Best practices for design thinking with remote teams

  • Business Model Innovation
  • Design Thinking
  • Design your Strategy

In the age of a global workforce and pressures to do more with less budget, leaders often find themselves in a quandary: how do we bring the team together to co-create products, services, strategies, etc.? Do we go with option #1 – face to face and all of the positive goodwill created by bringing people physically together…knowing there’s a hefty price tag that includes airfare and hotels? Or do we go with option #2, where we might sacrifice some quality by forcing the team to meet online? This is a difficult question to answer, especially when you want to leverage design thinking, wherein the team will be working with post-its and small break-out teams.

You don’t have to sacrifice quality with virtual (remote) online sessions. In fact, you may even achieve a better outcome than an in-person workshop if you follow these three tips and tricks: Design the Mood, Find the Magic in the “Room”, and Create Momentum.

Design the mood

Think about walking into your favorite restaurant. What are some familiar surroundings that put you at ease? What are the elements that make you feel comfortable and signal that you are about to have a great meal? Ok, ok, you may be thinking “logging into an online meeting is NOT at all close to the ambiance of my favorite restaurant!”. But why not? The restaurant experience was designed for you…down to the flooring, lighting, and spoons. Your virtual meeting must have the same thoughtfulness applied.

I love to kick things off by having a starter question on the screen as people log on. “What’s your favorite place to vacation?” or “What’s one thing that surprised you about topic X since we last met?” These kinds of questions reward those who arrive on-time to the meeting and establishes small talk for the group – either “get-to-know-you” type chatter or reflections related to the topic at hand.

Planning the moments of interactions is another way I design the mood. A best practice is to break-up any sort of presentation every 10 minutes with a question, task, or way to engage the group in some way. We all have been part of the snooze-fest webinars where the presenter drones on and you switched to shopping on Amazon or checking your email. By designing interaction points frequently, you’ll jolt people into actively engaging and prompting them to share their opinion.

Find the magic in the “room”

One of the best things about in-person meetings is the energy created in the room. You have the colorful, handwritten flipcharts posted on the wall showing the agenda as well as visually documenting outputs from the steps along the way. As a facilitator leading an online session, you’ll have to seek out ways to generate that same energy and capture it.

One Pro Tip –  I write out the agenda flipchart by hand and then embed into the slides of the presentation. I always ask myself, “How can I create the same feeling as if we were in the room?”

Another key difference between in-person design thinking sessions and virtual ones is the number of visual signposts available to direct people’s attention toward. In person, you have your floor plan of how the space will be used and where to place flipcharts showing each phase of the process. Online, you’ll have to get more creative on how you recap those key moments and visualize them for participants. A few of my favorite virtual tools to visualize the work live are and Realtime Board or depending on the tasks, even Google Documents.

Create momentum

A key advantage of online is that you maximize time by streamlining delivery of content. In one recent example, we planned out what needed to be covered in the live online content, what participants could do as homework in small groups with coaching feedback offline, and what specific outcomes needed to be produced at the end of the online session. In doing so, the time online became a strategic way to share back across the whole team and engage the group for their input. The rhythm of the work has shifted to reporting back the homework, discussing, and then previewing the next concept to be tackled by the small group. This is a very Agile approach!

Another Pro tip for creating momentum is to bring participants back to where they are in the process. For an in-person session, the checkpoint (courtesy of Leadership Strategies) is important, but all the more crucial in a virtual environment. When sessions are broken out over time, participants need to be walked through the process and outputs they’ve created. As a facilitator, you are creating momentum and urgency for each step by reviewing outputs completed, previewing what comes next, and how it connects to the overall big picture for the project. Not only do participants understand what needs to be accomplished and why, but they also have a virtual visual that mirrors what the room would look like if you were leading an in-person session.

At the end of the day, there are plenty of other tips, tricks, and best practices for facilitating remote collaboration. Some of the keys to doing this well are designing the mood, finding magic in the room, and creating momentum…while also being flexible and learning from the process (and the team).

At Business Models Inc we help organizations of all shapes and sizes design better businesses. We are experts in co-creating innovative business models and strategies for the future.


Speaking about the future, we’re already thinking about how extended reality will influence the future of work and how that work happens in remote teams. Imagine all the best practices noted above but taken to the next level… For instance, a geographically dispersed team is working on a live virtual whiteboard where post-its added in one location are automatically digitized and seamlessly added to the conversation (yes, we’re imagining something like Minority Report on strategy steroids). Or a sketched prototype comes to life in 3D as a customer holds it and interacts while the ideation team peppers them with questions. Maybe even your virtual facilitator will take the group on a virtual gallery walk within the virtual conference room demonstrating the strategic conversations and pivot points the group encountered all while following along with personalized VR headsets. Crazy? Maybe not actually that far off… How prepared are you for this rapidly changing and ever competitive future?

If you’ve got a geographically dispersed remote team and need to build strategies, products or services virtually, let’s talk.



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