Why Virtual Workshops Aren’t as Bad (Anymore) — Sentio Design

Yana Carstens
May 7, 2020 · 5 min read

My hope is to empower other facilitators, and department leaders to shed the bias that in-person workshops are the only and the best way. Throughout my career, I have led and participated in workshops of all sizes and haven’t had the opportunity to facilitate a fully remote workshop until the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual workshops have typically been seen as the ugly duckling, far inferior to the in-person, large conference room format. Unreliable technology and the lack of remote communication etiquette resulted in broad disengagement and sub-par results for many; hence remote workshops have, for the most part, been begrudgingly utilized as the back-up “never” plan.

Several years ago, I wrote that was born out of pure frustration with remote communication. As someone who has lived through the pains of virtual meetings with partially distributed teams, it would have never occurred to me to lead workshops remotely. However, through the years, it became apparent that remote collaboration and communication is only painful with hybrid collocated and distributed teams. With remote only teams, the dynamic can drastically shift, especially when paired with a skilled moderator or facilitator who can enable full collaboration, inclusivity, and engagement.

The economic impact of COVID-19 accelerated many digital-first adoptions and remote workshops are among them. We are living a globally shared scenario of shelter-in-place, where remote sessions and workshops are the only way to make innovation and collaboration flow. Having conducted several virtual-only workshops with small and medium-size groups during the shelter-in-place orders, I’m confident that the once ugly duckling can serve as the enabler of innovation and collaboration, with the added benefit of saving time and money. Below are my thoughts on the benefits of virtual workshops, and how to make them just as great as onsite sessions.

Benefits of Fully Remote Workshops

The primary benefit is that anyone from anywhere can attend regardless of geographic location. Everyone participating virtually is equitable for all participants. Onsite workshops require everyone to join in-person, which sometimes can limit who is invited and gets to participate leaving many from making valuable contributions. Many design workshops take place at company HQs, and people are either required to travel, partially attend remotely or worse, don’t get to be invited because of the cost and logistics of travel.

Remote workshops are fully accessible to people with physical disabilities. Even though many commercial spaces are wheelchair accessible, the added frustrations that people with disabilities experience while traveling and commuting are eliminated.

Several times in my experience, company leaders will go through great lengths to ensure workshops take place onsite. Playing logistical jiu-jitsu and schedule wrangling was perceived to be easier than holding a remote session. One example struck me particularly interesting, where instead of holding a virtual workshop of 30 participants, it was decided to fly in 80% of the participants (who were all company employees) to HQ.

The perceived convenience of in-person sessions outweighed the cost of travel, room & board, and lost productivity due to travel. The cost of a 2 day workshop: Flight, room & board, dining, and transportation per person were on average $2000. For 24 participants, it’s an estimated cost of $48,000. Furthermore, there is the lost opportunity cost associated with lost productivity and headaches due to work-related travel.

“Set the intent, set the vibe, and curate the energy flow of the group.”

Tips for Remote Workshops

What makes virtual workshops work out well is the intention. If you think remote workshops will not work, you will focus on the obstacles, and the workshop will likely not turn out great. The experience will result in frustration, guaranteed. However, setting your intention to complete the activities, no matter what, and to allow for “imperfections” will unblock creativity, and you will create the flow needed to build connection, ignite collaboration, creativity, and sustain engagement. So rule number one is to set the intention before and during the workshop.

  • How can we make this an inclusive, pleasant, and collaborative experience for all participants?
  • How can we make the participants leave the session feeling engaged and productive?
  • How can we avoid having participants feeling forced, unnatural, and frustrated?

If you are new to facilitating, I highly recommend Design the Conversation . In a remote workshop, most traditional activities can be adapted to a virtual activity using miro or mural boards. Choose brainstorming activities that will create the most engagement for all participants, and lead to information gathering based on what you need.

  • What do you need to get out of it?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Which activities can I translate to a virtual collaboration board?
  • What additional tools may I need to use to ensure success during an activity?
  • Choose your tool stack. Mine looks like this: Miro (Live-session and asynchronous collaboration and brainstorming), Zoom (Voice, Video, Screen Share, and Chat), Google Slides (workshop agenda and synthesis), Slack or google chat (pre, during, and post-workshop communication)

“Break up into multiple sessions spanning across several days.”

What worked out incredibly well is breaking up the workshop into multiple sessions spanning over several days. For example instead of having a 1 day full workshop that lasts for 6–8 hours with built in breaks, have a 3x 2hr sessions over a week or two with asynchronous activities built in-between. This approach works well for teams scattered across different time zones and for colleagues for whom it’s difficult to clear their full schedule or find overlaps.

  • Intentionally connect with each participant. Use slack, chat, say, greet them by name.
  • Encourage participants to turn on their cameras or make it a requirement.
  • With the inability to “read the room” and let the flow be directed by the group energy. I find it important to have video on to maximize connection.
  • In addition, use emojis and gifs for expression.
  • Establish an etiquette (ground rules) that will help you lead communication.
  • Set expectations for asynchronous contribution.
  • Send automated prompts using a Slack bot or pre-schedule reminder emails for folks to finish activities between-sessions.
  • Bring positive energy, be in the flow, and welcome improvisation.

I believe that virtual workshops are here to stay. Now that there has been an acceleration in remote workshop experimentation, it will be hard not to keep moving in that direction. Being intentional about designing the remote workshop experience, believing in making it work, and utilizing the tips above will help make remote workshops a great experience. With the added benefits of cost and time savings, I believe the new normal of virtual design and product workshops can open up many more opportunities for group collaboration, helping companies drive meaningful product changes-faster.

Originally published at https://www.sentio.design on May 7, 2020.

Sentio Design

Powering companies through human-centered design.

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