Remote Workshops are with us Forever

John Clare
Jun 25 · 5 min read

by John-Paul Clare and Sharon Watson from comparethemarket.com

Recent Past

Thursday 12th March everyone at comparethemarket.com received this message

“…Your safety and wellbeing is paramount and with this in mind we would like to perform a full CTM Business Continuity test to confirm that the CTM business could operate in a scenario where we all operate remotely.”

The message came at 15:49 and the test was to take place the following day (Friday).

At the time, we all thought we’d return to work after the test, and things would continue as normal for quite a while. Maybe we would never all have to work from home…

We came back into work on the Monday with some amusing tales about what happened when people suddenly had to work from home. Overall, the test was successful.

19:09 that Monday evening came the next urgent message

“…please work from home whenever possible until further notice”

We’ve not been back to the office since…

That one-day test was to check connectivity and access, but it didn’t test our ways of working very much. As the lockdown descended on us, we found ourselves scrabbling around to find a way to keep things going. We quickly realised we’d have to adapt some of our ways of working to prevent key initiatives from grinding to a halt.

The big question was, how do we handle face-to-face workshops?!!!

Now

Now we realise we may never fully return to the old ways of doing things, or if we do, it could be years before large groups of people meet face-to-face in a confined space to carry out some business-critical tasks. So those quickly developed ways of working need to persist and evolve.

Here at comparethemarket.com, we have a well-established project process that has traditionally relied heavily on a set of workshops at the beginning of each project that we call Project Inception. Even though we are used to working across multiple sites and people regularly work from home, these Project Inceptions have always been held face-to-face. We bring all contributors together, even flying whole teams across Europe to take part.

Suddenly this part of our process didn’t work anymore. So, what do you do?

There are 2 obvious answers:

  • Cancel the workshops until lockdown is over — this isn’t really feasible as we could be under some sort of travel and gathering restrictions for a long time
  • Run the workshops remotely

The latter is what we chose to do, and we quickly had to learn how to make a remote workshop efficient and effective.

Project Inceptions

There are 2 key objectives of the inception workshops:

  1. Give everyone impacted, involved or interested in the project a common understanding of the customer problem, solution approach and objectives
  2. Have detailed discussions amongst the people doing the work. They can then work out what must be done, and the best way to organise it and themselves

Principles of a Remote Workshop

As we planned and carried out our first remote workshop we learnt there are a few key things you need to get right. These fall into 3 categories that we’ll talk about in this article.

  1. Structure
  2. Having a Voice
  3. Tools

These are our building blocks for evolving our remote workshops.

Our 3 categories are listed next, with key principles and the reasons for them.

Structure

Two sessions a day for 2 hours each

  • To avoid overloading people
  • To support health and wellbeing

Take regular breaks

  • To avoid overloading concentration levels
  • To help maintain good levels of engagement and interest

Have a clear objective for each session

  • To set expectations
  • To provide context
  • To help individuals with their thinking

Check in and check out with reference to the objective

  • To acknowledge progress
  • To celebrate success
  • To set the scene for the next session

Include some fun in every session

  • Because fun is good…. but keep it off topic
  • To help people relax and stay engaged

Read the audience

  • To make sure that you are responding to the behaviours of the group

Finish early

  • To give something back

Think end to end (before and beyond the workshop)

  • To maximise the work upfront for the benefit of back end processes

Having a Voice

Tiered Brainstorming

  • To simplify thinking capture the high level, then drill down to the detail later

Ability for people to speak

  • To give everyone a voice
  • To gain the benefit of different perspectives, experiences and opinion

Have a strategy for involving everyone

  • To help the less confident / comfortable speakers
  • To pull on known expertise to start and then generate discussion as a group — get the SMEs to take over (“can you talk us though this bit”)

Respond to ideas

  • To show that views are heard and to encourage more involvement

The Right Tools

Keep it simple

  • To avoid unforeseen complications

Prepare and practice

  • To reduce the chance of things going wrong
  • To pre-empt and plan for what could go wrong

Acknowledge disruption

  • To allow people to understand what’s going on…they might be able to help or will appreciate the extra break!

Two screens so you can stay connected

  • To allow the facilitator to present and read the room

Make sure people have their cameras on

  • To enable the facilitator to read the room
  • To help the workshop feel as close to ‘face to face’ as virtual allows

Have a ‘Car Park’

  • A place to ‘park’ ideas, actions, notes, thoughts for after the workshop

Have a backup plan

  • To be ready for ‘what could go wrong’

Where does that leave us?

We now know that remote workshops can work, and with the right planning, structure, contribution and tools, they can be just as effective as face to face.

Like any type of facilitation, it’s an art as much as anything else. And as with any art, it’s something you have to practice, and it will never be perfect. Now is the time to put the practice in and make improvements.

If we do that well, the ability to run effective remote workshops can be turned into a competitive advantage. Adding flexibility to our teams and our business and allowing us to quickly adapt to changes in the future.

The Future

Now we know we can do it, we can embrace this new way of working completely. The question to ask ourselves is, even if we could do workshops face to face again, do we want to? Running remote workshops effectively is so much more efficient and is much less disruptive to people’s lives. The benefits seem to outweigh what we lose in face to face communication.

So, take the plunge, make remote workshops part of your future…. and share your experiences.

Compare the Market

The people behind comparethemarket.com and the Meerkat App

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