It’s just another day in 2019…

It’s the morning of your workshop, the client is 10 minutes away, you’ve cleaned the meeting room, stacked your favourite colour post-it notes, scavenged for the sharpest sharpies, cleaned the whiteboards and perfected the pastry arrangement on the table (maybe eating one to ensure optimum layout). You’re set! All that’s left is to greet the client and then pray you don’t disappoint them with your tea making skills.

Hellooo 2020…  

Remote working. How things have changed… You’ve probably sent out a video call link, prepped your online whiteboard tool of choice and, if you’re like me, told your furloughed housemate to refrain from screaming at Fifa in the next room.

Remote working (currently 8 months in for us at 100 Shapes) has been a challenge but one that I have embraced and have been fortunate enough to enjoy. One big change was moving all client and team workshops from in-person to online. 

I’m going to share my top 5 remote workshop challenges and how we have overcome them. Also let me know if you’ve found other ways of getting around these problems.

1. Talking over each other

The call falls silent… you’ve had an idea! You scan everyone’s video streams to check no one’s prepping to speak, lean forward, take a breath… aaaand Karen from accounts interrupts you, on your second word in.

When you’re face-to-face, you’re able to pick up on visual cues; you can tell when someone’s preparing to speak, plus you don’t have to deal with the delay of the call. Sometimes you end up with 2-3 people talking over each other until everyone gives in. It’s frustrating.

Combating this is really hard when you are trying to have open discussions – and it is usually not any one person’s fault…really. Not even you, Karen. 

Fun fact: “The slight delay on the video call can fluctuate for numerous reasons, apparently even something as random as someone using the microwave, which operates on similar frequencies and can temporarily disrupt your wifi signal.”

Work alone, but together 

Next time you are organising a workshop, schedule time both for the team to work together over one main Video Call and specific time for the team to break off into separate video-calls in pairs or smaller groups. This reduces the chances of people talking over each other, gives introverts a chance to speak up and mirrors how you would work in-person. This technique is commonly used in workshops such as ‘Design Sprints’ and is a fun way of working.

Tip: If you’re pairing up team members, choose the pairs in advance to save time.

Round Robin

If you need, or want, to hear from everyone in the room and it’s important for each person to contribute, why not try a round robin? Set a specific time period for each person to have their say and then time for others to ask questions. 

Tip: Remind the team you have these slots in the agenda, it will provide reinforcement to the quieter team members they have a chance to be heard.

Remember, you’re online

Sometimes just speaking more slowly can really help, be extra aware that you might be talking over others. It might not seem natural but after some practise, extra pauses really help the flow of online conversations. 

It’s interesting – over the past 8 months of remote working, I’ve only had 1 in-person meeting with my team and it was a strange experience. I found myself pausing far longer, looking around the room, it wasn’t natural but it was a clear indication of how becoming accustomed to online meetings had changed how I interacted in-person. 

2. Ensure everyone understands how to use the tools. 

As designers, my team and I use programmes like Miro and Figma every day, we’re becoming experts with our tools, but we need to remember what is normal for us might be totally new and unknown to other workshop participants.

In-person workshop participants only need to know the basics: writing on post-its and sticking them on the wall, but doing this online, with Miro, can be daunting and just plain confusing. 

Explain & Check

Take your time to explain the software and tools that you intend to use. Explain their basic functions and give the participants time to play around to get comfortable. This could be scheduled into the workshop or it could be done in advance. You could even start with a really simple task for everyone to complete so that you know everyone is familiar with the tools. Don’t forget to ask if anyone has any questions before you begin.

Using this learning part of a workshop as an icebreaker is a great two-in-one. It

For example: Try a Remote Scavenger Hunt — Give each participant 2 minutes to find a sentimental item around their home and tell a story about it. Get them to write what it is on a digital post-it and add it to the virtual board. 

Tip: Ensure you include all the functions and features you think they’ll need such as: Adding, Copying, Deleting, Voting, Uploading etc.

3. Live Sketching

As a design agency, most of our workshops involve sketching at some point, but sketching with a mouse is almost impossible (unless you’ve had years of experience in Microsoft Paint). Usually we would use thick markers on a whiteboard, you don’t have to be accurate, you can just keep it simple. But sharing an image of an A4 piece of paper just doesn’t have the same effect.

Our solution (it involves an iPad & mac only)

I’ve found the best way to share live sketching is by screen-sharing an ipad that is linked to an apple pencil. Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to digital sketching so sharing a screen means the sketcher can use their app of choice. Mine is either Notable or Pro-Create but when I want to collaborate with someone else, I use Google’s Jamboard or Aww App (Let me know if you find better ones). 

Plug your iPad into your mac (does not work on pc), Open Quicktime, File > New movie, select your iPad from the dropdown (Ensure its set to Trusted on the iPad). Then share this screen to your video call.  Alternatively you can join via your providers iPad app, although i’ve found this to be far less smooth.

Overhead projector hack

This is a total hack for those who just want to share live sketching but don’t have a need for an iPad. Remember the OHP? Those Walle looking light boxes that always used to be stolen at school? No? Maybe just my school. Ok.

This was posted on LinkedIn by a teacher and thought it was quite a good idea. By taping a pen to your laptop and placing a CD over the webcam you can point the camera towards the keyboard creating an area for you to sketch or share paper.

4. Does everyone understand the task?  

As a facilitator, your main role is to ensure everyone understands the task at hand and guide them where necessary. When you’re physically there you’re able to see how the participants are getting on: who’s struggling and who might need some help. When the session is virtually,  and all you see are the tops of people’s heads or talking profile pictures, picking up on these cues can be a lot harder. 

No one wants to be ‘that person’ who interrupts half way through silent work to ask a question or get to the end of the exercise only to have done the wrong thing — here’s how you can avoid both situations. 

Show an example of the task 

When planning a workshop I create example outputs of what’s expected. This helps me describe the task and helps the participants understand what they need to do. This helpful tip goes a long way.

Keep checking in

Continuous encouragement from a facilitator goes a long way. Remember: a lot of the time participants are out of their comfort zone; especially if they aren’t designers or haven’t worked with designers before. Asking thought-provoking questions during an exercise can inspire them and help get their creative juices flowing.  

For example, if you’re running an early-stage ideation exercise, you could say “Remember, quantity not quality, note down anything and everything that
comes to mind, nothing is wrong at this stage”. 
Words of encouragement will help some participants feel more at ease.

Tip: The goal is to make the participants feel less intimidated by the task. Think of how the exercise could potentially be blocked and then create questions from that. The more you run the same exercises these questions will become clearer.

5. Keeping everyones attention?    

When we are in the studio, our workshops are mostly run without any tech in the room to ensure we have no distractions: no laptops, phones or tablets. Online, however, when participants are tuning-in on their computers, a “no tech” rule is hard to enforce. E-mail, Slack, Teams, the web and our phones are within easy reach. 

I found the key to ensuring you have the full attention of the participants is to keep them engaged in what you are doing. This can be done in multiple ways:

Keep it short

Keeping your workshops to strict timelines, will help minimise distractions. For example an exercise called Crazy-8’s you’re only given 1 minute per sketch so there is no time for wandering eyes. Bring this logic into other meetings and see how it goes. 

Plan for engagement

When planning your workshops try to think where participants might start to lose interest. Is this exercise going to land well and keep people engaged? Can it be shortened, can you get the same outcome by using a workshop? What outcome do you want from the session, there will be an alternative solution to just a discussion. 

Include enough breaks

Including regular breaks throughout the day is really important. Ensure you communicate this at the beginning and throughout the day so participants know when their next break is coming, it will help keep them going knowing one is coming up. 

Rotate the facilitator

We have a meeting each week called “Design Surgery”, it’s a team wide ideation session where we pick products and try to reinvent them. Each week we take it in turns to plan and facilitate the session. This keeps everyone’s engagement high as they feel they have a high contribution.

Only invite who’s needed

Sometimes agencies have a tendency to invite everyone to calls when all that’s needed is a couple people.    

Tip: Using your video providers in-built recording tools you can always record meetings and send to the wider team.

In summary 

Although there have been challenges along the way this experience has forced us to refine our remote workshop methods and there are some learnings that I’d like to bring back to our in-person experiences (digital copies, no travel time)… but that’s for another blog post.

After 8 months, 100 Shapes are now well versed in online workshops and still running Design Sprints for companies such as ITV and BBC. If you think your company could benefit from an online workshop during this time, get in touch, we’d love to work with you.