We are lucky to live in a time where we can enjoy the benefits of remote work and most companies make it possible for you to do your job from elsewhere for at least one day a week. Of course, certain tasks are easier to perform outside the comfort of your office walls than others, but remote work doesn’t need to be dismissed just because of your line of profession.
As a Design Strategist, a lot of your time is spent in workshops: big ones, small ones, internal ones, client ones and the list goes on… For a long time remote workshops were consequently rejected, but nowadays they are becoming more and more common. Although we still prefer running workshops in person, the more international our teams and our clients become, the more important it is for us to be able to facilitate online workshops and get the same, or even better results.
As a global team at Goodpatch, we’re used to working with each other remotely and have weekly meetings and sharing sessions online. Recently we did an internal workshop for our event series Product Crunch — and without batting an eyelid — we seamlessly hooked up sound, audio and logged into our online collaboration tools. The workshop and the results turned out to be great, I’d even go as far to say we actually got more done in less time! On top of all that, as soon as we wanted to onboard someone new onto the project we just shared the link to the online canvas and they received all the workshop information at the click of a button. Slowly, but surely we’re also getting our clients to jump on the remote workshop bandwagon and join in the virtual experience.
Here are some of our tips and tricks to make remote workshops seamless, fun and effective:
Doing a remote workshop is more than turning your skype camera around to face a blurry whiteboard. There is a myriad of tools out there just waiting to be used and once you get the hang of them, you’ll forget what you ever did before. We’re big fans of realtimeboard, which has almost replaced analogue whiteboards around here. The first major benefit is that having typed post-its means less trouble reading messy handwriting and your collaboration output is instantly digitized. Mural and whimsical are great online whiteboard alternatives and once you need clearer frameworks like user journeys and mapped out experiences they offer quite a few templates that are easy to fill with information. No more drawing squiggly lines and running out of space, the clean templates are easy to fill with digital post-its and quick to adjust at later stages.
Our motto here is: “prepare twice, facilitate once”, as you need to be a tad more prepared for an online workshop. For our on-site sprints we like to keep liquid agendas, but in a remote setting, it helps to stick to a clear structure, follow through on it and keep yourself in check with timeboxing. Send the plan out to everyone before you meet, so they know what to expect and how much time is allocated to each activity.
In a remote setting, you need to be very attentive, as people tend to get tired quickly (we all know how easy it is to drift off into the world wide web if you’re not fully occupied). So, keep your exercises very focused for a specific time and have shorter, but more frequent breaks in between than you would in-person.
To really maximise the time you have, it is best to get also your participants to prepare as much as possible before the session. You can send out slides or interview transcripts beforehand so you don’t have to read through it together. Also, you can easily get them to fill out an online template for an exercise like a “how, why what” canvas or a user journey map, that they can already place on your collaboration tool. Another benefit of doing an online workshop is you can keep your files in that one place. You can dedicate a space on your virtual canvas with all the prep work and if anyone needs to check anything up along the way all they need to do is scroll up and don’t need to dive into a folder of post-it photos that all look the same.
As the facilitator, your role is very important in a remote workshop. You not only have to navigate the waters of not being able to read social cues and nonverbal communication, but you also have to make sure your tech setup works and additionally make sure everyone gets the chance to speak up.
The one thing harder than facilitating a remote team is a mixed team of remotees and people on-site. If you can, try levelling out the playing field and get everyone to participate remotely. You can split up into different rooms in the office for example. Just like in a “normal” workshop, make sure everyone gets the chance to talk. Remotely it helps to say people’s names more and actively give them permission to talk. Luckily in an online setting, it is very obvious if the loud participants cut people off, they’ll do it once or twice at the beginning, but once you establish the ground rules it is blatantly clear if one person takes over the mic, which makes it easier to give everyone some spotlight. If all else fails, the mute option can keep the noisy ones at bay.
There is no need to throw everything you know about facilitating overboard just because the session is remote. Use the methods you feel comfortable with and tweak them to make them work for “remoteness”. During your prep-phase run through each activity and adapt the task to a remote team and setting. For example, an icebreaker could be the sharing of pre-created moodboards or a childhood picture for an introduction session. It also makes sense to use the icebreaker as a way to onboard everyone to the tools. By making a moodboard of who they are, the participants can work with the online tool in a low-pressure situation before the workshop and get the hang of it.
Any tasks that involve the “together alone” working style are great. You as a facilitator present the exercise, everyone gets time to work on their solution and each participant presents their idea before you move on to collaborating as a group. We feel this actually works better with remote teams as you present the challenge and then literally put the discussion on mute, which allows everyone to concentrate and focus on their ideas. With an online canvas, everyone can collect their work during the alone time and make it digitally accessible when it needs to be presented. Even “dot voting” is easier remotely, as you can quickly give points and there is no chance of them falling off the paper and skewing the results.
In a nutshell, our four tips for running a killer online workshop are: find and use the right tools, prepare as much as you can beforehand, be a new and improved kind of facilitator and redefine and tweak the methods your already use.
Instead of comparing in-person workshops to remote workshops it’s best to see them as their own unique workshop format. There might even be instances where you’d actually prefer an online workshop. For example, Jake Knapp’s Three Hour Brand Sprint works great with a remote team or anything that involves a mix of alone work, communal brainstorming and sharing of input. There are many great tools out there for online collaboration and even more, being worked on as we speak. Keep your eyes and ears open for new apps, tools and platforms that not only make remote work easier — but better! We’re always on the lookout for new tools so shoot us a message if you find one that you’d recommend.
*Illustrations by Aneliya Kyurkchiyska*
Monica Ray Scott
Monica Ray Scott