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Shifting to Remote Facilitation: Lessons from the Home Office


Co-written with Aryanna Martin

As the world shifts to remote work, we share some tips on facilitating remote workshops and borrow lessons from what we know from facilitating in-person workshops.

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COVID-19 has brought on one of the biggest life changes in the last few months where suddenly, people have been mandated to stay home as much as possible. Your company may be one of the many companies that has asked its employees to continue their work in the corners of their home as part of the government response to flatten the curve. For some of us, the idea of working from home is familiar, as flexibility has always been embedded in company practices and working once or twice a week from home is widely accepted. For some, this may have come with a little struggle as they scramble to set up employees for success with remote-working practices.

For companies whose work revolves highly around client and user engagements and workshops, the need to shift and rethink in-person engagements has become more urgent in order to continue the business and provide value and impact.

Because of COVID-19 and the 180-degree shift to remote work, we as facilitators have reimagined our engagements on the online platform. More and more, we are learning how to use online collaboration tools and technology to support our work and get the same impactful and quality of information that we would get with in-person engagements.

As we reflect on best practices for in-person workshops and redefine them to fit a remote setting, we will have to make some important decisions on whether we return to a “normal” way of working, or a “new normal” revitalized with new principles and values.

As social distancing and travel ban policies are lifted in the near future and companies start welcoming employees back into the office, how will these new practices and methodologies for remote facilitation fold into in-person engagements? What will these new practices for in-person client and user engagements look like?

Regardless of the endless speculations we can make about the future, what grounds us are the principles and overarching goals of design thinking workshops. A successful workshop should be driven by questions, engaging, and highly adaptable.

Key to having successful workshops

Driven by questions

Ensuring that our workshop answers the key design questions that will inform our next steps, guide leadership decisions, and test prototype ideas are key goals regardless of workshop format or activity. In planning, we always ask ourselves: is this activity answering the main questions we need answered?

Engaging

In getting answers to those key questions, we want to make sure that we are opening the space up for mutual trust and empathy. Part of a good workshop is that there is a foundation of trust between workshop participants and facilitators so that participants feel empowered to share their wildest ideas.

Highly adaptable

Lastly, workshops should create space for innovation, which means that format can be loose and open-ended and that new ideas organically emerge and get discovered “on-the-fly”. This idea of adaptability is important in enabling participants to pivot from idea to the next if things aren’t sticking or if the conversation is taking a different direction that you might have expected.

Comparing in-person and remote workshops

These goals are incredibly important in any workshop, whether remote or in-person. In today’s normal, where there’s no choice but to conduct remote facilitation, these goals remain important but may just might be realized in different ways.

To further compare how we might plan and conduct an in-person workshop and how that compares to a remote one, we’ve created a detailed comparison in the table below:

Potential challenges of remote workshops vs. opportunities

It goes without saying that remote workshops take more planning and time. Below are some other challenges inherent to remote workshops and some strategies to address them:

Guiding Principles for Remote Facilitation

While we’ve seen that remote workshop facilitation requires much more time and effort, and poses many more challenges as we learn on the fly, the guiding principles that make a remote workshop successful aim to fulfill the three goals that we tend to follow for in-person workshops. Below are some guidelines that we have found helpful in remote facilitation that fall under our general goals we mentioned above.

Ensuring the workshop is driven by questions

  • The tool is only as useful as the information it elicits: If the technology and tools you planned to use are hindering the conversation, don’t feel like you have to stick with using it. Keep the conversation going by probing and asking questions.
  • Ensure equal access to participation: Participants might have varying levels of access to and experience with tools and technology that might prevent them from participating in a remote workshop. Make sure to provide other avenues for participants to share input.

Making the workshop engaging

  • Design and facilitate the workshop with empathy: Plan the activities and the workshop with ease of usability in mind. The workshop is an experience in itself and, as facilitators, our goal is to make this experience as delightful and easy as possible. Understand that using new tools and technology can be intimidating for some people and patience goes a long way.

Designing for high adaptability

  • Remember Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Oftentimes, paranoia with the littlest things about your workshop is valuable. Consider that it’s harder to be adaptable with technology, so plan rigorously for back-up options and different directions. Conduct a dry run to identify points in the workshop that might be a challenge.

Best of luck in your remote workshop facilitation journey!

Extra: Mural Tips and Tricks!

You’re now ready to plan and design your remote workshop! One of the tools that we absolutely love using for remote facilitation is Mural. Mural is a digital workspace that enables teams and individuals to think and visually collaborate. We’ve used Mural quite often at brightspot strategy to conduct our workshops. This platform is typically paired with a remote conferencing technology so we can converse and collaborate on a board at the same time.

Mural snapshot

We’ve asked our colleagues to share with us some best practices and here’s a rundown of those tips and tricks in using Mural:

Planning and Pre-workshop

  • Send tutorial videos ahead of time for tips on how to navigate and add content on a Mural board.
  • Design the activities so that they are simple and easy to do. Participants may have varying comfort with technology and if it is possible to get the information you need with just moving shapes around or creating stickies, the better.
  • If it’s easier for you, as a facilitator, to design activities using another layout design tool, you can do so and save those as images that you can import into the board.
  • For voting activities, you can use Mural’s built-in voting tool or provide tokens with participant initials on them.
  • Plan for time cushions between navigating Mural and moving in and out of breakout groups.
  • If you are entertaining participants more than 30+, you can assign one team per board and so participants don’t get overwhelmed.

Facilitating the Workshop and Troubleshooting

  • Let participants know that they will be potentially entering as an anonymous animal. To know which ‘anonymous animal’ they are, they can check the leftmost avatar at the bottom-center of the page.
  • Make sure at least one facilitator in the room is familiar with Mural to help with troubleshooting.
  • Before sending participants into the Mural board, share your screen and provide a virtual tour of the whole board and instructions on how to fill out the workshop board.
  • Mention to participants that they have the option to hide cursors if they find the interactivity overwhelming.
  • Teach participants how to use the key map and hand button at the lower right hand part of the interface to navigate and drag the board and other materials in it.

Wrapping Up and Post-Workshop

  • If participants are encouraged to continue answering the board after the workshop, export the board immediately after the workshop to have your own external copy. You can always export a new version after participants have completely answered.

Aryanna and Allison are Strategists at brightspot strategy, an innovation consulting firm focused on transforming the higher education experience.

Allison is a UX researcher and designer with a background in sociology and art. She’s interested in finding out what makes people tick, and believes that rigorous and empathetic research and analysis can reveal multifaceted truths about people. Her experience stems from consulting for large corporations and speciality consultancy firms.

Aryanna is an experienced designer, researcher, and strategist who has worked with large corporations, tech startups, consultancy firms, and startup accelerators. Her core training is combining human-centered design methods and business intelligence to uncover product opportunities and growth areas in business and organizations. She holds an MS in Strategic Design and Management from Parsons School of Design.


Shifting to Remote Facilitation: Lessons from the Home Office was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.