How to Conduct a Successful Workshop with Remote Participants
With businesses becoming increasingly global, it’s not always possible to have everyone in the room at the same time. Here are some best practices for getting the most out of remote workshops.
By Rhishiraj Neog, Program Manager, frog
In an ideal customer engagement workshop, all stakeholders (external and internal) will be collaborating seamlessly by being in the same room, strategizing towards a common goal, contributing to defining requirements and eliminating ambiguity while focusing on customer centricity.
However, the business realities of today make it difficult to conduct an ideal engagement workshop since end users, clients, service providers and other stakeholders often reside in different locations across the globe with varied time zones, budget limitations and limited availability.
When such a situation arises, there are many questions we find ourselves asking on how to best proceed with the planned processes that are essential for a successful delivery of a program:
- How do we start our design phase?
- How do we get stakeholders to define the release goals or the vision of the program?
- How do we gather requirements from different stakeholders?
- How do we build a common goal or consensus?
At frog, we deal with remote collaboration in our day-to-day all the time, as we have teams located in studios across the globe. But when you have to account for client teams and other stakeholders that don’t necessarily have access to the same enterprise tools or systems, the equation gets a little more complicated. For one recent client project, our team here at frog India had an on-site workshop planned, but due to various complications it had to be scratched. So, we started by researching remote collaboration tools.
A team member had previously used Miro and advocated for its capabilities. Miro has a plethora of features we were interested in:
- Multi-user access: to enable participation of all stakeholders
- Real time: to ensure active participation across geographies
- User identification: to identify inputs and assign authorship
- Virtual post-its: to mimic on site activities
- Voting: to shortlist most preferred solutions
- Timer: to time box activities
- Tags: to segregate and group similar inputs
- Drag and drop any media on the board
And so we were able to have our workshop after all! As it turned out, we would need to account for both in-personal and remote participants, which added another layer of complications. But the features of our chosen tool allowed to seamless collaboration for all.
Below are some of our learnings on how to conduct a successful remote workshop. These insights come from our experience of falling and skinning our knees but after repeated attempts finally riding the elusive beast of remote collaboration.
Before the Workshop
Test, Test, Test
Before you send out the invites, test the tool with your team. Do several dress rehearsals before the big day. Ask obvious questions, role play and do an end-to-end mock workshop internally. Time check the activities, note the roadblocks and be observant.
Choose your participants wisely
Ensure each team has a representative. Pick stakeholders with clout, that is, include subject matter experts (SMEs) who are well versed in the specific matters your workshop will address. Select stakeholders from different backgrounds so the workshop can benefit from multiple perspectives. Also, select stakeholders wisely so that the needs of all the system users are equally represented. Beware of assembling too many stakeholders as it may become difficult to achieve a consensus. Keep a list of back-up invitees or ask the stakeholder to nominate a replacement in case of last-minute drop-outs. Invite only those who you cannot do without — more is not always merrier!
Send across a cheat sheet to the participants
In spite of repeated trainings, it is quite possible to blank out on THE day. Create a simple step by step cheat sheet (with screenshots of the tool), showing where each feature resides on the tool and clear instructions on how to use them. Provide video links if you would like. Add the same sheet on the tool as well.
Provide Individual training sessions to all participants
Every tool comes with a learning curve. Divide your team to provide individual training sessions on every feature you will be using. Be empathetic, though it may look simple to you, it may not be so for some of the participants. Practice with them together until you feel they have mastered it. It’s not rocket science, but it does require patience and practice.
Add widgets of features to tool bar
Create a tool bar adding the features you will be using in order to avoid confusion. This helps to filter out the unwanted features.
Prepare your agenda
Don’t overload with activities. Keep a good balance of talks, breaks and activities. Most importantly, time box every activity. Distribute the agenda in advance to all stakeholders, so that participants are prepared before the actual workshop and can provide the right answers as required to have a successful workshop.
Pro tip: keep two agendas — one for your reference and one that you share with everyone. The activities will of course be common in both, however, the time allocated to every activity will differ. For instance, if you think an activity will take 80 minutes tell your participants it’s for 70 minutes but plan for 90 minutes. Always plan for longer than you expect!
Send a detailed invite
Make sure to include three important elements in the invite:
Agenda: How are we doing it? Detail out (with timing) the agenda and break it up in to activities. This will of course be different for different days.
Objective: Why are we doing it? Decide on one objective that will hold true irrespective of the duration (read number of days) of the workshop.
Expected outcomes: What are we going to achieve? Make this day specific and absolutely clear. Keep repeating it once in a while during the workshop so that it is not a surprise to those who didn’t read the invite (yes, there will be many of this kind).
Assign “Lightning Talks” to each team
A Lightning talk is a short ten minute presentations delivered by an SME. These mini-presentations help teams to understand each other’s view points and motivations, and allows each team time to be heard. Divide the lightning talks to spread across all days of the workshop in order keep a balance. Limit to a maximum of 10 minutes each.
During the Workshop
Organize your team
We are at play on two fronts (remote and onsite) and it’s important to assign clear responsibilities to the workshop team.
- 1 x officiator: AKA the workshop master. He/she is also the hallowed time-keeper and is also the chief documentarian (photograph every activity — remember ABC: Always Be Capturing)
- 1 x IT support: provision for IT support throughout the duration. Keep a back-up conference facility in case the current one fails.
- 4 x facilitators: divide it into two teams (Remote and Onsite) of two facilitators each. Each team will be dedicated in supporting or facilitating the remote or onsite participants, as the case maybe.
Replicate boards and assets
Create two boards of every asset — one remote (digital) and one onsite (physical). Collate and populate responses on each other’s board (Remote / Onsite)
- 1 facilitator from each team will be responsible for populating the responses on to the boards. For instance, the remote facilitator will collate the onsite responses and populate on the digital boards and vice versa for the onsite facilitator.
Lock your boards after every activity
You may want to secure the information you have collated. Locking a board prevents other users from modifying or editing the board afterwards. Also lock the instructions, headers, examples etc so that participants do not accidentally edit those. Right click on your board to lock it.
Repeat instructions prior to every activity
Every activity should be prefaced with a slide setting out the instructions and explaining what features are to be used. Ask each participant if they understand the task and are ready to begin. Point them to the exact location in the cheat sheet in case of any confusion.
Repeat agenda slide after every activity
It might get difficult to keep the remote participants as focused as the onsite participants. Repeating the agenda after every activity and striking out the ones completed helps keep a track of progress.
Start each day with a recap of the previous day
It is quite possible for your remote participants to feel disconnected from the onsite participants. Insist on using video conferencing when you start each day where all participants can see each other. Recap what you did the previous day and share over all progress.
Keep half a day buffer
No matter how well you budget time, spill overs are inevitable due to the nature of these workshops — just when you think nothing can go wrong, something (in most cases, IT infrastructure) will! If you would like a 3-day workshop, plan for 3.5 days. Ensure you do not leave out any activity to be done later. As we’ve learned the hard way, if you leave out even one activity, it may take weeks or months to get responses back from all the participants.
Thank you email
Thank every participant and impress upon them why it is important to be physically present for workshops. Consider yourself fortunate if you achieve 75 percent of what you had set out to. Share photographs and videos from the workshop.
Share workshop findings
The most common question you will hear during the workshop — “how will this help us?” Share your workshop findings within a week and clearly elucidate how the various activities laddered up and how it will help everyone progress collectively.
Send a feedback form and ask the participants to help you improve.
Remote workshops cannot and should not replace physical workshops. It’s more than just the activities—it’s about putting pen to paper (which is always refreshing), it’s about getting to know each other and sharing a common space for a few days while working towards a common goal. No tool can replace this warmth of physical contact.
Having said that, the nature of our businesses these days leave us with no choice but to resort to means of remote collaboration. And when you are faced with a similar situation, we hope our experience will encourage you to roll up your sleeves and do what you got to do!
Having conducted multiple remote workshops, we feel we can help you strategize for yours. If you would like to know more, get in touch!
Rhishiraj believes in bending the arc of humanity towards a better world through design and technology. As a Program Manager at frog India, he wishes to contribute to the growth story that is India.