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Learning and development in the new normal - A guide to remote workshops

The concept of working remotely or from home has long been hailed as the future of work. In recent months however many teams and organisations around the world, have been forced to quickly transition to collaborating and problem-solving online, making the need for well-designed and effectively facilitated meetings and workshops greater than ever. Unstructured and unfacilitated virtual meetings can lead to wasted time, frustrated teams and, ultimately, a lack of innovation that, in this new normal, will be even more crucial to business longevity and success. In this article, Brand and Innovation Manager for RSM Romania, Andreea Nitoi explains what remote facilitation is, why it is useful, and guides us through the process of designing and running effective online workshops.

What is remote workshop facilitation?

As businesses become globally distributed, the need for workshops, meetings and training sessions that can be delivered online also increases. The expense of making travel arrangements for teams across time zones can be high, and using online tools to hold meetings or workshops can make this process more efficient and cost-effective. In a low touch economy, too, remote workshops become an essential tool.

That said, bringing together people into an online setting alone is not enough to guarantee neither creativity nor collaboration. The effectiveness of any meeting or workshop is often predicated on the skill of the person facilitating and the process they are employing. Virtual meetings and remote workshops that aim to solve a challenge are no different.

A facilitator's role is complex, but their most essential duty is that of guardian of the process (whether it's Creative Problem Solving, Design Thinking, FourSight, etc.); their purpose is to increase creative capacity in others. Doing so remotely is a challenge, because what we see, feel, say, and do — both as facilitators and participants — changes.

How should you prepare for a remote workshop?

Leading a successful remote session requires becoming an expert in the tools and platforms that you have selected to use. Set up the workshop ecosystem – which includes the platforms, the templates, the content and the way it will be designed too – in good time, ahead of the day. Then it is time to test, test, test.

A seasoned facilitator knows that although planning is mandatory for a successful workshop, things rarely go as planned — therefore, having a plan B is essential. In remote sessions, the digital tools and apps are the ones most likely to suffer glitches. No matter how much you test beforehand, you should always be prepared for additional troubleshooting during the workshop itself. Consider having a co-facilitator to help the participants with technicalities during the session.

Delivering the session

Good workshops rely on participant engagement and – and when it comes to delivering virtual ones, holding engagement can be more of a challenge than normal. Something that is haphazardly put together and includes lengthy presentations without collaborative activities, or a good structure, risks people becoming bored or distracted. Remember that participants could be side-tracked by their computers (e.g. through desktop notifications), or by the things going on around them (especially if they are at home), so it is important to design to overcome these barriers.

Warming up has two core functions — first, it helps you put the participants in a cognitive mood (e.g. to generate plenty of ideas). It also serves to create a safe space, where participants feel comfortable to share ideas and opinions with others. Usual exercises might not be applicable in an online setting — focus on these core functions when you decide upon or redesign a specific activity.

As the process moves forward, the facilitator must help participants to make a deliberate separation between divergent and convergent thinking — use the rules for each type of thinking as a visual element of your whiteboard; if you do not use a whiteboard platform, upload them as your wallpaper. Be mindful of timing, as every tool exercised online will need a more generous number of minutes, but avoid timers, as they might pressure participants.

It is important to leave room for further offline divergent and convergent thinking once the session is done. One of the biggest advantages remote facilitation brings is that by splitting the session, you gain built-in time for incubation. And incubation, although essential to the creative thinking process, is often overlooked in workshops designed to be delivered on premise. 

Following-up

Do not lose momentum — there are some key actions to take to ensure the innovation process is capitalised upon and continues outside of the workshop space.  In between sessions, make sure you keep the group focused and aligned; all collaborative processes generate lots of data, insight, and outcome - with remote sessions, you have the advantage of easily recording the information generated. Include it in a concise debriefing document; this is a useful way to maintain your group's engagement throughout the process and afterwards. And it can help you share the outcomes of the workshop with people who could not attend or other stakeholders.

Remote facilitation is a relatively nascent field and there is still lots to learn when it comes to making online workshops as successful as traditional ones. Look for opportunities to learn and improve: design means to collect constructive feedback not only from the major stakeholders but the whole group, explore different tools that enable remote collaboration, and keep practicing.

Speedy tips for remote facilitation

  • It is harder for people to stay engaged in front of a screen for a long duration (e.g. half of day). Break a full-day process into multiple sessions, and schedule sessions that take no more than 120 minutes, including at least one generous break.
  • During the breaks, nudge people away from technology, to help them incubate and replenish energy — you might want to include an easy, accessible break activity that ”forces” the participants away from their screens.
  • Adapt your pace by allocating more time per activity than you normally would - this will allow the participants to think through, it will give them the space to reflect on their input. Be patient and comfortable with their silence.
  • Before the session, test the technology rigorously —ensure it works, and that switching from one platform to another is easy. Build a back-up plan with one tool (i.e. a Zoom meeting where your co-facilitator visually records the conversation and shares the screen).
  • When it comes to content in a remote facilitation session less is more; use plenty of visuals and icons, and explain everything in writing — ideally, with fewer words, and more imagery.
  • To optimise engagement, look to apply two key rules. First, if one person is remote, everyone should be remote — even if they are in the same building. Secondly, video should be mandatory for all, so you can assess engagement through body language.

For more useful tips and how to prepare, deliver and follow up after remote workshops, click here to visit RSM Romania’s dedicated website area.