The idea of pre-work has existed long before we had a catchy name for it. Think of the list of books your school would give you to read over the summer. While we all had different relationships with summer reading, the idea behind it was right: Schools wanted you to be prepared for what lay ahead.
What is pre-work?
Pre-work is the discovery work that comes before a workshop or meeting. This is often assigned work that precedes a workshop, training session, or meeting. Pre-work can come in the form of pre-assigned reading, videos participants should watch, or a quick activity to complete beforehand.
Before you go into a job interview, you (hopefully) research the industry, the organization, and the position to which you’re applying. Why? You want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into; you want to be speaking the same language as your interviewer.
Facilitators assign pre-work for the same reasons. If you allow your team an opportunity to learn something and respond to that learning before the session, it helps ensure that people arrive prepared and connected to the topic at hand.
Put simply, a team that's in the habit of completing pre-work makes the best use of their time together.
Benefits of pre-work
Increases the value of the meeting
We all have enough meetings without a clear agenda or outcome. Including pre-work demonstrates a mutual respect for everyone's time so the meeeting isn't just a routine status update or unstructured open time to talk about what you did over the weekend. Pre-work requires that you have a clear schedule and intended outcome planned for the meeting.
Prevents disengaged participants
Pre-work helps all participants join the meeting on equal footing and ensures everyone has enough background information to meaningfully participate.
This helps save time by removing the first 5-10 minutes of a meeting that it takes to explain the background context. This keeps your participants from tuning out, and makes it easier to jump into the main action of the meeting.
Sets expectations for the meeting outcomes
Even if you don't include an agenda (although you should), pre-work helps participants use the context of the assigned action items infer the purpose and intended outcomes of the upcoming meeting. While you should always plan out an agenda, pre-work helps participants come to the workshop or meeting with the main topics fresh in their minds.
Imagine that your session is dedicated to an experience mapping exercise. Your pre-work deliverable could be each person's top three learnings from customer research findings. These learnings then get clustered into themes that the facilitator uses to kick off the first section of the meeting:
"Many of you were surprised that our users did not know where to find the link to our Help Center. Let's go through the current steps that customers take to find it. Then, we'll identify areas of opportunity."
A pre-work checklist for facilitators
There are a few steps facilitators can take to set their teams up for success, whether they’re planning to come together in person or remotely. We recommend including these things in your pre-work:
Set the purpose for the meeting and intended outcomes
Add links to any software/tools they’ll need to download or sign up for in advance
Provide clear instructions for what they’re supposed to complete
Include the due date, or “by when”—do they have up until the minute before the session to do it? Or does it have to be done 24 hours in advance?
Provide gentle reminders—Every couple of days, remind your team of the importance of your pre-work. Don’t be afraid to thank those by name who have done what they needed to do (to motivate those who haven’t).
Try these pre-work templates to help you create better workshops and make it easy for your participants to include any research or deliverables from their pre-work.
Included below are two templates: one for designing impactful pre-work for your participants and another for them to add in any deliverables or learnings from the assignment.
The pre-work basics template
The pre-work basics template is great for facilitators new to assigning pre-work. This template walks you through the steps of how you can design and assign impactful pre-work, engage with participants, and run an effective meeting session.
The Mural pre-work template
This pre-work template provides a space for participants to add any pre-work deliverables into a shared space to be discussed during the working session. This template is great for workshops that involve some extra, hands-on preparation for everyone in the workshop.
Be sure to follow up with participants before the meeting so they don’t forget to add their resources!
Use pre-work to set up engaging, impactful workshops
Pre-work allows you to hold efficient, collaborative, and personalized sessions with your team. Participants feel they’ve used their time wisely, and they’ll have learned about or improved a subject or skill that directly impacts their work. As pre-work becomes a part of your culture, teammates will show up ready to dive right in—generating trust, confidence, and alignment amongst the team.