Virtual brainstorming: 7 tips for better remote ideation

Written by 
David Young
September 15, 2023
A man working on a computer from home.
Virtual brainstorming: 7 tips for better remote ideation
Written by 
David Young
September 15, 2023

By now, most organizations are well-versed in running hybrid meetings, conducting virtual trainings and check-ins, and holding remote training sessions. They may have even mastered the virtual work session as well. 

So, why are so many companies still trying to hold their virtual brainstorming sessions like everyone is sitting in the same room? 

Virtual meetings of all types, whether they are fully remote, hybrid, or asynchronous, require a different approach from meetings held in person — and this is especially true for brainstorming ideas. It’s time to learn how to organize and run a virtual brainstorming session everyone will want to participate in.

What is virtual brainstorming?

A virtual brainstorm is a collaborative meeting between two or more people in different locations who are trying to come up with new ideas, solve a problem, or otherwise think creatively. 

While virtual brainstorming is available to anyone, it is especially useful for remote teams since it enables people to work together despite being physically separated. It can also be an effective way to involve stakeholders who may not be able to physically attend in-person meetings, such as clients or experts who are located in different parts of the world.

Virtual brainstorming vs regular brainstorming: How is virtual different?

Although the purpose of a virtual brainstorm is the same as an in-person brainstorm — to generate new ideas — the key difference is how this is done. Instead of sitting around a table together, team members can use a range of tools to connect, communicate, and collaborate. These may involve video conferencing software, online whiteboards, instant messaging tools, and more.

Because discussion occurs virtually and is augmented by these collaborative tools, virtual brainstorming does not involve the same level of face-to-face interaction as a regular brainstorming session. This can have an affect on the dynamics of the meeting — both positively and negatively. For instance, some participants may have a more difficult time following the thread of conversation, while others may be more likely to share ideas than they would otherwise. 

Knowing how to adapt to these unique dynamics in order to ensure everyone is actively engaged is vital for any organization that plans to run a brainstorming session for hybrid or remote teams.

Benefits of virtual brainstorming

Although it is sometimes done out of necessity, virtual brainstorming comes with plenty of merits all on its own. Here are some reasons why you may want to consider holding your next brainstorm from afar:

  • Distributed teams can share ideas. Regardless of location or time zone, virtual brainstorming lets teams collaborate from anywhere. This can help introduce new and useful perspectives to your brainstorming sessions. 
  • They enable much more flexibility. Remote brainstorming can also be done asynchronously if necessary, allowing participants to share ideas at any time. 
  • Diverse perspectives get prioritized. By making it easier to contribute when and how they want, group brainstorming can help bring in a broader range of perspectives. For instance, introverts or entry-level employees may be more likely to contribute.
  • They protect against groupthink. Since virtual brainstorming is conducted in a shared digital space, teams can leverage individual brainstorming to avoid “piggybacking” and duplicate.
  • Collaboration can be easier. Without the need to work around different schedules, virtual brainstorming can help streamline collaboration. This will make it more efficient to collect ideas from across your virtual teams.
  • They encourage innovation through tools. Unlike in-person sessions, virtual brainstorming is often organized around digital tools, such as virtual whiteboards and other collaborative software, that can help encourage creative and critical thinking.

7 best practices for virtual brainstorming sessions

Moving from in-person to virtual brainstorming sessions can take a little getting used to. Participants may not feel as comfortable speaking up and sharing their thoughts at first, or it may be harder to keep track of everyone’s ideas. Don’t expect to get everything right the first time — it can take practice. But to help out, here are a few tips you should keep in mind.

1. Choose between synchronous and asynchronous brainstorming

Should this brainstorming session be a call, or is it better to do it asynchronously? 

There’s no correct answer. You’ll likely be switching between synchronous and asynchronous approaches from case to case.

Asynchronous brainstorming is more effective when: 

  • Teams are located in different time zones.
  • Many people are involved in the brainstorming process.
  • Participants need time to generate more complex solutions.

Meanwhile, synchronous brainstorming is great for:

  • Small teams.
  • Fostering team spirit.
  • Collectively generating a wide range of ideas in a shorter time frame.

2. Define the scope of your brainstorming session

You’ll define the scope of your remote brainstorming session much the same way you would for a traditional brainstorming session

  • Set a goal. Determine what you aim to achieve through the brainstorming session. Are you seeking new ideas, solutions to a specific challenge, or creative approaches to a project? Clearly communicate these goals to participants, so they understand the purpose and can contribute effectively.
  • Define the rules. Establish guidelines for time allocation and remind participants of the key communication principles to ensure a productive and respectful environment.
  • Share the agenda and materials in advance. Send the agenda, any relevant background materials, and instructions to participants before the session.
  • Communicate any pre-existing ideas or prior research. If there are any ideas, concepts, or research relevant to the brainstorming session, share them with participants in advance.

3. Designate a facilitator to help the virtual brainstorming meeting run smoothly

Brainstorming sessions can sometimes feel like free-for-alls. And in a sense, they should. You want everyone to feel free and uninhibited to share their ideas. You never know when one of them will be gold.

But during an online brainstorming session, where there are fewer physical cues to rely on, a lack of structure can quickly turn into a lack of engagement. To prevent this, try assigning someone to be a facilitator so that they can keep the session moving forward.

There are several ways a facilitator can help do this. For instance, they can put together an agenda beforehand and share it with the participants to help them prepare ahead of time. This will make it more likely for everyone to come to the session ready to share ideas. 

Once the session is underway, the facilitator can also take charge of keeping everyone on track. This may involve making sure each activity doesn’t run over time or reminding everyone to stay on topic. The facilitator could help provide everyone with a visual cue by taking notes or organizing the whiteboard as well.

Remember: The facilitator’s goal should be to enable each participant to focus on the task at-hand to come up with as many ideas as possible.

4. Kick off the session with an icebreaker

Icebreakers can be a good idea anytime you get a group of people together — but they can be especially useful for virtual brainstorms. We’ve all been there. This is when people may be reluctant to speak up, tempted to instead hide in the grid of Zoom faces. A good icebreaker will not only pull them out, but make them want to participate in.

There are plenty to choose from. A nice thing about virtual meetings is that you can augment these icebreakers with tools, games, polls, or other visuals to make them more interesting. For example, you could ask everyone to pinpoint the city or town where they live on a map of the world, then describe something they love about it. Or you could run an anonymous vote to find out who everyone’s celebrity lookalike is. 

Whatever you do, the point of the icebreaker should be to give everyone an entertaining activity to help them get to know each other and start collaborating. This way, they’ll be primed to start ideating and thinking creatively afterwards.

5. Use a tool built for virtual brainstorming and ideation

Virtual brainstorms are a great opportunity to break out of your usual brainstorming habits. You’re not sitting around a table together, all stuck in the same room. Instead, everything is digital, which means you can take full advantage of tools designed for remote ideation.

These can range from familiar tools like Google Docs to more specialized workplace communication tools like Microsoft Teams for video calls. However, when it comes to sheer flexibility and power, there’s nothing that can beat a good whiteboard. Consider the features that Mural can offer your next virtual brainstorming session:

  • Add in sticky notes, images, and even gifs in real-time to boost productivity and engagement.
  • Integrate Mural with other common video conference tools, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
  • Maintain trust and gain more valuable input using anonymous voting and privacy mode features.
  • Ideate and create workflows without limits with access to an infinite canvas and advanced mapping capabilities.
Learn why hybrid collaboration is harder than you think.

6. Use templates to structure the online brainstorming effectively and easily 

Sometimes a blank canvas is all you need to get your best ideas out. Other times, it can help to have a little more of a prompt. If you’re taking advantage of virtual brainstorming tools, then you can get those creative juices flowing fast by utilizing pre-built templates.

Think of these as shortcuts you can use to prompt participants into action, help them prioritize different ideas, or otherwise help them start thinking about a problem in a new way. Mural offers a variety of templates you can use to make your next brainstorming session much more efficient. Here are a few of our favorite brainstorming techniques:

  • Conducting a brainstorm: This general, all-purpose template is a great place to start any new project. By cleanly organizing the session into a series of steps, it will help you ask the right questions so you can hit the ground running.
  • 6-3-5 brainwriting: This template prompts six users to each develop three ideas within a span of five minutes. Run over six rounds, it is an easy way to develop a ton of ideas in a short amount of time. Learn how to run a brainwriting session.
  • Mind map: Create a diagram that allows you to visually track, organize, and structure your thoughts and ideas. Once you’re through, you’ll be able to easily see how all your ideas branch out of and relate to one another.
  • Round robin: Use the design thinking methodology to collaboratively build upon other team members’ ideas and co-create solutions to a problem or new product.
  • Reverse brainstorming: instead of focusing on how to solve the problem, participants brainstorm ideas on how to create or exacerbate the problem. By flipping the perspective, this technique stimulates unconventional thinking and helps uncover unique solutions.
Get more ideas in our list of brainstorming techniques for coming up with new ideas.

7. Follow up afterward with action items and next steps

Once you’ve run your virtual session and filled out your template with everyone’s contributions, it’s time to translate these ideas into actions. However, because a virtual session lacks a physical component, it may feel easy for everyone to simply log off and forget their hard work. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to prevent this.

A good place to start is by sending out a recording of the session, alongside any notes you took. This way, people can reference and revisit specific moments as they see fit. Even better, if you’re using a digital whiteboard tool, you can encourage participants to continue contributing and sharing ideas asynchronously. Ask everyone to reflect on the meeting for 24 hours, then add in one or two more ideas to round out the discussion. You may be surprised by how many you receive.

And if there are clear action items that need to be taken, don’t hesitate to assign those out in a project management tool. Eliminate any ambiguity by making sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do next. After all, the whole point of a brainstorming session isn’t just for idea generation — but also to put ideas to good use.

Run better virtual and remote brainstorms with Mural

Don’t think of a virtual brainstorming session as a regular in-person session with a few extra cameras. They can be so much more. Done right, they will offer a host of benefits, from greater inclusivity and teamwork to improved problem-solving and decision-making. However, realizing these benefits means taking advantage of different tools and techniques to make everyone feel comfortable and creative.

Whether you just want a blank (but infinite) canvas to make your mark or require a more focused and templated approach, Mural has the features you need in an online brainstorming tool to keep everyone engaged. 

Check out Mural's library of templates or jump into your own workspace to start unlocking your ideas.

About the authors

About the authors

David Young

David Young

Contributing Writer
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.