Our Experience with Remote Strategy & UX Workshops
At Adage, the strategy & design team conducts strategy and user experience workshops frequently. In the first quarter of 2020, we conducted more than 30 days of workshops. In general, we prefer to be on-site with clients so that we are embedding and seeing, learning, and feeling the environment of the organization we are engaged with. (Embedding is an excellent design thinking practice). Before the stay at home order, about 60% of our on-site workshops also included remote participants and as of March 2020 with COVID-19 social distancing rules in place, all our workshops are now 100% remote.
Here is what we have learned about conducting successful remote workshops.
A Guide for Successful Remote Workshops
Scheduling the Workshops
Try to block off a large chunk of time rather than doing workshops piece-meal style. However, extensive sessions may lead to workshop fatigue and a drop in productivity. For best results, consider scheduling workshops in a series of 3-6 hr time slots over consecutive days.
Include dial-in information and instructions on any technologies to be used during remote workshops. We have found that, with some tools, calling in on a telephone is more stable than relying on wifi for audio and video. Make clear that any tools that require installation are installed before the workshop. Note that other systems may require preparation, e.g. camera, microphone, good wifi, and low ambient noise.
When scheduling, include these tips for a successful workshop:
- Access to a high bandwidth internet connection
- A laptop with a camera
- An external microphone and speaker
- Reserve a quiet location
- Schedule pre-workshop prep meetings with all potential participants to walk through any questions they may have and gauge their digital comfort level.
Book a conference room (or quiet space) for the duration of the workshop with 30 min buffer before and after the scheduled time. Always conduct a test run for any remote activities. We regularly see platforms like WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, crash mid workshop. Have a backup plan.
The facilitator must prepare all digital whiteboard materials BEFORE the workshop. With on-site workshops, we typically set up the room before the workshop begins, with remote workshops this step should happen before the day of the workshop. Prepare workshop facilitation materials (post-it notes, canvas, props, etc.) as much as possible. This will save a lot of time during the workshop. Test the workshop materials and digital whiteboards before the workshop day.
Have a backup plan for remote workshop technology and consider the schedule:
- Schedule meetings in two different systems (e.g. Teams and GoToMeeting.)
- Have backup virtual board ready (e.g. Miro and Microsoft Whiteboard.)
The Workshop Kick-off Call
Establish a pre-workshop kickoff call to review expectations, and train on any tools a week or two before the workshops
- Review tools
- Require that all participants access the tools before the workshop day to get comfortable with the tools
Set the Rules of Engagement
- All are expected to participate
- All video on
- All audio on
- Let others complete their thoughts, and watch out for interruptions and talking over each other
- Setup how to interject with questions or ask for clarification
- Establish criteria for cancellation should struggle with technology become insurmountable
Communicate with the stakeholder group the day before the workshop with the agenda and a reminder of the expectations. Communicate why the workshop is needed. It not just about our team gaining basic understanding.
The hidden value of design thinking workshop:
- There’s value in collaboration and shared understanding
- Workshops are about discovery and relationship building
- There is an efficiency to the workshops, it’s faster/ easier than going back and forth piecemeal
Consider sending some exercises ahead of time so that participants can confirm the remote tool is working. These steps also signal that participation is expected by asking for participation before the workshop.
Facilitator Notes for the Day of the Workshop
Get started at least 15-20 mins early. We always arrive early but with remote-workshops expect that setup will take longer. Always start with a pre-populated canvas (don’t start with an empty canvas). Expect a learning curve with remote workshop tools. Every group will respond differently, some will be quick on the uptake some will be slower. Make instructions that can be shared quickly.
Expect that you will miss key communication signals like body language. Therefore, expect to have to facilitate more, sometimes calling on individuals is necessary to drive the workshop. Provide additional prompts for participation, eg. round-table approach.
- Pre-define who on the facilitator team will monitor questions coming from chat functionality
- Pre-define who on the facilitator team will help those who struggle
- Start the remote-meeting 15-20 min early to ensure technologies are running smoothly
- Have an email drafted with all workshop participants’ email listed in case emergency communication is needed (see Trouble-shooting)
Running the Workshop
- Start with a warm-up activity to familiarize participants with the technologies used
- Allow at least 30 min to account for any technical difficulties (typical warm-ups are only 10 to 15 minutes)
- Establish the plan for virtual breaks (let’s all take breaks together)
- Kindly request that all participants turn on their cameras. This will help maximize facial cues and reduce the risk of participants multi-tasking and by now they should be expecting this request.
- Kindly request that all participants mute themselves when not speaking to reduce background noise
- Address participants by name. Visual cues and eye-contact are less present in virtual meetings. Addressing participants by name will avoid confusion.
Remote Workshop Trouble-shooting
Issues with Connectivity
If for some reason the conferencing tool has stopped working or crashed, reach out to participants immediately via email. It’s worth trying to reconnect to the conference several more times, but if you keep having issues, consider:
- Use of your planned alternative tool
- Don’t be afraid to cancel the meeting and reschedule if you have met your pre-set criteria for cancellation
If only one or two (non-critical) participants out of a larger group (10+) are having technical difficulties, check with the main contact. Propose continuing the workshop without those individuals. Should you decide to proceed with follow-up meetings with the individuals are recommended to gather their input.
Let us know in the comments below what you have learned about conducting successful remote workshops. Share your experiences and tips with us.