Remote Workshops: What I learned so far

The COVID-19 pandemic has made me a hermit. Home office for 9 weeks and I only see my colleagues in video conferences. In contrast to many other professions, this is an absolute luxury, even if the office grapevine is no longer available and you can’t even briefly talk to your colleagues about something – luxury problems, after all. At the same time, however, the need for workshops has unexpectedly increased: Ideation workshops, requirements workshops and also Design Sprints.

At first glance, the current situation seems to be less than optimal for workshops, since they usually involve being in a room together and sticking a whole bunch of sticky notes on a wall. Good thing that I had already worked with Realtimeboard in the past, which is now called Miro. In addition, there had already been some movements over the last year to conduct more remote workshops with tools such as Miro or Mural and had heard only good things about it. Still, I was a bit skeptical at first, but very open to the idea of doing workshops with it.

To be be honest: Remote workshops work wonderfully. I’ve also decided to run Design Sprints on-site in the future roughly according to the new schedule (which is no longer the typical four or five days, but shorter workshop phases and more work before the actual workshop) for remote Design Sprints – it works that much better.

My Remote Setup

My technical setup is pretty simple. I use a Macbook, a Magic Mouse, Apple Earpods (not Air Pods! Because they’re a disgrace to the environment), and an additional screen. MacOS is of no advantage here either. Any other system will do, since both Miro and Mural are web-based tools and run in the browser. I can absolutely recommend the additional screen, so you don’t have to constantly jump between Miro and the video call tool of your choice. I’ve done smaller workshops without a second screen, though. It’s doable. On the software side, Miro is used as a virtual whiteboard and Google Meet for the video calls. If you need a timer for timeboxing, I can recommend e.g. TeamTimer from Dark Horse. Unfortunately only iOS, but there are also good free alternatives for Android and web-based alternatives. That’s all there is to it. Of course, a real microphone would be even better, but the microphone on the Earpods actually works very well, doesn’t use up any free space on the desk and they are portable.

Update 2021: I now have a pretty slick setup with an Elgato microphone, a ring light, a key light and a Sony DSLR as a webcam. Those are Samsung Galaxy Buds Live on the desk by the way which are much more environmentally friendly.

Miro, Mural or something else?

A lot of people ask themselves this question these days. To be honest, both are basically the same. There’s only small differences in functionality and the look and feel of the interface differs. We decided on Miro because I had already had some experience with it. Parallel to me dabbling with the tool for remote workshops, other people in the company also started using it, so the decision was pretty easy in the end.

Of course, you can also use something like Google Presentations or one of those other tools out there to facilitate workshops. After all, the most important feature of those tools is real-time collaboration. But it’s definitely not that pleasant to use tools for something they were not made for. For very simple workshops, that may be fine. But I wouldn’t want to use it for an ideation workshop or a Design Sprint.

Here’s some advice to get you started

Based on the workshops I facilitated, I would also like to share a few very practical tips here:

  • There should be two facilitators
    Of course, you can run the workshops on your own. But having a partner who can keep the board clean in the background, help participants, and write virtual sticky notes helps a lot. You’re already busy enough explaining to everyone what to do and keeping everyone’s energy up. It helps a lot to have someone in the workshop with you to give you a hand. As a bonus you can split up the workshop days in terms of facilitation. That way the days are a little less exhausting.
  • Always mute microphones
    This should be pretty logical, but for the sake of completeness: participants should always mute their microphones and only turn them on when they have something to say. This avoids distracting background noise and eliminates unnecessary conversations as much as possible.
  • Locking elements on the Miro Board
    Frames, background elements and description texts should always be locked so that they can no longer be edited. It happens all the time during workshops that participants accidentally move entire boards or elements if they have not been locked.
  • However, you should only lock elements on the Miro board when you are sure that they are ready for the workshop and will not be changed.
    When you prepare your content for a workshop, you may tend to lock items as soon as you think that you are done with them. However, I’ve fallen into this trap myself far too many times. Only lock elements when you can be sure that nothing will change. Otherwise you’ll constantly find yourself unlocking all the elements, changing them and locking them again. The whole thing is time consuming and unnecessary.
  • Before the actual workshop, explain Miro in a short pre-workshop session and test if participants have access to the board.
    Since workshop participants oftentimes have not yet had any contact with a tool like Miro, you should definitely schedule a meeting before the actual workshop or plan for at least an additional 30 minutes. You can then explain the necessary functions and at the same time check whether everyone can access the board and has no problems with it.
  • It is better to explain more than too little
    You should not assume that things that seem simple are also clear to workshop participants. Always clearly define and communicate expectations for the workshop and for each workshop part. In addition, you should expect that tasks will be implemented differently than they were intended. However, bringing along examples helps to clarify the goal of a task.
  • Be ready to change your workshop on the fly
    I plan every workshop very precisely – to the minute. Of course, there are buffers built in, but everything is planned from start to finish. But it’s good to be able to react spontaneously if something doesn’t work out the way you had originally planned. Believe me. It happens on a regular basis. Be ready to change the workshop on the fly and respond to the dynamics of the group.
  • Communicate openly with non-participants
    Not only important for remote workshops: a workshop is usually better with smaller groups. That’s why you may not be able to invite everyone to a workshop who might want to participate. Just explain to them openly why there are a limited number of workshop participants. Disclose what you plan to do and what the outcome of the workshop will be and that everyone will be informed afterwards about the outcomes and next steps. Give them the feeling that they are not being left out. But also don’t worry too much about people who still feel excluded and let you know. You are the workshopper. You know what you’re doing and you determine how your workshop should be set up so that you can deliver good results in the end. Don’t let them talk you into something that will break your workshop – even if it’s not that easy sometimes. I speak from experience.

Keep on Workshopping

These are my “insanely clever” (and completely obvious) tips that I can share. I would recommend to everyone to try out remote workshops, if you haven’t already done so. In the beginning it’s all a bit unfamiliar. But I realized pretty quickly that you can still do workshops remotely without any drawbacks. One nice side effect is that participants don’t start talking in between and thus disturb everyone – kinda difficult if you’re not sitting in the same room.

(originally posted on my other blog in German here: