How to run successful workshops remotely and increase teamwork in times of unparalleled uncertainty and fear

By Carl Heise

One of the greatest challenges in responding to COVID-19 is how to ensure the survival of your business while implementing alternative work practices in rapidly changing health and economic landscapes. The virus affects everyone, and now more than ever it is important to share learnings and collaborate to solve problems.

For this reason, I want to share some of the work we’ve been doing at Brooke this week. Our focus has been making sure that the remote workshops we run in the parallel universe that is the coronavirus response are as effective as our usual face-to-face interactions.

The key challenge to remote workshops

We take for granted how much easier it is to work with others when we are co-located. When working face-to-face we have invisible agreements dictating how to communicate, make decisions and keep sessions moving. We rely on our ability to build rapport and trust through body language.

When we are physically separated from those we work closely with, we need to use a completely different toolkit. We need to be far more intentional with our communication. Without intention, remoteness creates more than physical distance. The cost of complacency when it comes to communication is much higher risk of failure – failure of projects, failure of relationships and ultimately failure of businesses.

Stocking the remote communications toolkit

So, always thinking ahead, Brooke implemented its business continuity plan this week, ensuring that all staff are equipped with state-of-the-art remote communications toolkits. This means that our work in helping clients change the way they work can continue unabated.

Here is the step by step process we used. I hope by sharing it, someone, somewhere will benefit.

To be effective you need to:

1. Establish what makes a good workshop.

2. Map the top five characteristics of good workshops to tools and practices.

Here is an example based on the scenario of a 30-minute project alignment workshop.
Characteristics of effective workshops, practices and technology solutions

Clear Purpose

• Agree to the purpose of the workshop in writing beforehand and make it clear that this rationale will not be restated during the process. This puts the pressure on people to be prepared. Being prepared communicates respect for colleagues.

• Reinforce your purpose using cloud-based tools that help participants visualize scope, such as a Kanban, Stormboard or a simple document with columns and with boxes. These tools allow you to easily differentiate action items for ‘now’ and for ‘later’.

• If you have more than four people on the call, have them contribute through text rather than speaking when seeking clarifications. Use a free text space, or an anonymous question cloud service like Mentimeter so that you can curate the flow of ideas.

Time-boxed actions to achieve the purpose

• Keeping to time is a discipline. It tells your workshop that you respect them, and their contribution. If you can manage it then consciously finishing early allows time for some endorsed banter, which helps diffuse tension, of which there is currently no shortage.

• Don’t be afraid to make the time tight. The call you are on is not the tool to debate and make decisions, it is the tool to confirm decisions, or decide what needs to happen so that a decision can be made.

• Display a countdown app on the screen and be quietly amazed when your colleagues maintain focus and speak more concisely.

Excellent Communication – turn taking, equal voice

• Participation is at the heart of engagement. Make sure everyone is heard, and that they are seen to be heard. A cloud app that lets people ask questions or a column on your Kanban for ‘mind-dumping’ will achieve this.

• When in person we make eye contact to negotiate who will speak next. On a phone call you need to trust your facilitator to look after equality of voice. But all participants must take responsibilty for pausing to think before piping up. Ask yourself, “Do I need to say this?” and “Will this help?”.

Collaborative Decision making

• Voting at the end of a face to face workshop can mean unaddressed misunderstandings or minor concerns can unduly influence big decisions. In a cloud app, commenting, replying and voting are fluid but functional ways of interacting with an idea. These functions ensure that everyone participates meaningfully. A “like button” can also give you an early indication of consent or affirmation.

• Key questions to ask on a call are: Is that what we agreed? Is this enough? Is that what we should do next?

Purposeful and clear actions and next steps

• Curators of collaborative cloud spaces can shape the input and content from their collaborators throughout a call. Grouping, theming and moving the virtual sticky-notes, questions and inputs gives them the information they need to summarise progress, connect it to agreed and desired outcomes, and ask the question “is this what we should do next?”

The results?

While the banter wasn’t quite as fun online or over the phone as it is when we are in the same room, the communications in this week’s workshops was intentional and, dare I say it, highly successful.

We made significant decisions from remote locations decisively in collaboration with our business partners, customers and clients. We found that cloud-based brainstorming, Kanban, whiteboarding, real time question capture and prioritisation allowed us to maintain the ‘in the room’ feel that we and our customers value.

Decisiveness breeds confidence. And in times like these, confidence is quickly becoming a priceless staple.