What we learned from pivoting to virtual prototyping workshops

What we learned from pivoting to virtual prototyping workshops

From virtual forest bathing to digital makerspaces — designing an effective virtual prototyping workshop takes creativity and flexibility. Here are the principles that guided us during the pandemic.
What we learned from pivoting to virtual prototyping workshops
Jessica Thornton
July 21, 2021
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When we originally conceived of Employment in 2030 Action Labs, the plan was to work with partners across Canada to deliver a series of prototyping workshops to translate labour market information into practical solutions. Drawing from the format of a design sprint, our plan was to deliver these workshops over the course of one day, in person.

But, like everything else, this plan had to shift due to COVID-19. 

We tried to look on the upside: remote delivery would mean less travel and therefore less environmental impact and stress on our families. But it also meant a host of new challenges that we as facilitators had never had to tackle in the past. 

Knowing that we weren’t the only ones facing this new predicament of translating in-person workshops to virtual ones, we researched emerging best practices and talked to partners about the most promising approaches they’d seen so far. Based on this, we identified a series of design principles that would guide our workshop. These included:

Reduce, reduce, reduce

Given Zoom fatigue, childcare responsibilities, and a host of other distractions related to working from home, we knew right off the bat that we couldn’t ask participants to attend a full-day virtual session. So we decided to break up the agenda into multiple days. Since participants would need to attend all sessions, we decided to keep it to two, delivered a week apart, with engagement between sessions. We also developed a pre-package that would mean we could skip some of the usual introductory activities. This meant we were asking participants to commit to a total of six hours instead of eight. We tried to reduce activities further, but determined that this was the most we could simplify without compromising the overall approach and impact of the workshop.

Workshop 1 Agenda 

3 hours

Welcome + Land Acknowledgement

Meet Your Group

Session Overview Activity #1: Miro Orientation + Design Warm-up

Activity #2: Understanding the challenge

Activity #3: Identifying Must Haves


Workshop 2 Agenda 

2 hours

Welcome + Land Acknowledgement 

Workshop 1 Recap

Activity #1: Future-proofing ideas 

Activity #2: Storyboarding 

Activity #3: Solution makerspace

Activity #4: Solution implementation notes 

Check-out + next steps


Make it simple, make it multimodal

With a streamlined agenda, we set out to refine our facilitation approach to ensure participants would be able to follow the process while they joined us on Zoom. We opted to use the virtual whiteboard program Miro to lay out a step-by-step process. This meant we’d have to onboard participants to a new platform, but it also meant we’d be able to use visual cues to advance the workshop. For each activity we provided verbal instructions, written instructions, and worksheets to help participants complete the activities. We used a mix of individual, small group, and larger group formats to foster deep engagement. 

Check-out our Miro boards, and feel free to replicate our design:

Pre-workshop board | Workshop 1 | Workshop 2


A screenshot of an Action Labs Miro board


Working closely with our partners at Radius SFU, we incorporated a JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) approach to our workshop design. This included setting a series of community commitments and expectations at the beginning of the workshop to ensure each participant understood and was committed to creating an environment of respect. This was particularly important given our process intentionally engaged a diversity of participants, including “users” with lived experience related to the challenge area. This also resulted in an overall shift in the language we used, avoiding suggestions that the challenges these workshops sought to address would be “solved” and that a “solution” was not necessarily the workshop goal or a required contribution of participants.   

Foster creativity and wild ideas

Early in our workshop testing, we received feedback that our approach was not doing enough to provoke innovative thinking. To address this, we incorporated two futures thinking exercises that had proven to be successful in past Employment in 2030 workshop activities. The first exercise incorporated an experiential future into the workshop before commencing a brainstorming exercise. An experiential future is a way to experience what a future may look and feel like, essentially bringing a possible future to life in the present. In this case, we immersed participants into a possible 2030 scenario that required them to participate in a mandatory corporate mindfulness activity — virtual forest bathing. We used this activity to provoke creative thinking as we started a series of brainstorming exercises. 

The second futures exercise we incorporated was used as a refinement exercise during the second workshop, before participants started testing their ideas through the development of prototypes. We asked participants to consider a range of future trends, drawing from our report Yesterday’s Gone. They were then asked to imagine how their solution ideas would need to evolve or be refined based on these possible changes. 

Participants responded very positively to both exercises, which we feel contributed to the overall success of the workshops.

Five things we learned:


  1. Testing is useful, but imperfect. We tested the workshop half a dozen times and each run-through yielded different results. Activities that were smooth during the first test were rocky during the second. Every time we thought we’d fixed a process bug, a new one presented itself. At a certain point, we realized the variable was the participants, not our process, and we’d have to trust our skills as facilitators to adapt on the fly as necessary.
  2. Define participant roles. Given how quick each workshop activity was, we found it helpful to ask teams to define their roles. This means each group had an author (responsible for documenting ideas on Miro), a manager (responsible for monitoring the time), a provocateur (responsible for pushing the group to think bolder), and an artist (responsible for thinking about ways to make the conversation visual using advanced Miro functions). Not only did this help each group member understand what was expected of them, it also meant those who were less comfortable using Miro could opt for a role that did not require active use of the platform. 
  3. Focus on outcomes, not the steps to get there. For some workshop participants, the technology platform (Miro) was a significant challenge. Using this tool was meant to support facilitation, not be the task in and of itself. As facilitators, we had to be prepared to tell participants to ignore the technology when it was creating a barrier, despite how much effort had gone into creating an engaging Miro environment. In the end, fully populated Miro boards was not the goal, the discussion and generation of innovative ideas was. 
  4. Bring the energy, anyway you can. One of the biggest challenges of virtual facilitation is that your energy feels at times like it is being lost in a void. The reaction you get from participants is simply not the same as in-person workshops, making it challenging to know how things are landing. To counterbalance this, we looked for ways to bring energy. We developed an upbeat intro video that we kicked each workshop off with. We established a norm of using “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” after instructions to make sure participants were following along. We looked for as many ways as possible to bring high energy to the workshop, and to maintain it all the way through.
  5. Creativity requires an inclusive digital environment. Creating a truly inclusive environment in a virtual setting is a challenge, but one that absolutely must be addressed to ensure a successful workshop. Understanding the unequal power dynamics at our workshops as a result of inviting a diversity of participants (example: one workshop engaged high school students, human resource professionals, and tech entrepreneurs), we made every effort to create an environment where everyone felt comfortable contributing. We provided honorariums for those who would otherwise be unable to attend, engaged participants in advance to inform our design, provided pre-workshop materials and practice space, and we were clear about expectations. There is likely even more that we could have done, but we were delighted to receive feedback that 100% of participants felt comfortable contributing.

As vaccination rates climb and social distancing restrictions start to ease across Canada, we’re looking forward to returning to in-person workshop delivery. Virtual delivery of this project has been a rewarding yet challenging experience, and one we’re infinitely thankful to our amazing partners and workshop participants for their support, contributions, and dedication. We look forward to sharing the outcome of these workshops through a final report later this year — stay tuned!

Employment 2030 Action Lab workshops were designed and facilitated by Michelle Park, Heather Russek and Jessica Thornton.

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.