Blog Strategy

A Field Guide to Remote Workshops

man sitting on chair having a remote conference

Jason Rome

  • Reading Time  Min Read
  • Publish Date March 21, 2020

The switch to remote work has led to many of our partners asking about best practices for facilitating a remote workshop. We’ve been working with distributed teams on virtual workshops for years, but this current situation creates unique challenges beyond the normal virtual workshop.

A virtual workshop still likely has people in office environments, potentially with telepresence, on corporate WiFi in a controlled environment. Remote workshops, with all participants at home with their entire families, introduce a new set of considerations. We’ve not only lost catering, but likely have to make lunch for our children. Our home networks are competing against Netflix and Fortnite. Your six-year old wants to tell you a story that is somehow longer than the event itself. Dogs want to let you know about the impending squirrel invasion. Lastly, we’re all worried about our health and economic futures.

We need to respect these limitations and work within them, instead of pushing through them. Let’s look at what normally makes a workshop great and see what we can keep, what we pivot on and what we need to drop. We’ll look at Problem Identification, Ground Rules, Culture/Attitude, Environment, Agenda/Timing, Preparation, Participation and Wrap-Up.

Why Remote Workshops

Workshops are a great way to collaborate across cross-functional teams; to prioritize important problems, ideate, develop solutions and plan for how to test the inherent assumptions in the solutions. We’ve all been in the workshop that doesn’t have a well-defined problem, overlaps existing initiatives, is missing participation or where nobody has the bandwidth to act on ideas. Normally, these workshops are an inconvenience, but now they’re a non-starter. The ask for someone’s time is much higher with everything else our teams are balancing.

The first key to facilitating a remote workshop is in being judicious in picking the right problem.

Pick something that doesn’t have an obvious solution. Pick something that requires cross-functional experience. Pick a problem that has been researched enough to have a well-defined problem statement.

These other recommendations will help make a remote workshop easier, but it will still be challenging:

  • Don’t schedule a workshop because it’s what you would have done before. Schedule one because you have a defined problem worth solving that will be a good use of people’s time.
  • If there are no-brainer solutions to your problem already, just do it. Now is not the time to wield workshops as a political tool for overcoming silos. Companies need quick cross-functional action, not bureaucratic territorialism.

Remote Workshop Limitations to Live With & Things That Shouldn’t Change

We immediately have to throw out a few of our mainstay tenets of workshops:

  1. Have participants put your laptops and phones away during the day.
  2. Set up the room visually with posters, journeys, personas, stickies, prototypes, etc.
  3. Make sure everyone is in person.

There are things that shouldn’t change, mostly related to the environment you want to create. Others have written on how to do these things, so we won’t focus on them:

  1. Create an open and honest environment where people feel safe.
  2. Be open to feedback.
  3. Everyone participates & asks a lot of questions.
  4. Challenge your thinking.
    With these basic rules in mind, how do we set ourselves up for success?

Environment & Setup

See our recent post on best practices for remote presentations, which should help with managing the conversation. There are a few other things we can do to set the environment for success:

Lean Into the Situation

Rather than working around the current crisis, own it and incorporate it. Instead of asking people their first concert during the icebreaker, ask them to pick one object in the room behind them or something from their home and explain its significance. This means ‘Video On’ is a requirement. Tell people to dress comfortably. This creates an environment where people can be comfortable, which helps with getting people to think differently. We sometimes tell people to dress down for workshops even in-person, just to create a different feel than normal. That’s why we host many workshops at our office instead of at the clients’ location. Different environments can be a strength.

Don’t Avoid the Topic

At the time of writing this piece, COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind. Let people talk about it and be genuine. Let them know that if they need to step away during the day to take care of family, take a personal call, etc. that it’s okay and we understand. We’ll touch more on how to plan the agenda.

Test Technology Early

Test video connections and all tools before the workshop. Make sure everyone has access to any interactive tooling that you’ll use. While we recommend video, we know some organizations are trying to conserve bandwidth as they upgrade their VPN capacity. Working remotely is likely new for many participants, so be explicit around what tools they’ll need, how to use them, and how to test access before the workshop starts so that you can troubleshoot issues. The minimum for a workshop you’ll need is a video conferencing tool (Skype, Hangouts, Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, join.me. BlueJeans, etc.) and a virtual whiteboard tool (Whimsical, Mural, Miro, Jamboard, etc.). Having a chat tool and someone to post materials/share notes is important, too.

Ask For Feedback Early & Often

Ask participants for feedback early and often.

  • Is the screen big enough?
  • Can everyone hear?
  • Can everyone access the tools?
  • Does this agenda work?
  • Does everyone understand the exercise, etc.
    The goal is to create an open environment where no one gets left out because they fell behind or had an issue.

Timing

Normal workshops are two- to five-day, all-day sessions. They include working lunches and team dinners, and typically you’re in it all week and finish exhausted every night. That type of agenda and session no longer works. People have other constraints on their time—we need to build our agenda in consideration of team members that have the most going on right now, and work at their pace.

  1. Shorter is Better. Curtail the normal agenda to be respectful of team member’s time. We’ll be reducing some of the normal conversation that happens in workshops when we talk about facilitation, but an 8-to-5 or 9-to-4 workshop isn’t going to work for the reality of our situation. Try to maximize the top ask for each day at 4 hours. Shoot for 9:30 to 2:30. Give people time to get their family organized and other tasks out of the way. Try to limit workshops to one or two days; five days is a stretch for people’s attention span and will not work in the current situation.
  2. Long Lunch. Give people at least an hour for lunch, and no working lunch. Many people will be responsible for feeding their family. Alternatively, send participants gift cards for a food delivery company so they can order from a local restaurant that does take out for themselves and their family (only where this remains a safe and viable option as the COVID situation evolves, always follow the recommendations of health and governing authorities). The benefit here is that you’re saving the team time and supporting the local economy at the same time.
  3. Be Clear on Breaks vs. Breakouts. Your approach to virtual workshops will depend on the ability to successfully break out and come together, but be specific about when each is happening. When you do a breakout session, individuals should either join a separate video conference or leave their video on while they work. When you give people a break, let them turn off video/mute or drop out completely. Consider giving longer breaks than normal. We’re trying to give team members time so that we don’t end up with people staggering back into the workshop or ducking in and out all day.

People

Picking the right team for a workshop is always important. We recommend always having people in the room who can look at the solution from different angles (human aspect, technical, business, etc.). To ensure these workshops feel effective and have actionable next steps, you’ll need these views in your workshop. Try to minimize the total group size. Every 3 to 5 people you have creates another small group, which means you need another facilitator. The smallest group I’d recommend with no breakouts is 6 or 7. With a group of 8 or more, you’ll want to split into smaller breakouts so all participants can have their voices heard. (This rule also applies to brunch and birthday parties, whenever they become a thing again.)

  1. Core Team – You’ll need a strong facilitator—one who understands best practices for remote meetings and presentations. For each breakout group, you’ll need someone to facilitate small groups. This person can be a hybrid participant/facilitator, but someone who understands Design Thinking and has the presence to keep the group on track. Finally, you’ll need a strong sponsor who can participate in the entire workshop to help direct the group and set the stage for why the workshop is happening, and why the problem needs solving. Expect participants to be more protective of their time than usual.
  2. Cross Functional Participants – Choose a team that understands the current state of your organization; people who can think differently and creatively, and those who can evaluate all aspects of a solution. These solution lenses are usually related to viability (business, strategy, operations), feasibility (technology, data, risk), and desirability (human behavior, design, change management, content/communications). Participants are likely to check more than one box, but try to have a balanced group.

Setting the Remote Workshop Agenda

Your agenda can still follow the model you’re used to using. We use a converge/diverge or double-diamond approach where you identify problems, prioritize one or two, come up with potential solutions, then converge on the solution. We identify assumptions and dependencies, and test the solutions to understand desirability, feasibility and viability. This leads us to next steps.

That flow still works, but we need to deal with the limitations: virtual whiteboards and stickies only, greater difficulty sharing, and the fact that people aren’t sitting around tables together to naturally create small group collaboration. Here are our recommendations for overcoming this:

Prep Templates Digitally

For any exercise that will involve teams filling out a template digitally or on paper, build example templates ahead of time. The simplest version of this is creating visual templates that team members can use to create their own outlines on a piece of paper. A better method could be doing it in Slides and sending out copies to everyone before the workshop starts. They can fill it out digitally, which prevents their needing to digitize notes later.

The best solution, if you’re going to have small groups collaborating in break-outs, is to create templates in a virtual collaboration tool and have pre-built workspaces for each breakout. This way, the templates act as a guide for the exercise, participants can see them all in one place, and there is a history of the exercises. It’s a lot of upfront preparation, but is reusable in the future.

Pick the Right Exercises

Exercises can be transformed and done digitally, but some more easily than others. Rely on exercises that people can do with the materials they likely already have around their home. Participants may have paper, pens, post-its and sharpies. Beyond that, supplies may be a tougher ask unless you want to mail out workshop kits. Building clay sculptures of personas is likely out, for example. But you could try:

  • Crazy 8
  • Paper Prototyping
  • Gallery Walk & Vote Doting. Instead of doing dot voting, compile a quick survey using Google Forms or Survey Monkey and send out a poll for participants. Digitize your deliverables into a quick set of slides or in your digital whiteboarding tool.
  • Complex Flows, Personas, Concept Development, etc. Build templates before asking teams to do more complex exercises like press releases. This aligns teams on the level of detail required and creates a common language across deliverables.

Always Present Digitally & Digitize as you Go

In remote presentations, avoid having participants hold up a drawing to their camera. Have them take a picture on their phone, oruse a digital scanner if you want to clean up white balance. Then you can have them either present it themselves or (ideally) get them to send it to one of the facilitators. The facilitator can aggregate everything into a slide deck or virtual whiteboard tool and have each participant present in order.

This has the added benefit of helping with the second point, which is to digitize as you go. Anything you want to capture, get participants to take a picture and upload or send immediately so that it isn’t an ask at the end of the day. This way participants can clean their workspace at the end of the day or hang their prototype on the fridge with the rest of the family art collection. You no longer have the chance to clean the room and capture everything at the end of the day, and you’ll get better compliance if you do it gradually.

Facilitation & Participation

We’ve referenced other materials for helping facilitate remote workshops, and here are a few other ideas we recommend:

  1. Reading vs. Speaking: Have time for reading and time for speaking. If you put up content-heavy slides or information, give participants time to read. They are going to anyway. Put music on if people are doing reading. Ideally, instead of doing a lot of setup you, can send pre-read material to maximize people’s time. This gives participants who learn and digest material at different rates a chance to come in on equal footing.
  2. Break it Down & Build it Up: For each exercise, give participants time to work individually as well as time to share their ideas in a small group and with the broader group. This needs to be crisp or people will check out and multitask through the day. They’re going to be getting emails, texts, and other distractions throughout the day and your job as facilitator isn’t to be interesting—it’s to keep them interested in what they’re doing. The best way to do this is to let them participate. Limit overviews and talking to 10 or 15 minutes, and only when it can’t be a pre-read. Limit group time to present and focus on getting to the conversation. For an individual exercise, this would likely be 10 minutes as an individual, 20 minutes as a small group presenting and aggregating content and then each group gets 5 minutes to share.
  3. Share the Ball: Keep everyone involved. Take stock of who the loudest voices are and who is participating. Call on people first to get their ideas out there or encourage them to share their thoughts. Limit the time one person talks, or people will fade to multitasking.
  4. Tabling: Choosing how long to let conversations run in workshops is more art than science. Going down “rabbit holes” can be uncomfortable but beneficial, as stakeholders may be meeting for the first time. Workshops are an opportunity to create awareness of how other sides of the business work but remote workshops, where you don’t have a captive audience, are not the right time. As in the previous points, you’ll lose people. Summarize someone’s point, admit that it’s important, assign an owner to follow up, and capture it in a parking lot. Don’t let your workshop fall victim to Bartleby’s Law that “80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted.”

Give Your Remote Workshop a Successful Wrap Up

Close your meeting on a high note. Make sure that you:

  • Let participants know that you are grateful for their time.
  • Summarize your action items and next steps.
  • Follow up within 24-48 hours so people feel that action is real and they are kept informed.

Showing progress after a workshop means participants will buy into the next one. Good luck, and feel free to reach out to our team here at Skookum, especially if your company is in the healthcare or other critical industries. We are happy to hop on a quick call to walk through specific problems or questions on agendas, timing, participants or concepts, to help your remote workshops run as efficiently and effectively as possible.