How to Design a Collaborative Experience (Instead of a Virtual Workshop)

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Close-up of a cheerful Asian female working from home and waving at her laptop’s webcam
Hello! Are you ready to up your virtual workshop game? | Adobe Stock

For most, if not all, of us working in the tech industry–we have gotten very used to working remotely. In our always-on, always-connected world, we’ve transitioned from office-based work to home-based work over the past 1.5 years of the global pandemic like a hot knife through butter — smoothly.

But have we, really?

Getting work done by yourself is one thing. Collaborating across teams and co-creating effectively with customers, is quite another. We can no longer do design work in the same way we were once accustomed to, when we could all be present in person. This is especially true for remote workshops.

The same way online forms aren’t created by making a cookie-cutter digital version of a physical form, we cannot simply lift and shift workshops online and expect effective collaboration to happen.

Read on for essential tips to set you up for success during your next remote workshop.

Front-load as much work as possible

Front-loading allows you to accomplish more. By gaining prior awareness of your customer’s business goals, pain points, and existing processes, you’re set up to focus on topics of interest during the workshop — instead of starting discovery from scratch.

Name tag that reads: Hello, I am Prepared
Going into workshops prepared sets you up for creative problem solving | Adobe Stock

Do your homework. Familiarize yourself with as much relevant material (or “pre-reads”) as possible before jumping into the workshop. Pre-reads often give clues about which topics require a deeper dive or more attention during workshops. A heavy-duty topic, for example, may need to be spread across two sessions. The absence of available pre-reads is also a clue in itself, possibly signaling the need to allocate more time to those topics.

Ask your customer for pre-reads such as:

  • Business roadmaps
  • Organisation charts
  • Process flows
  • Case reports

Get to know the participants. Ensure you have the right participants by identifying the experts required for each topic to be covered. If you’re having trouble firming up the participant list, consider deploying a pre-workshop survey via the project manager to consolidate information such as names, designations, project roles, workshop expectations, and for foreign-speaking customers, English language fluency scale.

Clearly communicate the plan. Don’t assume participants have been briefed and know what’s required of them. In your calendar invite, outline the agenda clearly and state the workshop’s goals and objectives. Inform participants on what they need to know or do beforehand, creating shared ownership of a productive workshop.

Appoint roles and responsibilities. Workshop facilitation can be akin to herding cats. Sure, one person could do the job, but things move along more quickly with help. Besides the facilitator, make sure to appoint a timekeeper, a notetaker (or three), and a troubleshooter if attendees run into technical difficulties with the video conferencing tool or other tools used for the workshop.

Close-up of a flustered looking cat wearing glasses and standing at a desk with pen, paper and a laptop
No more herding cats — appoint a timekeeper, notetaker and technical troubleshooter to keep your workshops running smoothly | Adobe Stock

Ready your tools

Since the pandemic moved our work lives online, digital tools have become the new studio space. And while nothing beats gathering in a room to share ideas and hash out new solutions, there is a lot of functionality that these tools can offer when they’re set up effectively. Digital tools such as Miro and Mural allow for real-time whiteboarding and visual collaboration among remote workshop participants.

Organize the workspace. Setting up your workspace allows you to onboard participants more efficiently and gives people cues about how you’d like them to participate.

Depending on your agenda, these are some examples of templates and boards you can ready beforehand:

  • Customer journey maps
  • User story maps
  • Dot voting
  • Parking lot (or issue bin)
  • End-of-session retrospective (what went well, what didn’t, what can be improved)
Thumbnails of example templates available from Miro’s online library
Choices galore: Miro offers a wide variety of templates to help your team collaborate more efficiently

Ensure everyone has access. To avoid hiccups, be sure everyone is able to enter and edit the workspace. A common mistake we’ve encountered is participants having read access only instead of read and write access. Budget time to secure user licenses or day passes and assign them correctly, so that everyone is empowered to participate in the session.

Plan to get everyone up to speed. Not all participants may be familiar with the tool you’ve chosen for the workshop, so prepare activities to get everyone comfortable and engaged. Set up time at the start of the workshop to walk through the tool’s functions, and plan warm-up activities to build everyone’s confidence. People may be reluctant to admit they don’t know how to use something, so err on the side of caution and help everyone along.

Outline your mechanics

Often unsaid but distinctly important, is to think about the mechanics of how you want people to participate. Don’t assume they’ll know things like whether they should comfortably chime in throughout, or instead write their comments and questions in the chat. By communicating your expectations, you eliminate guesswork and allow participants to focus on what really matters: the workshop content.

For hybrid sessions, have attendees dial in individually. For people in the same office, grouping together in a conference room may make the most sense at first. However, this can fragment the conversation, degrading the overall experience. It may not always be possible to achieve, but encourage each participant to join from their own computer. Suggest they do so from a quiet room at home or in the office to minimise background noise and distractions.

Six team members at separate locations having a discussion on a group video call
Avoid fragmented conversations by having people dial in separately to remote workshops | Adobe Stock

Be mindful of the vocal few. Stay ready to give voice to quieter participants. This can mean steering the group to contribute their views via online post-its and a timebox, or interjecting firmly but kindly to say, “Thanks Jane, I hear you. I’ve noticed that we haven’t heard from John in a while. John, what do you think?” And if your video conferencing tool allows, remind participants they can raise digital hands to speak. You can also prepare a parking lot so people can add their thoughts and concerns to be addressed later.

Establish a social contract for collaboration. A powerful tool for fostering teamwork lies in a social contract — an agreement that reflects the sentiments of the majority and sets the ground rules for team members’ behaviours. This can include common courtesies such as being punctual and respectful of other people’s time, switching on cameras, and having a 5-minute loo break for every hour of a workshop. Set up your social contract on a dedicated corner of your workshop’s Miro or Mural board so it’s readily accessible by everyone and is easy to refer to should the need arise.

Don’t underestimate the power of icebreakers. For kick-off workshops, icebreaker activities are a must. Tailor the icebreaker to the workshop goal, number of participants and the profile mix. What is the objective? Are you looking at a group size of 8, 15, or more? How can you fast track rapport and psychological safety among attendees, particularly if they have varying levels of seniority?

A MacBook screen showing an example of a working style icebreaker
Here’s an idea: an icebreaker that helps participants learn about one another’s working styles

Pay attention to feelings in the room. If emotions run high, help the group reset by reframing divided opinions and creating unity. “I can see this topic is of great importance to Mike and Mary. Let’s channel that energy and think of our end-users. What would make the most sense for them?”

Prioritize breaks. To help participants maintain their focus and retention, it’s important to be sensitive to attention spans and biological needs. Ensure breaks are scheduled for any workshop over two hours. If energy levels wane, suggest (or even better, lead) a 3-minute stretch break. You can also provide a mood boost by introducing your pet on camera. Don’t have one? Ask someone else to show theirs!

Budget more time than you think you need. The best laid plans account for the unexpected. To avoid getting caught off guard, always include buffers in your agenda. Latecomers, foreign accents, technical issues and unexpectedly complex topics can easily derail timing. Being prepared for these scenarios helps mitigate stress and gives you confidence in still having enough time to accomplish your agenda.

Remember to keep it human

A well thought-out workshop takes a human-centered approach, keeping the focus on people instead of solutions. When we account for the human factors and carve out space for personal connection, we build trust with customers and produce better workshop outcomes.

A tweet from Twitter user Neil Webb saying, “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”
Even as offices begin to reopen, working in the time of Covid-19 remains uniquely challenging and necessitates a mindful approach

What does “better” look like? Consider these measures:

  • Punctuality — do your workshops regularly start and end on time?
  • Attendance — do the right people show up and stay throughout?
  • Participation — did participants actively contribute or were they passive attendees?
  • Agenda efficacy — was the plan robust and did it produce desired results?
  • Time management — were you able to stick to the plan, or did you encounter constant disruptions?
  • Enjoyability — did the workshop feel harmonious and collaborative, or did it feel stressful and tense?

Workshops are often declared a success as long as you eventually arrive at an outcome. We want to challenge that notion. If you care about the collaborative experience, it’s not just about arriving at the destination but how you get there that matters as well.

My sincerest thanks to Madeline Davis for her guidance, expert wordsmithing and dedication in helping me get this article across the finish line. With thanks also to the Asia Professional Services and Transformation Services teams at Salesforce for having a spirit of excellence and desiring to continually improve how we work with customers.

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