Business as unusual: How to design and lead a remote co-creation workshop

Want to strengthen your team’s facilitation skills in a remote context? This article will show you the ins and outs of planning and leading a successful, remote co-creation workshop. Download our canvas with key points and takeaways right here.

Natalia Castán

The term 'co-creation' means several people building something new for a common purpose, with all participants taking an active role in the creative process. Co-creation is valuable in part because it brings in diverse viewpoints and experiences to achieve a relevant solution.

At Designit, we always co-create with our clients and users. We’re not a black box consultancy that picks up a challenge and comes back weeks later with a magical solution. As a global strategic design firm, we have years of experience collaborating with each other from afar and co-creating with our clients from 18 studios around the world.

As companies adjust to the demands of remote work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we’d like to share a guide on designing and leading a co-creation workshop remotely. This will be especially relevant for those struggling with how to advance their current projects, and for the many who have made the permanent shift to remote working.

These learnings will help you and your team members become silo-breakers within your organization. And remember: the more departments you involve in a co-creation workshop, the more reliable your solution will be.

1. Before the co-creation workshop

Define the purpose and objectives, and design the workshop

  • Why do you need to run a co-creation workshop? Common reasons include creating shared understanding, speeding up decision-making, and activating empathy with the end user or various stakeholders.
  • What are your objectives? Whether you aim to define the project constraints, identify common challenges, or ideate, have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with the workshop.
  • How will you design the flow to accomplish your goals? Carefully plan the activities according to your stated objectives, and ask yourself how each activity will help you achieve your goals.

You should ask yourself these questions for both in-person and remote co-creation workshops. However, you’ll achieve your goals differently in remote workshops. In short, leading co-creation workshops remotely requires more clarity in your objectives, so you can get straight to the point and avoid long conference calls.

Make the most of your time

A common mistake: let’s invite everyone
Remote setup can be seen as an opportunity to welcome everyone with the slightest interest in the project, but that’s a mistake. Select only the most relevant stakeholders for your workshop.

Reduce the number of objectives
Time perception during a remote session is not the same as in an in-person meeting; holding attention is more challenging. When you finish planning your workshop, reduce the time by half. And then halve it again. 😉

Familiarize participants with the tools
Factor in the time needed by participants to get familiar with the digital tools they’ll be using. And encourage them to contribute! The team will be more engaged, and it’s an excellent opportunity to have some fun.

At one of our North American studios, our clients encountered a virtual collaborative board for the first time. We introduced the tool and taught them what they’d need to do: drag and drop shapes. Before we started with the content, we asked them to move the shapes with their names from the left-hand side to the right-hand side as practice.

A quick exercise with instructions so participants could learn to use the tool.

This short activity sped up the rest of the workshop. You don’t need to teach the ins and outs of the whole platform, just the tool participants will use to collaborate. Digital tools are likely to be unfamiliar, so include time for demonstrating and time for getting practice.

Add more breaks
Co-creation workshops in a room can be intense, but over video they’re significantly harder. Adding in extra breaks helps break up the day and reduces people dropping in and out. If you’re planning a long remote workshop, build in time for everyone to get up, grab a coffee, go to the bathroom, etc. Just leave the video conference on during the break to allow for spontaneous conversation and avoid technical problems in reconnecting.

Another method is encouraging people to take breaks as they need them. Our team in Germany created an app, HeyCard, that helps people playfully communicate over video calls without interrupting the flow of conversation. It’s as simple as selecting a card — 'Coffee', 'Bio-Break', and more — and holding it up to your camera.

Break up long workshops into multiple smaller ones
Holding focus for a full-day workshop is challenging enough; it’s much more difficult over video. If the content and project planning allows for it, split the content into two sessions. In person, we usually share research findings, generate opportunities, and set priorities in one sitting — relaying blocks of content that help the decision-making process. However, this is too heavy for a remote workshop, so we split the sessions into two shorter, consecutive days.

Clearly define the roles

Before the co-creation workshop, clearly assign roles to team members. It’s necessary in remote sessions to make a more detailed role definition since multitasking is much more complicated.

The content owner is responsible for sharing knowledge with the audience, establishing common ground, and starting the work.

The facilitator gives the content owner a hand by timekeeping, detecting who wants to speak and prompting them to share, and asking for feedback. This facilitation helps the content owner focus.

The note-taker is the person dedicated to documenting the workshop, whether you’re taking and sharing notes in real time on a shared board or just for your own records.

The IT supporter assists participants with in any technical issues that arise (for example, by explaining how to mute or unmute, share the screen, or log in).

Remember, these are roles, not individuals. That means when the content owner is finished sharing, they can become the note-taker, and the note-taker can become the content owner. It’s a dance of functions depending on the situation — it’s teamwork.

It’s also key to identify role substitutes (especially for the content owner) to ensure the flow of the meeting despite any incidents. If the content owner loses connection or is interrupted by family, you don’t want to keep everyone waiting.


Test the tools and dynamics
Make sure to test the digital tools and dynamics of your workshop with some colleagues ahead of time (for example, the timing, the exercises, the clarity of the instructions, and the software participants need to install). You’ll always discover things to fix!

Plan the activities and their alternatives to minimize vanishing points
Design for the best-case scenario but prepare for the worst. In the best case, everyone can access the platforms they need, the audio and video work correctly, there are no bandwidth problems, and everyone can share screens, videos, and materials. But this isn’t always the case — for the entire session or for all participants.

Planning for different scenarios will help you stay in control. In the case of connection problems, do you have a phone number where participants can dial in? If you’re collecting feedback in a shared mural and someone can’t see it, how will you keep them informed? You may have to address certain problems in the moment, but you should have a plan for the most challenging scenarios.

2. During the co-creation workshop

State expectations and ground rules at the beginning of the workshop

Share your expectations for the content and logistics of your co-creation workshop. Explain your objectives, activities, and expected contribution. Also share the logistical details: the workshop length, timing of breaks, rules for participation, etc. Clearly stating and aligning on these small ground rules can make a big difference. (Revisit our tips for setting up your remote work-life for more.) Check out the cheeky way our New York studio did this for a recent workshop below.

Keep instructions visible

When guiding participants through the activities, some of them might get lost, so it’s good practice to keep the instructions visible during the exercise.

Be explicit about the time allotted for each activity

Staying on schedule with moments for discussion can be challenging! Be precise with the time available for each activity. You can use a visual or auditory timekeeper that’s visible to everyone.

Actively ask for participation

Invite questions at various moments, and leave space after every section or information dump for everyone to discuss and ask questions. Engage the less talkative participants to ensure you hear all voices. Make sure you recap what was said before jumping into a new topic.

Define the collaboration method

There are different types of participation, ranging from passive to active, and all are valuable. Choose your preferred collaboration method based on your workshop audience. The examples below are in order from less to more interaction from the participant’s point of view. You can use them separately or combine them.

  • Real-time visual note-taking: Use a shared board to document discussion as it happens. This shows participants that their thoughts are important and helps them make connections. Recently, at Designit London, a content owner and a visual note-taker did affinity mapping in real-time. This saved participants from using a new tool. What’s more, it kept them engaged and in conversation about how some aspects related to others.
  • Collaborative physical content generation: Sometimes people need moments alone to think with pen and paper. Building in time for reflection allows participants to take a much-needed break from the screen. At our Madrid studio, we presented a concept and then asked the audience to provide feedback on physical Post-it Notes. After a reflection moment, they shared photos of their Post-its. Toggling between a hands-on exercise and a digital one is a valuable way to capture real-time feedback. It also engages the participants through active participation.
  • Collaborative digital content generation: Use a shared board where everyone can add and share content. Check that everyone has access, demonstrate how to use the tool, give clear instructions, block the template shapes, and offer an alternative in case someone would rather not use the tool.

3. After the co-creation workshop

Ask for feedback

After the workshop concludes, ask for feedback on both the content and flow. You can do this in real time at the end of the session with a simple prompt (for example, asking participants to complete the sentences on Post-its: 'I liked…' 'I learned…” 'I wish…'). Or, you can send out a digital survey or make a phone call afterward. This feedback is valuable! You’ll know what to keep doing and what to change.

Activate the next touchpoint after the session

Don’t lose momentum! Keep your team engaged and the work going by meeting as soon as possible to share conclusions, decide next steps, and assign responsibilities.

Debrief with your team

Take time as a team to analyze the workshop. What went well? What can you improve for the next time? Don’t forget to celebrate wins! 🏆

Iterate for the next time

Turn feedback into action. If you identify something to change or you have a new idea, execute it as soon as possible during the next meeting and test it.

There’s no magic bullet for remote co-creation workshops. You should think about your objectives, your audience, and the content you’re working with to arrive at the best solutions. To help you remember what to consider, you can apply a service design mindset and think about what you need to do before, during, and after the session.

Consider what your participants need to know before the workshop to have everyone in place and ready, and plan everything in detail. Take the responsibility of facilitating and leading the session effectively so that the participants can focus on adding value in the content. And lastly, give continuity to the session and reflect on it.

This situation — in which everyone who is able is working remotely — is a real opportunity to flex our muscles as facilitators. It’s a vital role in this environment.

Tools, team member roles, technical hurdles.. we’ve covered a lot of ground! While all aspects of a remote workshop are crucial, it can be tricky to remember each step. That’s why we’ve created a short and sweet canvas to help you make the most out of every workshop. Download it (for free) here.