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Strategy

Remote Workshops that Work

Emily Fogarty
Emily Fogarty

We’ve done a number of remote workshops and found that they don’t just work—they can create a different kind of magic, one you may not even get in person. Why?

But don’t expect to just create a meeting invite and have it feel like real life right away. There are a few things that make critical differences in our remote workshops. Since we’re all in the same boat right now, we wanted to share them with you in hopes that these insights will encourage you to embrace collaboration, even if everyone is remote. Keeping your team engaged and focused on positive goals might be critical for morale and success right now.

meme - me and my coworkers logging into our remote meetings
If one person is remote, everyone needs to be remote

Most of us have experienced the feeling of calling into a meeting when everyone else is together in a room. There’s a slight delay, so every time you start to talk, you interrupt someone. You can’t read facial and body language clearly because some people are off-camera. Others are way back at the end of a long table, like rich people eating breakfast in a movie. Nobody enjoys this. But when everyone is calling in, these issues disappear. Remote meeting technology lets everyone see and hear each other. No one’s an outsider when everyone’s together on the screen.

Any wall can be a whiteboard

Successful collaboration requires a way to record and organize ideas on the spot. We love a good whiteboard. We also love giant Post-Its, printed worksheets, and voting dots. We use these tools (and many more) in our in-person workshops. When you’re collaborating remotely, you can get similar results with a little advance planning.

Running a remote workshop, but still using a physical space
Remote workshop from Brooklyn, NY

For example, you can send supplies to all participants ahead of time, or have a facilitator set up a makeshift whiteboard on a wall or window. We mail print-out worksheets and supplies directly to participants ahead of time, that way there’s no scramble to replace printer ink or find a Sharpie.

Here are links to some of our favorite workshop supplies: Sharpies, Jumbo Post-Its, blue tape, and voting dots.

Or you can go totally digital. We often use Google Docs or Slides as a way to collaborate live without paper. Take a look at a few examples that we've used recently to evaluate a concept, plot an opportunity, or stack rank ideas. With Google slides everyone can view and edit together, and you have the finished slide deck ready to go.

Other collaborative tools we like are: Miro, Parobal, and Mural - which is a virtual whiteboard that’s affordable and intuitive. If shaky internet connections and low-quality webcams are a problem, a tablet such as an iPad Pro with an Apple pencil can work, too.

Video conferencing is not one-size-fits-all.
Google Hangouts is our go-to for day-to-day remote meetings because it’s easy to use, set up, and add to calendar invites. But for a large group, we suggest Zoom. It’s simple, secure, and reliable, with plans tailored to everyone from individuals to large enterprises.

Beware the vacant stare.
One challenge of remote meetings is that people can zone out. (Don’t pretend you’ve never tried to clear your inbox during a boring call or video conference.) Unlike regular meetings, workshops are collaborative—when everyone’s involved, people stay on their toes. In a remote workshop, make sure the facilitator calls on different people regularly to keep everyone engaged. Facilitators and presenters should also be mindful of their performance - people love watching people who are animated and dynamic. Use clear gestures, move the camera to break up the shot (just keep it steady), and avoid speaking in monotone.

If the workshop is going to last more than an hour, schedule short breaks (10 or 15 minutes is fine) so people have an opportunity to stretch, check email, send texts, or see what’s happening on Twitter.

Facilitating a remote workshop from industry city, brooklyn

Don’t let the screen stop activities.
Group activities are a hallmark of in-person workshops, and you can make them work remotely, too. Open with introductions and ice-breaker questions. Try a round-robin brainstorming session to get the whole group engaged. If energy levels seem low, go ahead and ask everyone to stand up while they’re talking, or even encourage them to move around a bit.

Thanks to modern technology, remote workshops are no longer an inferior alternative or last resort. They can be exciting, effective, and fun, too. Once you’re in the flow, you may even forget you’re not in the same room as your colleagues. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. But one thing we know for sure is that working remotely can be just as good as meeting in person… and sometimes even better.

We love getting in a room and working face-to-face with our clients and teammates. There’s something extra-special about the energy in an innovation sprint or a group workshop. But being in the same room with a group isn’t always feasible. Right now, it’s not feasible (or responsible) at all. Luckily, these days there are a number of great tools that can make you feel like you're in the room together, even when you aren’t.