Running a Workshop Remotely — Part 1: The Challenge

This is part 1 of 3 in a series where I’ll share our learnings in transforming an in-person workshop into one that was run completely online.

Introduction

One of the coolest things we’ve been able to build in DevDiv to support our Customer-Driven Engineering culture is an onboarding workshop for all new employees in our Division. Our workshop is a 3-day deep dive into our end-to-end software making process that is outlined in our Customer-Driven Playbook.

Over the course of these 3 days, our attendees work together in small groups on a business goal, given to them from our leadership team. With these goals in mind, groups will identify their assumptions about our customers and their problems, formulate those assumptions into hypotheses, and formulate discussion guides based on their hypotheses.

With their discussion guides in hand, attendees have an opportunity to talk with real customers, connect with them, and most often learn just how off their initial assumptions were. It can be a powerful moment of learning. Finally, groups work together to ideate, storyboard, and conceptualize solutions to the problems they heard directly from customers.

We’ve been iterating on our workshops for years now and through that process of refinement, they’ve become wildly successful. Not only were our workshops consistently receiving a high rating of satisfaction amongst our attendees, we also began to get a lot of interest from other divisions at Microsoft and even some of our customers as well.

A woman presenting her group’s Journey Map to a guest attending the leadership review on the final day of the workshop
Workshop attendees presenting their work to leadership

Our workshops became a full expression of our team’s vision for scaling UX research practices and empowering everyone in our organization to connect with each other and learn from our customers.

Then the unexpected happened.

COVID-19 (aka “coronavirus”) hit and Microsoft, along with many other companies, responsibly closed their offices to maintain the safety and wellbeing of their employees.

The closure of our offices presented a significant challenge for our team and our workshop. We heavily relied on the energy we were creating by getting folks in a room together to collaborate. The vibrance of the workshop’s hackathon-style atmosphere, with all its colorful Post-It notes, creative sketches and storyboards, and the physical act of coming together and making something was a big part of our workshop’s brand. Getting together in person, was a significant factor in our success.

The question for us was: Could we inspire that level of collaboration, comradery, and creativity through each employee’s computer screen?

We also didn’t have much time to produce an answer to that question. Our next quarterly workshop was coming up and we had a slew of new employees who hadn’t even had a chance to visit their fellow teammates on campus yet. We knew that many of them were struggling with not only starting a new job, but also feeling disconnected from their new teams and their new roles.

In this time of crisis, our workshop presented a new opportunity; to connect these new employees, not only to our customers, but also to each other. And as the events of COVID and many other difficult issues swirled around the world outside, we felt compelled to find effective solutions to help us run our workshop remotely.

So, as any good research team would do, we set out to understand the challenge ahead of us. What could we learn about remote workshop facilitation? What were the crucial elements? How did collaborating remotely affect learning? What technology was going to be required? There were so many questions.

So, I want to break down this blog series in three parts:

Part 1: The Challenge — Understanding the landscape, the resources that informed our strategy, and the plan we decided to implement.

Part 2: The Technology — A deep dive into the configuration of tools that helped translate our in-person, paper-based, workshop into a completely online, real-time, workshop.

Part 3: The Learning — A look at our overall learnings and an examination of the tried-and-tested methods we used to try and make learning fun, engaging, and memorable.

Learning and Preparation

We knew, right out the gate, that we couldn’t simply “port” our in-person workshop directly to an online meeting and call it good. We immediately realized that the change in modality would affect our attendee’s ability to process and understand our curriculum.

All our materials were in .pdf form and were designed to be printed out and worked on through in-person groups. We had placards that functioned like a small table placemat. Groups would put their ideas onto Post-It notes and place those notes on their placard.

Animated .gif showing a completion of an Assumptions activity placard.
Animated .gif showing a completion of an Assumptions activity placard.
An example activity from our in-person workshop. Together, groups would assemble their assumptions on our printed placards

Each activity’s placard would then be assembled on top of a larger poster we called the “Journey Map”. The journey map represented all seven activities the group completed during the week and was the perfect instrument to present their work to leadership on the final day of the workshop.

Image of the “Journey Map” poster, showing the template for where attendees can place their completed activity placards
Image of the “Journey Map” poster, showing the template for where attendees can place their completed activity placards
The “Journey Map” poster where all attendees’ activities get displayed. The size of the poster is 50x42 in. (127x107 cm.)

Throughout our research we came across a helpful guide and we also listened to some expert remote facilitators. Combined with lots of articles from remote facilitators on Medium and foundational research at Microsoft, we identified a handful of things we knew were going to have to address in transitioning our workshop to a completely online medium.

In our previous in-person workshops, we had embraced a “just-in-time” coaching style, where we would make slight modifications to our curriculum and agenda, based on the need of attendees during the workshop. This allowed us to meet each group where they were and drive maximum engagement and retention. However, to effectively organize over thirty remote attendees, that sort of “on the fly flexibility” would be non-existent. We needed to be more prepared than ever before. The agenda had to be airtight and every moment of the workshop would have to be planned and accounted for. We spent weeks going through each lecture and activity, optimizing for time, and communicating our plan to participants weeks in advance.

Rebuilding the workshop so that we could facilitate it completely online was a perfect “dogfooding” opportunity for our team to test our own tools. We decided to put Microsoft Teams through its paces and determine if it could scale to meet the demand of eight independent workshop groups collaborating in real-time.

Screenshot showing a group’s Microsoft Teams subchannel
Screenshot showing a group’s Microsoft Teams subchannel
Our Teams channel for our Customer-Driven Remote Workshop

With the help of a James Miller, our team was able to create a structure in Microsoft Teams that mimicked our in-person configuration. Our plan was to use the General channel in Teams as our “classroom”; that’s where we would we all come together each morning for instruction. Then, for each activity, attendees would meet in their respective, private subchannels.

What’s nice about this approach is that we could organize these sub-channels and provide all the necessary tools each workshop group was going to need, well in advance.

To enable attendees to work together on our activity placards, we investigated a handful of collaboration tools. Here’s what we found:

  1. Microsoft Whiteboard: Whiteboard is fantastic in team meeting scenarios. If you’re meeting in small groups and have the need to draw something to communicate your ideas to the rest of the group, this is a great tool for that. However, we needed a tool that would allow us to assemble seven activity placards in a virtual space, so that our groups could work on them collaboratively. Whiteboard didn’t facilitate that function in a meaningful way for us.
  2. Miro: Miro is a full-fledged team collaboration tool. It had all the features we were looking for…In fact, it really had too many features. To us, Miro felt more like a sophisticated design tool. That’s not necessarily bad at all, but it just wasn’t the right fit for our workshop. We didn’t want attendees spending the three days trying to learn a new collaboration tool. We wanted their attention spent on the process of Customer-Driven Engineering and connecting with our customers.
  3. MURAL: MURAL was the perfect fit. This tool was designed, from the ground up, with workshop facilitators in mind. The interface is simple and intuitive, but powerful. Operations work effortlessly in MURAL and, in no time, we were able to start creating workspaces and MURAL boards to prepare for our workshop. MURAL also has features that enable you to create a course outline, giving our coaches the ability to show and hide activities. This was an excellent feature because it allowed us to progressively disclose each activity and prevent attendees from getting ahead of themselves.
A screenshot showing all the active MURAL boards being completed during the remote workshop
A screenshot showing all the active MURAL boards being completed during the remote workshop
The collection of all our MURAL boards for the workshop

We brought in our fellow researchers to be hands on coaches for each group. Our coaches would be there, every step of the way, to help their assigned groups with each activity and maintain the collaboration and engagement when attendees went off to do their group work. While this meant we had to take our fellow researchers offline from their day-to-day work for three days, we felt that it was critically important that workshop groups didn’t flounder in their group work. We knew that we would be sending attendees from the General channel to go off and work in smaller groups through their private Teams subchannels. In that exchange, we didn’t want groups to feel disconnected from the rest of the “classroom”. Our remote attendees wouldn’t have the benefit of being able to look around the classroom at other group’s work and ask themselves, “Are we on track?”

Our coaches would fulfil a vital role; helping each group feel connected and on track with each activity.

Wherever possible we tried to “front-load” learning before the workshop. We recorded videos on how we planned to use the online tools, what they could expect from the workshop, and gave them access to their individual group Teams subchannels, so they could begin meeting their coaches and ask questions, weeks before we got started with the workshop. The goal was to minimize as many disruptions as possible, by handling technical issues, access to content, and other coordination before we met on the first day.

Through the group’s Teams subchannels coaches sent introductions, weeks before the workshop was set to start, to help raise the visibility of the Teams space and to model the kind of behavior and group communication we were expecting during the workshop.

A screenshot of a group coach introducing himself to his group via their group’s private Microsoft Teams subchannel
A screenshot of a group coach introducing himself to his group via their group’s private Microsoft Teams subchannel
One of our coaches introduces himself through his group’s subchannel

We also prepared videos and distributed them, right in the group’s subchannels using Microsoft Stream. These videos discussed what to expect in the workshop and gave tips on how attendees could prepare their computers and environments to get the most out of the workshop.

A screenshot from Microsoft Stream, showing a welcome video for attendees of the workshop
A screenshot from Microsoft Stream, showing a welcome video for attendees of the workshop
A welcome video hosted on Micrsoft Stream that welcomes attendees and prepares them for what they need to be successful in the workshop

Finally, something that is a big part of our workshop’s brand is the positive energy we create. Every choice we’ve made is built on a desire to make our workshops fun, memorable, and engaging. Our biggest concern in moving our in-person workshop to remote facilitation was that we were going to struggle maintaining attendees’ attention.

We heard from many experts that watching online lectures or even doing activities online is physically draining for participants. One principle that was often thrown around was that you “should do no more than 7 minutes of talking, before you have them interact with you.”

With this in mind, we reduced each day of the workshop by three hours to limit the number of hours that attendees had to spend at their screen. We also investigated a way to create an audio/video environment that would allow us to have music, visuals, and even fun sound effects during our classroom time when all the attendees were gathered. The pattern we wanted was to generate excitement and energy in the classroom setting (aka Microsoft Teams General channel), then send them off to do their group activities (Microsoft Teams group subchannel).

So now that we’ve discussed our goals for the workshop, I want to do a deep dive into the technical details of how a facilitator can configure their computers to give themselves a rich set of tools for presenting an engaging workshop.

There’s a lot to unpack in that discussion, so I’ve put it all in my next post: Running a Workshop Remotely — Part 2: The Technology.

UX Researcher and Author