Running remote workshops with distributed teams

As the world scrambles to adapt to the new reality of social distancing and restrictions on in-person gatherings, Emma Andrews shares some tips on facilitating workshops with remote participants.

Emma Andrews

By Emma Andrews, 9 minute read

The term “social distancing” saddens me. As a strategist and facilitator my role is about being with groups of people to help them excel toward their shared goal through communication. Introducing physical distance sounds rather ‘Black Mirror’. I look forward to a time when we don’t have to second guess how we greet each other, what the subsequent interaction is and whether we should even come to work.

Whilst we all adapt to this temporary ‘new normal’; Luminary is responding in a number of ways. The one that affects me the most is running workshops. An integral part of the Research and Discovery process, it might seem like these are now impossible. With six offices and counting and clients across Europe and America, involving attendees joining workshops from other locations and operating with distributed teams is something we’ve been doing at Luminary for a long time. In the light of COVID-19 we’ve advanced and adapted some of those existing practices to make sure our clients can continue to run important projects that help them meet their KPIs in the coming weeks and months. Here’s how we do it.

What's different between an in-person and remote session?

The short answer is: not a great deal in terms of a practice area. 

The need to consult the project sponsor carefully as to the final shape of the workshop, the outcomes and purpose remains as important as it ever did. Making sure everyone is on the same page about what will happen in those important hours and what outcomes we should all expect is crucial. 

Likewise, we choose and design the right group processes to deliver those outcomes, applying the same tried and tested frameworks but now delivered fully digitally rather than interacting with ‘hard copy’ content (i.e. post-it notes) pinned to the walls of the meeting room. If the workshop is part of a series or program of activities then we design all sessions from the outset to ensure the outcomes of one session flow into the next.

Where remote vs in-person workshops are different is in the detail behind the design. With remote sessions there is a higher percentage of structured process rather than an open discussion. When all stakeholders attend in person, a well-facilitated open discussion that is well planned and guided, will often yield the results required. When some, most or all people are joining a workshop remotely, the design of the session needs to be adapted to achieve the participation required and manage the input from everyone carefully.

When it comes to timing, I’m a massive advocate for shorter workshops. There’s a perceived value in a ‘full day session’ but it’s unhelpful for two reasons:

  1. It’s simply too long and people switch off. People leave feeling exhausted and with their last memory of the day being negative.
  2. Afternoons are the most unproductive part of most people’s day and once decision fatigue sets in, the effectiveness of anything you do will be vastly reduced. Keep them to five hours maximum (9am - 2pm) to maintain concentration levels (and enthusiasm!). If you really need eight hours to gather the insights then split it into two smaller sessions.

With all workshops, it’s crucial that outcomes, actions and questions are properly recorded and actioned. The tools we use include Miro boards, screen share to sketch out ideas, Google sheets and shared documents. That way, everything is captured and can be referenced subsequently. With fully remote workshop sessions, we rely more on digital tools rather than pen and paper (or pen and post it note!).

How do you properly prepare before running a remote workshop?

When running a workshop as a virtual event, design and plan the session as you usually would. Focus on the outcomes and effective participation. 

  1. Decide who will attend – We usually limit workshops to 12 attendees. This is a chance to make sure that the invite list is carefully refined. Only invite those who are 100 percent relevant to the session. Anyone else can be involved via a 1:1 interview before or after the main workshop.
  2. Get to know the attendees before you meet them – Ask the project sponsor for the names, job titles and background of each participant. Find out how well they know the subject – and each other. Create a crib sheet of participants ahead of the session so you know who’s who.
  3. Create a bulletproof agenda
  • Outline the purpose and outcomes so everyone starts knowing what the session is about
  • Include logistical information about the time, location (login details for example) and provide background and context to the session
  • Clearly articulate the activities and timings – be clear what will happen and when so that the attendees can mentally prepare for the session 
  • Depending on the type of involvement people need to have, homework questions or background reading can help make the best use of the workshop time.

We always create two versions of the agenda. One for the attendees and one for ourselves which includes detailed facilitator notes and prompts to help the session run smoothly.

  1. Enrol the agency team in the process – Brief the internal team who will be involved in the workshop or undertaking the work afterwards.
  2. Test all of the tech – Test the meeting link and/or any software programs and hardware (such as microphones) you are using a few days prior to the workshop so that you have time to rectify any issues before the day. Zoom, Skype for Business or Google Hangouts all open in a web browser so clients don’t need their own account. Also make sure participants have laptops or computers with a camera, good microphone (or headphones) and an internet connection speed that makes sure they can see and hear clearly throughout the session. All attendees should keep their camera on for the whole session to make the most of non-verbal communication cues and ensure everyone feels a part of the session.
  3. Send out a participant pack – If the workshop is a co-design or human centred design workshop, there will invariably be activities or creative exercises involved. Make sure attendees have the right tools to join in with these by sending materials out beforehand so that remote participants have access to digital versions of any stimulus used during the session. Likewise, if you’d usually cater sessions, send round an ‘energy pack’ for the participants so that they are grazing on healthy food and snacks during the session rather than cake and caffeine.
  4. Determine the correct way of recording the inputs – If it’s not in the traditional way (on a canvas or whiteboard in the room), make sure the ideas are captured clearly for all to see and follow.
  5. Book a room – this means both the facilitator and attendees. Going into a room for the session removes distractions from a noisy background and helps create the right environment just to focus on the session. This is particularly important where people are now working from home and might not have the benefit of their optimal office set up.

Key things to do on the day of the virtual event

Not unlike a workshop where everyone attends in person, there are a few ways to make sure the session runs smoothly.

  1. Start early – Send out a calendar invite for everyone to join the meeting 10 minutes before the actual start time.
  2. Resolve technology issues quickly – Have a tech expert on standby to resolve any last minute issues so that the rhythm of the workshop is not disrupted.
  3. Repeat yourself – Reiterate the purpose (and repeat it throughout the day) to keep it at the centre of the discussion.
  4. Set some ground rules – Explain what’s required in terms of behaviour and how people are expected to interact for the session.
  5. Include breaks during the session – Be very clear on timings so everyone is back when they should be to continue with the workshop.
  6. Partner up – Make sure the note taker (or co-facilitator) has templates ready to record the outputs from each session. Block out extra time in the break to liaise with them and prepare for the next session.
  7. Handling questions – In virtual sessions, a defined question time rather than ad hoc queries helps maintain the session’s flow.
  8. Ice box – As with face-to-face sessions, every workshop needs one of these to park topics that cannot be concluded.

Best practice actions after the remote workshop

Feedback

    • Distribute a questionnaire to give to all participants the opportunity to share their opinions on how well it went so that you can make adjustments for next time.
    • Quickly communicate the decisions or outcomes that were achieved in the workshop.

Follow up 

Follow up with each of the stakeholder groups uniquely: the project sponsor and the project team; the workshop participants and other broader stakeholders in the organisation. So there will be two or three types of follow up to do:

    • Define and agree next steps with the project team
    • Thank the attendees and inform them about what will happen next
    • Start building the story for the interim showcase for the broader organisational stakeholders
    • Share links to any documents, sheets, boards or other assets and artefacts that were created in the workshop.

How to organise and run blended (or hybrid) workshops

Where some people attend in person and others join a workshop session remotely there are a handful of specific things to consider; these insights are based on some recent work we completed with a global company that needed to engage attendees from across time zones.

Those present in the room can sometimes (accidentally) dominate the discussion, just because it’s easy to do so. A good facilitator will make sure that the workshop is moderated objectively and that all attendees are engaged equally regardless of their location. This is where having got to know all the attendees really pays off, as a facilitator will explicitly invite feedback and contributions from remote attendees.

There are two main ways of operating the session:

  1. Run it as if everyone was joining virtually so even those in the room have laptops and participate digitally
  2. Adapt the activities so that everyone can have equal involvement. Limit ‘physical’ tasks or make sure there is clear video and a means by which remote attendees can contribute their ideas and input too.

The benefits of running remote workshops

There are an array of benefits to this format of workshop

  • The conversations are curated in a slightly different way to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard. And because only one person can talk at a time, people actually get listened to. So the broadest contributions are considered and included in the ideas, solutions or decisions that emerge.
  • The virtual event can be recorded as a webinar which serves as a record of what was discussed and can be referred back to.
  • Good habits may endure when we return to ‘business as usual’. When we’re all back in a room together instead of trying to multitask through the workshop, we might put our other devices down and be truly present.
  • Fewer side conversations occur in virtual workshops, for example when people exchange ideas among themselves. As with all workshops, make it clear at the outset that if the facilitator doesn’t hear it then it won’t be recorded.

The facilitation of a workshop with remote participants is really not too dissimilar to running an in-person workshop. With a bit of extra preparation and the right tools, there is no reason why positive experiences and successful outcomes cannot be achieved, just as with a regular workshop. 

Emma Andrews

Emma Andrews

Strategy Director

As a Brand and Digital Strategist, Emma's primary task is to ask lots of questions of our clients and transform the responses into a blueprint for market domination.

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