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The remote workshop checklist

Remote workshops need more planning, but are surprisingly effective! Here’s your step-by-step guide.


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Puneet Syal

3 years ago | 7 min read

Remote workshops need a bit more planning, but can be surprisingly effective! Here’s your step-by-step guide to getting them right.

The pandemic continues to impact everything that we took for granted. It is becoming plain that nothing will ever be quite the same. Even as we deal with the impact to our personal lives, the struggle to evolve work patterns is very much still in progress.

Workshops as a design tool

One of the most important tools in the design toolkit is the workshop, which is useful in many ways. Benefits include:

  • Networking, hands-on problem solving
  • Getting buy-in from participants
  • A sandbox for trying unconventional things
  • A fun way to bring a group together around a common theme

Workshops concentrate the power of varied experiences, insights, mindset, and opinions. Collaboration brings these factors to bear on a complex problem in a structured way, enabling a space for co-creating concepts and prototypes.

Workshops are powerful tools, and workshop facilitators spend a lot of time and effort honing their skills. Availability of creative spaces seems to be crucial to the workshop method. Every picture in an image search for “design workshop” shows a physical space.

What happens when a disaster like the coronavirus limits access to this essential ingredient? Are we no longer able to use this tool?

Turns out, designers and facilitators are a resourceful bunch!

Remote events have proven to be effective in amazing ways. A recent 6-hour-long workshop covered 4 time zones, 8 locations, and more than 50 participants! This was a long and complex workshop. Surprisingly, post-workshop surveys revealed that participants rated it as more effective than earlier in-person workshops. They would even recommend the format to other teams.

What follows is a detailed breakdown of the tasks needed to run a long-format workshop. It reflects what we learned from our own workshops, and what we absorbed from other’s experiences. It is a small contribution to the growing library of tips and tools, reflecting our confidence in the future of remote workshopping!

Overview

The difference between remote and in-person workshops quickly becomes clear. For one, remote workshops need a lot more prep work. Every exercise during the workshop takes longer. It’s harder to set expectation with participants about how this is different from other online meetings they might attend. To plan an effective workshop, consider these 3 stages: laying the groundwork, planning logistics for the event, and running the workshop.

And so, here is the checklist for all three stages. Adapt these tasks to suit your context and needs!

1. Laying the groundwork

The first set of tasks involves documenting everything participants and sponsors need to know about goals and outcomes. For short workshops, expect to spend a week on this, while more complex workshops might need up to 3 weeks.

Make sure to review the documentation with a core team often, bringing everyone along with you through the process!

1.1 Personas and journeys

Research helps build an empathetic picture of the people who are the focus of the workshop. Include motivations, pain points, relationships with other personas, and contextual insights. Workshop participants might not have been part of the research or had time to listen to interview recordings, so journey maps help them step into the users’ shoes and explore ideas from the user’s point of view.

1.2 Insights

Capture patterns of user behavior which are relevant to the space. Limit the number of themes to between 3 and 6. This will make it easier for participants to read about these patterns in the empathy phase of the workshop.

1.3 Current state

A quick assessment of the current state, and what we know about how existing solutions are working.

1.4 Product strategy

Interview stakeholders, product owners, technology teams, and others. Organizations often have standard formats for documenting this, but it can be as simple as stickies in a digital whiteboard.

1.5 Strategy map

A strategy map allows us to control the constraints on ideation to be as broad or narrow as needed for the workshop. It shows areas of product or business strategy that are off-limits due to regulatory, business, or technical constraints. Most importantly, it sets up a broad time boundary — are we imagining a future 6 months from today, 10 years out, or something in between?

1.6 Defining the mission

The last step of the groundwork is to write a mission statement. Just as you would in a Design Sprint, this is best done in a collaboration with the core team. It brings together everything learned in the prior steps and is the final brief for the workshop. The format includes constraints like the timebox and product strategy, and opportunities from the perspective of the users.


2. Planning logistics

Logistics is all about setting up digital tools, calendar invites, and prep materials. Make sure you have access to your favorite tools for whiteboarding, screen-sharing, and video-meeting!

2.1 Event planning

An all-day in-person workshop is reasonable, but in a remote format, 5 or 6 hours is an awfully long meeting. An agenda which needs more time than this is best broken up into multiple sessions. Consider the complexity of the domain and number of activities and plan the event (or events) accordingly.

2.2 Teams structure

Make sure to use one major advantage of remote workshops — the ability to include many more participants, across more locations, than you could with in-person sessions! With a larger group, plan for breakout teams. The best team size stays similar to in-person workshops, which is between 4 and 8 people.

2.3 Tools

There are 3 critical tools — digital whiteboarding, video meeting, and documentation. Some services might combine all 3 into 1 tool, while others need to be used in combination. A workshop with more than 10 participants also needs the ability to send smaller teams into breakout rooms. For our organization, a combination of Mural, Zoom, and Confluence has the best balance of familiarity and access. If you have many facilitators, make sure to have a separate chat channel between facilitators to coordinate activities and address questions.

2.4 Roles

A single MC or facilitator might have been sufficient for in-person workshops without breakout teams. Remote workshops need, at a minimum, a coordinator to help manage the technology and timing so the facilitator can focus on the content. Every breakout room needs its own facilitator. Large teams might need co-facilitators. A team of 12 facilitators was needed to support a recent workshop with 6 teams of 9 people each!

2.5 Rehearsal

Practicing the flow of workshop activities is vital when the facilitation team is larger. This will help facilitators respond to any questions in their teams and be able to move effortlessly through the activities. It is also a great test of the technology, to make sure everything will work as planned on the big day.

2.6 Facilitation guide

The facilitation guide has all the material used by the facilitators to guide workshop activities. This has themes from research, product strategy, and the mission statement. Put this in a place where all participants can access the information.

2.7 The agenda

The workshop timeline needs special attention.

  • Plan frequent breaks, to allow participants to take care of other things that might happen during the workshop.
  • Keep a 15% buffer for activities which take longer than planned.
  • Consider how much extra time you can afford to give to a team who wants to continue an activity for longer.


3. Running the workshop

This is all about orchestrating the workshop, so everything goes off without a hitch.

3.1 Roles

After the groundwork and logistics, you might expect that everyone would be clear about their roles. But do not assume this is true! Check with the team to make sure they know what they have been assigned to, and have what they need to do the work:

  • The MC, or the primary facilitator, who sets up the day and runs all activities in the main group room.
  • The coordinator, who works in the background to orchestrate the technology, timing, and breakout rooms. Records any parts of the workshop that will be needed for reference later.
  • Facilitators for each team, one per breakout room.
  • Co-facilitators, who help in each breakout room if there are more than the usual number of participants or for complex topics.

3.2 Manage the timeline

Prepare to adjust the timeline through the course of the workshop. Since all teams will march to the same timeline, a single team needing an extra 10 minutes to complete an activity will push out everyone’s schedule. Make sure to communicate updates to the timeline to facilitators. Facilitators are often completely immersed in managing the team’s activity, so it helps to see reminders of time left.

3.3 Manage teams

With so many working from home, it is not unusual for participants to have to join late, need to drop, or leave early. Keep an eye on the number of people in each team, and prep specific participants (like the sponsoring product owners) to be ready to be reassigned during the workshop.

3.4 Check in

Activity inside of a breakout room is not visible to the group. The MC or the primary facilitator should drop into each breakout room occasionally to check in on the flow of the workshop or weigh in on debates.

3.5 Measure the experience

Finally, make sure to get feedback on the session. Every context is unique, and it helps to get feedback from participants on what worked well, and what did not. You might be pleasantly surprised by the feedback and how it compares to in-person workshops!

This is not an exhaustive list of tasks, and most remote workshops do not need to go through every step. And, depending on your context, you may need to include tasks unique to the situation. Good luck on your facilitation journey!

***

Originally published on https://medium.com/fidelity-design/the-remote-workshop-checklist-a2c17f5a25f (2020, August 18).

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

***

Rybicki, S. (2020, June 17). Conducting Business-to-Business UX Research during COVID-19. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from Medium website: https://medium.com/fidelity-design/conducting-business-to-business-ux-research-during-covid-19-ee6bcdb9ad5d

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Puneet Syal

Digital product designer and strategist, inspiring teams in finding the right problems to solve.


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