Remote workshops are awesome for collaboration too

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Bringing people together to collaborate, ideate, and make decisions, has long been a central part of how we work and build products at Potato. With remote working and distributed teams taking the central stage in our ways of working, it became quickly apparent we had to learn how to deliver successful remote workshops.

In a way, holding a remote workshop can be quite similar to having it face-to-face: people will come together to achieve a common goal (alignment, decision-making, co-creating), and go through a carefully designed and facilitated process that helps them reach it.

The key difference is, of course, the space in which the workshop takes place. Moving from a physical to a digital space can seem quite daunting, and it’s easy to focus on the difficulties it brings and the things we feel are lost - but digital remote workshops bring mountains of new opportunities.

Image Image: A shared space to create and collaborate - this is an example of how we structure our Miro boards to bring people together

The value remote workshops can bring

During these months we’ve discovered that remote workshops are not only as impactful as face-to-face ones, but that they can bring a world of different advantages. When well planned and delivered, we’ve discovered several benefits to running remote workshops:

Combining real time & asynchronous collaboration

With a well defined process, we can combine asynchronous work (where participants complete assignments at their own time and pace) with real time collaboration (coming together to share ideas and co-create). This gives the team more flexibility, creates new dynamics of collaboration, and allows your workshop design to include a wider range of exercises.

Longer reflection times

With the fast pace nature of face-to-face workshops, there can be little time to reflect on the decisions we are making. The introduction of asynchronous collaboration allows participants to work at their own pace and in their own style, providing time to reflect and process ideas.

Increased iteration and collaboration

With more time to work individually and asynchronously, team members can spend more time researching and connecting with each other’s thoughts and ideas, leading to better idea generation.

Better idea capture

As thoughts and ideas are captured digitally, there is no need to spend time transcribing and digitising, allowing team members to access their process instantly, whenever they want. The shared collaborative whiteboard becomes a constant companion for the team.

A process for remote collaborative workshops

We have organised some of our best practices and key learnings around the steps and activities we take when designing and delivering remote workshops. We hope this process will help you when thinking of your own workshops.

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Plan

  • Define workshop goals: Ensure a good balance between your goals and the timeframes defined. Remember there’s only so much you can do in 4 hours or a week - make sure you are setting the right limits and expectations on goals.
  • Identify participants: Calculate the time you need for participants to come together to collaborate, and add it to everyone's diaries.
  • Bring the team together: Define the team that will deliver the workshop and ensure they are aligned on process, roles and responsibilities. Consider co-facilitation - we’ve found it keeps the energy of the team and the room moving.

Create

  • Choose your toolset: Consider the different tools you will need for the workshop, and choose the ones that will work best for you. We currently use a mix of digital whiteboard (Miro), and videoconference (Hangouts), but are considering other communication spaces like slack for longer workshop projects (that span a week or more).
  • Create your environment: Include all of the exercises on the same canvas to ensure everything is easy to find and captured in one place. Clearly label exercises as ‘Pre Workshop’ and ‘During Workshop’, making it clear what should be completed at what times.
  • Design a balanced agenda: bring the right mix of activities together, considering pre-work and workshop work, as well as individual and team work. Think about the flow of the session(s) and how they come together to create a balanced experience that helps people work together to accomplish the goals. Think about energy flows, and how activities create or break energy.
  • Define timings: We’ve found that 3 hours is usually the limit on workshops - anything further and the energy and attention of the room will start to go down, and you’ll lose focus and motivation. Still, three hours is a long time for people to work together through their screens, so we usually add one or two breaks (of 10-15 mins) for 3 hour workshops. When defining the timing for activities, we discovered pretty early on that nothing really takes 5 minutes - and our activities always account for run over time - giving teams and exercises some breathing space.

Inform

  • Set participants up for success: equip your participants with the tools and frameworks they’ll need for the day - this is as much about helping them understand how to use the toolset you chose, as it is about connecting, sharing content & instructions, driving conversations, and creating open channels of communication. We hold a short 30 minute walkthrough session a few days before the event, during which we show participants how to use the tool (focusing on key functionalities, not everything will be relevant for the day) and talk through the exercises and expectations.

Image Image: An example of the workshop guide we use for walkthrough session

Asynchronous collaboration

  • Build engagement through pre-work: adding short and simple ‘Pre Workshop’ exercises drives engagement and reflection even before the workshop starts. We use simple exercises (adding post-it notes of thoughts/ideas, or sharing inspiration spaces) as a way to give participants the space to explore and learn how to use the digital tool, while also creating additional inputs that allow us to cover more ground.

Real time collaboration

  • Create space around pre-work: Always assign time to review and have a conversation around pre-work, giving space for participants to share the work completed asynchronously. You can also use this as the initial ground from where to iterate and continue idea generation.
  • Build a safe space: Always consider how your actions and communication are affecting this space. We build this by listening with care, our attention and energy fully channeled into this shared moment. This can be difficult to convey in the digital space, but staying present, keeping cameras on and distractions off (such as keeping your phone away and other tabs closed) are key.
  • Be clear with instructions: communicate activity instructions clearly and give space for questions. Keep written instructions on the screen so they’re always accessible for participants. Remind participants of times - ideally you can use Miro/Mural functionality to show the timer.
  • Stay connected to the “room”: actively listen to what your participants tell you, stay in touch with the energy of the room, and facilitate with empathy. Guide participants through a clear process, but feel free to adapt your plan if needed - add breaks in, change timings, re-focus.

Image Image: visible instructions and time frames help participants stay connected and informed

The process we have shared here is the one we follow when we create and deliver remote workshops at Potato. Our workshops are not “adaptations” of face-to-face events, but are instead carefully designed to be remote and collaborative events. It’s important to note that they’re designed with a focus on all team members joining remotely from their individual locations. While we’ve tried a combination of face-to-face and remote participants in one same event, we’ve found these to have mixed results - we believe this is because participants are essentially taking different journeys, where the tasks, processes and tools are considerably different.

Collaborative workshops are an integral part of the projects we deliver at Potato - they’re key in bringing teams together to collaborate and co-create throughout product development, and working together to build ideas and make decisions. Delivering remote workshops demanded some adaptation and learning, but we’ve discovered that with the right tools, process and preparation they can deliver outstanding results, and have opened a world of new possibilities for our teams and projects.