Making workshops work

a year ago   •   4 min read

By Penny Pullan
In the new world of work, which began with COVID lockdowns, creative collaboration is going to be absolutely key whether people work from office, home or in a hybrid version.  Author and virtual working expert Dr Penny Pullan provides some timely advice from her new book.


Without careful thinking about collaboration, it’s likely that meetings and workshops, especially hybrid ones, will be frustrating, unproductive and go on too long. In a hybrid environment, without thoughtful planning, people together in one place will be at an advantage and those far away will miss out on the dynamics and nuances of what’s happening in the room. This is an example of not having a level playing field. It’s a recipe for exclusion and the meeting is unlikely to be fun or effective.

How can you avoid this? Design your meetings and workshops carefully for collaboration and creativity upfront, whether all participants will be remote, hybrid or in person. Think carefully about each person’s environment, for instance. What tools will help you to work together well? Does everyone have the right level of expertise in those tools? Do you need to send out anything in advance, perhaps even physical things via post, to give everyone the same experience?

How will you level the playing field for remote joiners? Ideas for this include inviting everyone, wherever they are joining from, to join your session via remote technology such as Teams or Zoom. Other ideas include giving each remote participant an ‘in-room’ buddy to keep them updated and whom they can ask for help.

Now is a time to tap into every insight going. In addition to those from science, it’s great to learn from experience, both your own and from those who have been working in hybrid ways for decades, like me. A former international project manager, my work with hybrid teams started when, in 2001, an emergency that shut down international travel for months: that one was 9/11. I was due to spend a couple of weeks kicking off my first major international programme in New York, flying on 13th September 2001. Of course, there was no flight and I was grounded for months!

Like the global business community in March 2020, I had to get to grips with technology (although we had no video calls from laptops in those days – I relied on conference calls and email!) Over the decades, I have been very thankful for how far our technology has moved on since 2001, as I ran projects with hybrid teams scattered around the world. I even wrote a book about what I had learnt on virtual leadership[1], little knowing that it come into its own in 2020. Over the last year, I have pulled together my learning into a new book about making workshops work, whether in-person, virtual or hybrid. I draw on insights from neuroscience and psychology but also from experience of thousands of workshops, led by me or others. It’s called: ‘Making Workshops Work: Creative collaboration for our time.’

After exploring what makes people tick and how to deal with stress (in yourself and workshop participants), the book lays out through the steps for successful sessions:

  1. plan your workshop or meeting
  2. choose appropriate activities that will work for your participants, whether in-person, virtual or hybrid
  3. run the meeting in an engaging, effective and fun way, dealing with mishaps as you go (they will happen)
  4. ensure people do their actions, so your workshop delivers results.

Let’s take each one in turn, briefly. When planning your session, make sure that you have a clear purpose, which is a high-level view of what you’re going to be doing. An example might be to agree the strategy for setting sales targets for the next year. It needs to be high level enough that it answers the question: ‘What’s the point of this meeting?’ Make sure that you have the right people, with the skills that you need during the session to come up with ideas, make good decisions and actually get things done!

Often, when confronted with reality, plans need to change, so I tend to go into workshops with my plan A, but also plan B (and sometimes even plan Z up my sleeve!)

Design a step-by-step process to take your group from the beginning of the session to the end, where you have met your purpose, with agreed actions agreed plus a way of following them up. Activities will depend on what you’re trying to achieve and who will be there.

These will range from starting up, to generating and exploring ideas, analysing and evaluating those ideas, followed by problem-solving, making decisions and coming to agreement. As you go along, you’re likely to need to share information and finally close well. There is no point having a plan that is set in stone. Often, when confronted with reality, plans need to change, so I tend to go into workshops with my plan A, but also plan B (and sometimes even plan Z up my sleeve!)

Run the meeting in an interactive way, with the level playing field we spoke about earlier. Start by being clear on these statements, which I call my Magic 6TM:

  • We are here to… (the purpose)
  • Today we will… (the objectives)
  • Our plan… (your time plan)
  • Who’s doing what… (roles and who plays them)
  • How we work together… (rules for the session)
  • What happens next… (actions)

Be ready for mishaps and keep focused on the needs of your participants, rather than keeping a spotlight on yourself as workshop leader.

Finish by making sure that there is a plan in place to ensure everyone will do their actions, with effective follow up.

All the best for your in-person, hybrid and virtual workshops!


Dr Penny Pullan

Penny’s new book ‘Making Workshops Work: Creative collaboration for our time’ is published by PIP at and other booksellers. Price £19.99.


[1] ‘Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams” (Kogan Page, 2016)

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