Remote workshops: Collaboration done virtually

This is a guest post by Laïla von Alvensleben, UX designer at Hanno. The post was originally published at Hanno's blog.

As you may have noticed, the times they are a-changin’. Our traditional ways of working are being disrupted and the latest trends show that the number of organisations embracing remote work is constantly rising, and they’re here to stay.

Let’s pause and reflect on what this means for companies in general. Should they all become entirely remote? No, for a number of reasons. First off, it really depends on what a company is focused on: some of their products and services are too difficult or impossible to create remotely (remote car manufacturing, anyone?). Yet their teams might still benefit from becoming familiar with remote collaboration because as enterprises grow and expand their networks, so do the opportunities for remote teamwork.

So let me reframe the question and ask, should companies learn how to work remotely? Ideally, yes. Not only is it going to help them attract new talent (already 68% of college graduates are more likely to seek flexible remote jobs), but it will also give them a head start to a new way of collaboration which is already defining the future of work.

Remote workshops are one way to try out remote collaboration

Remote workshops are online meetings led by someone who teaches a new skill or technique to a group of participants using digital platforms and tools. The participants may either be in the same room or in separate physical spaces, but the person who leads the session is usually located elsewhere.

Remote workshops are slowly but steadily gaining popularity for its practicality. Over the past six months, my team and I designed and facilitated three remote workshops, and we’re ready to share the outcomes and insights that we learnt thanks to the people who joined us.

Remote workshop 1: Devising a new communication strategy

We ran the first remote workshop to help LINGOs communicate its purpose and services on its new website. Since LINGOs is a geographically distributed team, it made perfect sense to pair with them remotely and run a 2-day workshop that would not only allow us to understand their company better, but also help them redefine how they wanted to represent their company and values online.

In regular face-to-face workshops, it’s common to transfer skills and create new ideas over the course of an entire day. To achieve this remotely, however, we knew that a full-day remote workshop would be too exhausting: being on a video conference call can be tiring even after half an hour.

So we split the workshop into two 4-hour workshops over the course of two days. We shared the schedule with the LINGOs team, asking them to add their names to the workshop topics they were going to be involved in. When organising remote workshops, it’s useful if the participants can be flexible with their time since they might be located in different time zones. We found that having the schedule on a shareable GoogleDoc made it easy for people to let us know other priorities they may have had and that made it easier for us to organise our planned exercises around them.

Once we kicked off the workshop, it was crucial to get their team to actively engage with each other. Synchronous visual collaboration encourages teamwork when collaborating remotely, just as it would if we were all in the same room. To recreate a sense of progressing together, we used Mural to explore different themes and made everyone share their visions, both visually and verbally. This ultimately helped us guide them to define and agree on their brand collectively.

Our main takeaways

Funnily, we learnt how to communicate better remotely. Although Hanno is already pretty good at that, working side by side with another remote team introduced us to different ways of communicating online. For example, the LINGOs team would usually mute their microphones and give a thumbs up sign or nod their heads vigorously when they wanted to show they approved of someone’s idea. This prevented people from talking over each other and saved us a lot of time. Using simple hand signs to communicate is something Hanno hadn’t really considered before, but now we’d definitely recommend other remote teams to adopt in their online group conversations.

From a participant…

“The facilitators knew what they were doing, there was a clear pathway during the sessions, it was clear how there were managing time. I hadn’t used Mural before, but I like Mural, it’s a different facilitation tool. I also like how all the tools are just tools, you don’t rely on them… there was always much more you were trying to do with your questions and style that the tools just supported. I also liked the topics, they were useful.”

Remote workshop 2: Learning how to prototype

Our next experiment with remote workshops was done with Agenda: Jämlikhet (Agenda: Equality), a Swedish non-profit organisation that set up a social innovation lab aiming to find new digital solutions for human rights issues. Running a remote session with Agenda: Jämlikhet was challenging on a whole other level since we were asked to teach rapid prototyping to a non-remote team of social workers who had very little experience with design thinking. The workshop was also intended to help them teach others how to prototype, so it turned out to be an accelerated workshop and ‘Training of Trainers’ session all rolled into one.

Before the workshop, we sent out guidelines to make sure all the participants were aware of the tools and kind of environment they needed to have during the workshop. It’s important to plan this and communicate it in advance—otherwise, even something as mundane as someone not having a piece of paper on the day may slow everyone down.

We spent the first half of the workshop explaining what prototyping was, why it’s useful, when it should happen in the design process and the different types of prototypes that exist. Since this was a lot to take in at once, we kept the information brief because people’s online attention span is shorter than in real life.

Most people will agree that the best part of any workshop is when we apply what we’ve learnt. Remote workshops benefit from this as it brings in more energy into the virtual space. The tricky part however, is splitting people into teams to work together when they’re in the same conference call because that will inevitably create noise and confusion. Luckily, two participants were actually in the same office so they simply muted themselves and worked together face-to-face, while the others remained in Zoom for the duration of the exercise. (Another solution would be to make people exchange Skype IDs so they can hold separate calls while muting themselves on Zoom, and then make them return to Zoom when the exercise is finished.)

The exercises were intentionally kept short—it’s a known fact that stress can help people be creative, and this works remotely too. Each exercise was then followed by a discussion and feedback round to help the participants learn from each other and ask questions about what they had prototyped.

Our main takeaways

Regardless of whether someone is used to working remotely or not, it’s essential to make everyone feel comfortable during a remote workshop. By introducing the digital tools we’d be using before the workshop, people had the chance to experiment with them beforehand. These tools were reintroduced at the start of the workshop to make sure everyone understood how to use them and everyone was given some time to talk about their thoughts or experiences while using them. Doing so made it much easier for people to get involved in the exercises that followed, even though the topic was unfamiliar.

From a participant…

“At first, I was totally blank, I was like “Oh my God, oh my God, so much pressure.” But then it got pretty easy, I guess, to kind of make up a whole idea in 10 minutes. And then now when we were discussing it, it was also pretty fun. And also, because it’s so fast you don’t really sit here and need to argue your idea. You know, you’re not so attached to it. You really want to know what you can improve, or what you think.”

Remote workshop 3: Getting familiar with collaborating remotely

Here’s a meta-question: what if you could participate in a remote workshop about remote work? Well, that’s exactly what we tried next.

People often ask us if we can help them learn how to work remotely. Usually, we’d reply by sending them links to our previous blog posts about remote work or sharing a few useful tips. However, that isn’t really going to teach someone how to work remotely, especially if they’ve never tried it before.

That’s why we started doing remote work workshops (I’m still thinking of a tongue twister to go with it; feel free to send me suggestions). These are designed to help anyone set themselves up to work remotely with a team, whether you’re a total newbie or a pro on the topic.

To try this out, we found six people from different backgrounds, companies and countries to join me and Jim Kalbach from Mural to learn some tips and tricks for better remote collaboration. Most of them had already experimented with working remotely, but they were all curious to know how they could improve the process.

Jim and I began with an icebreaker exercise and encouraged everyone to share their expectations for the workshop on Mural. This was also a great way to make them interact and get comfortable with the tool.

From there, we carried on with a mixture of discussions and practical exercises that would help the participants ‘learn by doing’. In the ‘sailboat game’, for example, everyone was asked map out what was holding them back from working effectively in their teams (anchors) and what would make them go faster (wind). The workshop also touched upon setting up a remote team culture, understanding which tools to use and testing different workflows to improve asynchronous collaboration.

Unlike the previous workshops, we introduced a lot of tools and processes from the start—after throwing the group in the deep end, they all managed to switch between the tools and documents easily after a short time. Halfway through the workshop, we made it even more challenging by splitting them into teams and making them solve some problems on their own. This kind of impromptu teamwork may feel awkward at first, but adding some time pressure meant people had to bond quickly and this made the exercises more enjoyable.

Our main takeaways

Getting a group of complete strangers online to work together was more fun than we expected. Initially, we were a bit worried about how everyone would get along, especially since they weren’t in the same physical space and had never met previously, but fortunately, we were able to create an online environment where people’s personalities shone. Kicking off with an icebreaker exercise and using an informal tone in all our communication definitely helped to create a relaxed atmosphere in which people felt at ease to be themselves.

From a participant…

“I think the time went by really quickly. Learning by doing is beautiful. There was a great flow and a lot of interesting perspectives, and a great group of humans! Collaborating on the exercises was great fun and an eye-opening way to learn.”

Learning to relearn

We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of all the opportunities that remote workshops could offer… remote design thinking, remote user testing, remote you-name-it. Probably the most striking insight from our experiences is that geographical distances should never be a blocker for learning and changing perspectives. As futurist Alvin Toffler is famously known for saying,

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Apparently, those words should be credited to Herbert Gerjuoy but regardless, we couldn’t agree more.

Want to learn how to work remotely?

If you’d like to take part in our upcoming remote workshops or if you’d like to have a chat about creating a bespoke workshop for you and your team, sign up here.

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