break moments which can’t happen over a virtual workshop. In the “new normal” we expect there to be a mix of face to face and virtual workshops. A future in which we have become confident in discerning the right kind of workshop to meet particular needs and we appreciate the richness of interaction in face to face workshops as well as the speed and responsiveness of virtual workshops.


Here is just some of the feedback we have received from virtual workshops:

“THANK YOU for a brilliantly led workshop. I was nervous about the technology and the limited time we have in a virtual setting across time zones, but your brilliant prep and facilitation nailed it.”

“Continue to be impressed how quickly you switched from a planned F2F discussion in a Swiss mountain lodge to Virtual (Klaxoon)!”


To find out how our workshop experience could support your business goals, then please get in touch with or


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