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Running Interactive Workshops In The Upside Down

Two months ago we were all ported into an alternate dimension, one not many of us would have had a plan for. A new context, redefined parameters and a new way of working. I’ve personally become a bit allergic to hearing the words ‘new normal’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘lockdown’ and also the dreaded ‘C’ word itself.

Whilst there is no denying the effects will be lasting and transformative, I don’t think the current dimension is the new normal but it is chance to move forward with renewed perspective. 

As we move into Level 2, what are you going to bring with you and what are you going to be thankful you’ve left behind?

One of my biggest mountains I’ve had to climb has been in the workshopping space. Now as I stop to catch a breath, I realise there are some aspects of doing the sessions remotely which will live on. So what have we learnt?

  • Online white boarding tools such as Miro and Mural have transformed our sessions from preparation through to post workshop write up. Whilst we had dabbled in the use of these tools previously we had not flexed into their full capability.

  • Setting up our worksheets in the tool and assigning icebreakers to participants to engage with before the workshop enabled people to get into the mindset of the session before it began. Taking this approach brought about two unexpected challenges:
  1. Participants got comfortable with the online tools before the session but it wasn’t always streamlined! There was always at least one person who struggled with the technology in the session itself and for that reason we recommend you always have two people active in the running of the session; a Facilitator and a technical/ workshop support person. Budget permitting this in itself ideally lives on in physical sessions as well.

  2. Participants saw the plan for the ENTIRE session before they ‘arrived’. Generally we would share an agenda, but now with early access to the board they could see the entire plan, worksheets and activity explanations. This was interesting territory as it brought about comments and in some cases challenges to the approach. However that in itself was healthy as it was able to be dealt with and changes made before the session began. Let’s face it, there is always one person, usually well meaning, who will try to derail a session when they are not clear on the approach or outcomes and this could be nipped in the bud.
  • Time was another big learning. We anticipated that activities would take longer to complete. But we misjudged just how long. I would now say it takes at least 50% longer in a remote setting to do activities you would have previously done in a physical session. But it raises the point, are we trying to do too much in physical sessions? Should we slow down and spend more quality time on less.

  • Collaboration is also different. We generally say that between 5-7 participants enables individual voices to be heard. In sessions with more people we break into team work to achieve the same outcome. Remotely, we used the Zoom breakout feature to put people into virtual teams. Whilst this worked well, the general buzz of conversation that occurs when teams are working in a single space was lost. Therefore we learnt we needed to increase our share back time so the teams could connect and hear what each had been working on.

  • One of the biggest wins of using the online white boarding tools has been the streamlined approach to the workshop write-up. We spent more time upfront getting our worksheets looking good, but the time to process the information afterwards was reduced because of this.

  • The infinite canvas and toolsets of the online whiteboards enabled clean design and presentation of content at scale. Outputs such as user journey maps which are typically challenging to export and view clearly are easily dealt with in a tool like Miro.

So what will we take forward? A new approach to workshop planning, which incorporates online white boarding tools even when sessions are done face to face. This approach is particularly useful for exercises which involve using a lot of post-it’s to get out ideas, blind voting and streamlining of activities using virtual worksheets. New thinking about the consideration of time and realistic expectations as to how much we can achieve in a workshop. One of the magical things about being together in a room particularly where we are creating concepts or co-designing is people can draw. We love seeing what comes out of this. So combining the freedom and flexibility to draw alongside activities which are more “digital” could be the perfect mix.

Finally, don’t be fooled into thinking you can get away with taking your eye off the ball for a minute. Here I thought I could sneakily guzzle the last of my frothy milk but Zoom froze at this moment and a quick acting colleague captitalised! (I'm coming for you Peter).

Workshops with Claire Stewart of Cucumber

If you want to know more about how to run interactive remote workshops successfully we’d be happy to share more war stories or discuss what you’re trying to achieve and how you could approach it.