Lessons From a Remote Workshop During A Pandemic

By Vicki

As people’s lives have come to an abrupt halt, we are still trying to keep as much moving as we possibly can. For our jobs, for our sanity, for some semblance of normalcy. For many of us, this includes having lots and lots of virtual meetings. At ThinkShout, we regularly host our check-ins, internal meetings, client meetings, and presentations virtually anyway—our clients are all over the world. Over the years, there’s been just one outlier in digital processes stepping in for in-person connections: Discovery workshops. Discovery workshops aren’t just about understanding goals, challenges, and definitions of success. They’re also about team dynamics and relationship building, and anyone who has managed at least one major project knows that a clear understanding of an organization’s goals are as important as clear understanding of its team dynamics.

Recently, a few members of our team were supposed to be doing just that in Alabama: Meeting with inspiring and passionate folks to workshop new exciting features for their digital platform. We had a whole agenda planned including lots of group sketching, even more sticky notes, and the sharing of big ideas. There would be mid afternoon cookies—we’re big sugar fans, despite what leafy greens people have to say about generating energy—possibly a dip in the hotel pool (it’s hot in Alabama) and ending the day with dinner and great conversation.

Instead, like everyone, everywhere right now, we pivoted everything to digital. We feel so lucky that we can pivot, that we live in a time and do the kind of work that can still be done remotely. But with that comes necessary foresight, planning and anticipation of what an already ambitious day will look like when it’s entirely on a screen.

Here are 4 lessons fresh off our 7 hour remote workshop.

1. Be Flexible: Take advantage of fewer time constraints.

Another benefit of working virtually is an increased ability to embrace flexibility. As much as you try to make participants feel engaged with fun backgrounds, jokes or memes— don’t get us wrong, we love Grumpy Cat as much as the next person— virtual meetings are just more taxing when they go longer than 2 hours. We speak from experience. In this recent workshop we kept our originally planned time slots the same, but in retrospect, we wished we had spaced the workshop out over a couple of sessions. To combat the multiple hour virtual meeting blues, break up your sessions over several days if you can. Added benefit? You’ll be able to connect with folks over multiple days, reinforcing the relationship as well as making space for thoughtful reflection on previous activities.

2. Be Human: Whenever possible, keep your video on.

We acknowledge that nothing is normal right now, and we need to strive to make space to talk about things that ground us and to check in with one another. Normally, we’d allocate 15 minutes for introductions and some basic sharing to get to know each other, but during this workshop we extended that time to 45 minutes. We shared what we’re binge-watching, cooking, or crafting. We joked about ridiculous sounds of kids coming from the other room. We were even lucky enough to see an amazing zine a member of our partnering team was creating. It’s not only nourishing to connect as humans, but it sets the stage for an open and comfortable dialogue for the rest of the workshop.

We also put a focus on whatever facetime we could get, because being physically distant doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice human connection. We requested everyone have their video turned on during sessions if their internet would allow, and pulled back on having a big slide deck presentation in favor of more face time.

3. Be Prepared: Have all of your tools, tips, and assets ready to go.

When we participate or present during an in-person workshop, we’re able to leave the room to change things up, prepare materials, or just take a breath. When working with virtual tools, however, the awkwardness of people waiting on screen while you fiddle around trouble-shooting tech sounds too painful to bear. So we prepared. A lot. We researched new tools, old tools, tested them with our team for the actual activities we were preparing, and created examples of what we were looking for.

We made sure our tools and materials were simple, yet efficient; and that they were accessible solutions that would achieve our goals while avoiding any technical hang ups. For activities like empathy mapping and live sketching we pre-created templates and populated a spreadsheet everyone could access on demand. Each participant had a row with their name, item and link they could grab. We were able to see people drawing in real time, help them along the way with zoom chat and break out rooms, and then easily save the finished product to reference later.

4. Keep moving: Support each other.

What was so apparent about our workshop was that despite everything, we all wanted to be there. This work matters and doing it together feels good. It gives us a purpose and focus, and best of all, it means that eventually it will turn into something we can be proud of in the future, when things are a bit brighter. Until then, we can leverage these virtual tools to stay present, engage with one another, and celebrate our collective work.

Here are some tools we’re using or looking at for virtual workshops.

In this workshop we used:

Other tools we’ve used or are considering are: