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How to Run an Engaging Remote Workshop: Tips for Stress-Free Collaboration

Trouble communicating, distractions, and dropped calls. Here’s how you can make your next workshop as painless as possible. 

One of my first remote workshops was a disaster.

The internet kept dropping, the platform we used to collaborate kept freezing, and it felt like everyone disengaged within the first thirty minutes. Three hours later, I walked out of the meeting room, like a zombie, and went home.

I immediately got into bed, covered myself with all my sheets, and vowed never again to run a remote workshop. But, two weeks later, I had to run another remote session.

While I used to hate running anything remotely—workshops, or research sessions alike—I had to get used to it. We had users scattered across the world, and I couldn’t ignore entire user groups due to their geographical location. I also couldn’t convince the company to fly them in every time I wanted to run workshops or research sessions.

Luckily, I learned to enjoy my remote research sessions and workshops. They give us so much more opportunity to have conversations with those we might not otherwise.

Regardless, running remote workshops can be difficult, but in the wake of COVID-19, we are in a unique position: we have to run remote workshops. One thing we can be grateful for is the situation to upskill in our careers and be more creative.

What are the main challenges of remote workshops?

Some challenges come from taking a workshop from the physical to the digital realm. We lose a lot when we start interacting with computers instead of face-to-face with humans, but there are ways to navigate these obstacles.

First, let’s review the main challenges of running remote workshops:

  • Limited access to body language. When you are looking at someone through a video camera, it is much more difficult to interpret their body language. During remote research sessions, you usually see people from the chest up (hello sweatpants and a nice shirt). This view makes it difficult to see if people are engaged, confused, or are disagreeing with what is happening in the workshop.
  • Difficult to build trust. Whenever you take the physical element away, it is much more challenging to build trust with people. Therefore, remote workshop participants might feel less comfortable with activities, such as sketching. You lose the sense of personal relationships.
  • Limited access to physical tools. One of my favorite parts of workshops is post-it notes flooding a wall. I love being able to grab a marker and write something down or draw an idea I’m trying to convey. And I especially enjoy pushing people who would usually never design to articulate their ideas through sketches.
  • Learning the truth about technology. There are plenty of gifs and videos stampeding around the internet displaying how crappy technology can be when you are attempting at productivity. You quickly learn how often things can freeze or drop out, and typically at the most inopportune moments.
  • SO. MANY. DISTRACTIONS. There is no shortage of distractions during a remote workshop, whether they be for you or the participants. Slack, email, dogs, cats, kids, partners, and the refrigerator can all aid in suboptimal participation. You can ask people to put away distractors, but it is a lot harder to control in a remote setting.

How do we combat these challenges?

Although these difficulties are apparent and pervasive, there are ways you can reduce them.

You should focus on three areas when it comes to your workshop:

  • Before the workshop
  • During the workshop
  • After the workshop

In each area, there are a number of best practices you should employ to make sure your remote workshop is running smoothly.

Before the workshop

  1. Create structure. The first thing I always do is create a schedule for the workshop, with apparent goals and expected outcomes. The best way to do this is to create an external agenda and then an internal and more detailed plan for you. The external-facing schedule shows what is happening every thirty minutes, while your private agenda plans out every ten minutes. This structure gives participants a clear indication of what they should be doing at every point.
  2. Make the sessions shorter. Sometimes in-person workshops can be an entire day long. You and colleagues sit in a room for seven hours, with candy, pizza, and (sometimes) beer, and come up with great ideas. Remote workshops are incredibly different. There is less camaraderie and bonding. In this case, keep your remote sessions shorter. I usually only hold people hostage (remotely) for 2-3 hours, even if that means splitting the workshop up across several days.
  3. Define roles. Having assistance during the workshop can be a great help. When you have colleagues helping you take notes, screenshots, or keeping time, it allows you to focus on adequately explaining what happens next. This way, you are not juggling too many aspects at once, which makes for a smoother experience.
  4. Pick the best activities. The activities make up the bulk of the workshop. Ask yourself what it is that you want to achieve by the end of the workshop. These expected outcomes should dictate the types of activities you choose for the workshop. I like to include a mix of divergent and convergent activities. Once you pick the activities, determine how much time each will take. A piece of advice is to give more time than you anticipate.
  5. Pick the right tools and test them. When it comes to doing anything remotely, the right tools are an essential and integral part of success. Take the time to consider all of the different tools you need, from video conferencing to collaboration. Make sure you have a mechanism for each activity, including breaks or any other interactions. Also, ensure you tell your team any items they will need to download or have present before the workshop begins. Always test these before the workshop starts and make sure you have a good internet connection.

During the workshop

  1. Start with the outcomes. I like to give participants a sense of what they can expect the results of the workshop to be. By starting with the outcomes, people know what to expect, and can cultivate a sense of purpose during the workshop. Participants can also see the reasons behind certain activities if you explain what you need out of the workshop.
  2. Throw in a fun ice breaker. Since there is no physical presence, ice breakers can be a fun way to make people smile. I use an ice breaker that requires someone to pick an object from where they are seated, and people need to match that object. Another fun one is “two truths and a lie.” There are plenty of other examples online.
  3. Find ways to bring in the physical. Even though you are not all sitting around a table together, you can find ways to ground people at the moment. Whenever I have a sketching exercise, I have participants use pen and paper to sketch their ideas. Then they either hold them up to the camera or take a photo and place that in a public space. This helps break up the monotony of digital reliance.
  4. Use divergent and convergent thinking. As I mentioned above, activities are the key to a successful workshop. I use a mix of divergent and convergent thinking. This is a fancy way of saying, I let people think alone and then come together to discuss. Each person should be responsible for doing something at every point in time during the workshop. So give people the responsibility of sketching or brainstorming alone for five minutes, and then coming together in pairs to discuss for ten minutes.
  5. Utilize breakout rooms. With Zoom and other conferencing systems, you can create breakout rooms. These small rooms allow people to pair up and discuss their ideas. I usually have people break out into pairs, so each person is either fully responsible for speaking or listening during their time together. After this, everyone can come back to the main room and share.
  6. Have a “stop word.” I love stop words. They are a great way to keep people on track and discourage any negative behavior during the workshop. I introduce the concept of a pink elephant. Anyone can say the words “pink elephant,” which means someone has gone off on a tangent or is being negative.
  7. Create a parking lot. Tangents don’t have to be a bad thing, but they can distract participants from the important tasks at hand. You can place these topics in a virtual parking lot. You are still noting their importance, and giving them a chance to be discussed later, when they are more relevant or when there is time.

After the workshop

  1. Ask for feedback. After the workshop, always ask your colleagues for feedback. I use anonymous surveys to gather information on what people enjoyed, and what they found least useful or engaging. I also ask how they would improve the session in the future and what they wish we could have done.
  2. Evaluate any improvements. Once you gather the valuable feedback, make sure you act on it. No one likes giving feedback to someone and then seeing the same “mistakes” repeated. Evaluate how you can realistically improve next time.
  3. Thank and follow-up. Always follow-up after the workshop with a genuine thank you, and an email with the next steps. Link to any deliverables or artifacts that came out of the workshop, and be explicit with how you or the team will use them.

Additional tips:

  • Create rules. Sometimes even adults need ground rules, and it is an excellent way to set up the workshop ambiance. I set up and share basic rules. These include items such as one person speaks at a time, be positive and imaginative, strive for creativity instead of perfection, take things lightly.
  • Play some background music. I recently started playing Spotify playlists in the background of some of my remote workshops. I usually go for calming and ambient music. I am currently working on a remote workshop playlist!
  • If possible, order snacks to be delivered. If an entire team is remote (but together), order pizza or donuts for the team. If everyone is separate, have everyone buy the same or similar snacks before the session. I once ordered the same snack basket to arrive at participants’ apartments or workplaces the morning of the workshop.
  • Build-in breaks. Workshops are exhausting, so ensure you are creating time for breaks. These small breaks allow for fewer distractions since people know they will have ten minutes to do whatever they need. It is excellent to allow for coffee breaks, but I have also started building in a quick 5-minute meditation or stretching exercises. Get creative!
  • Use templates. Whenever you can, create templates of agendas, tools, or presentations. Not only does this help speed up time preparing for you, but it allows others to run workshops too.
  • Keep an eye on the time. Make sure there is a timer present during any timed activities. Also, ensure you are aware of the time and where you should be in the workshop. You can have someone help you with timekeeping as well.

Some examples to help you get started

I have included a few examples to get you started on the most critical aspects of your remote workshop.

Private agenda:

  • Set the stage (10 minutes): Explain what the two hours will be about and what the goal of the workshop is. Show the group the empathy map they will be filling out. Finally, present the persona they will be focusing on for the next hour and immerse the group in that persona’s way of thinking, feeling, and seeing the world. Explain whether the empathy map is for a current product/service or a new product or service.
  • Give an example (20 minutes): To emphasize the importance of getting into character, take the group through a role-playing exercise separate from our product. This helps you walk through the empathy map as a team, so everyone knows what they should be aiming for. For example, “a 46-year-old mom who uses a food delivery service to make Friday dinners fun for the family.” With this persona in mind, run through the empathy map as a group. What is that persona:
    • Thinking and feeling about their anxieties or goals? (Ex: “Wants an easy and fun option for dinner. Wants to keep the family entertained. Needs something fast.”)
    • Hearing while using the food delivery service, from their friends or neighbors? (Ex: “I’ve ordered from this restaurant before, and it was slow. They forgot half of our order.”)
    • Seeing while using the food delivery service? (Ex: “Searching through different restaurants in the area. Looking at menus and ratings. Wondering how reliable the information is.”)
    • Saying and doing to oneself or others while using the product? (Ex: “Asking the family what type of cuisine they want for dinner.”)
    • Experiencing as a pain point or fear when using our product? (Ex: “Is annoyed when a restaurant doesn’t deliver on time, or the quality of the food is poor despite good ratings. Isn’t able to easily find a good restaurant.”)
    • Experiencing as value when using our product? (Ex: “Everything was so easy, and the family is happy. I don’t have to cook or clean up, but we still had a great time together.”)
  • Complete the empathy maps (30 minutes): Divide the group into pairs. Give them 30 minutes to fill out the empathy map. Remind the groups to pay special attention to pain points since one of the goals of empathy mapping is to highlight these issues.
  • Share the empathy maps (30 minutes): Each group presents their empathy map and explains what insights and gaps they have found, as well as what assumptions need to be validated. Encourage the rest of the groups to ask questions or raise discussion topics. These topics can be placed in a ‘parking lot’ and discussed later.
  • Next steps (10 minutes): Discuss as a group what you learned from the exercise, especially talking about the assumptions that will need to be validated or the gaps in knowledge that were found. Brainstorm how these findings could be applied to future projects. Assign a follow-up meeting if necessary, as well as any outstanding tasks, owners, and due dates.

Public agenda:

Expected outcomes and goals:

  • A map that categorizes and groups user needs
  • More in-depth knowledge of customer pain points
  • A greater sense of understanding and empathy for the customer

Agenda:

  • Introduction to the workshop: 30 minutes
  • Brainstorming empathy maps: 30 minutes
  • Sharing empathy maps: 30 minutes
  • Next steps and wrap-up: 10 minutes

(Some of) the most effective tools:

  • Google sheets
  • Mural
  • Miro
  • Trello
  • Google slides
  • Pen & paper

Top activities:

  • Affinity diagramming: The clustering of information into groups based on similarities or themes.
  • Empathy mapping: A map that gives us insight into users’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Storyboarding: A step-by-step series of sequential illustrations or images used to communicate a story about a user.
  • Forced ranking: An exercise that weighs items against each other to create a prioritized list
  • Role-playing: When participants act out different events or scenarios from the perspective of a user, allowing them to get into the mindset of a user
  • Customer journey/experience map: Create a step-by-step experience that diagrams how users interact with a product or service. You can also add in information on their lives outside of the product or service

My last piece of advice: don’t panic—running any activity or session remotely takes a lot of practice. With time, you will be running them like a pro!

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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