Running remote workshops

By Tom,

May 2020

Since lockdown I’ve had to plan and facilitate quite a few website and branding workshops. Traditionally (in the good ol’ days), we’ve always run workshops either at our studio, at our clients office or at a hired venue when needed, so working out the best way to run them remotely has been a fun challenge.

Why workshop?

Firstly, I just wanted to touch on why we always start branding and web projects with a workshop. We typically spend at least 5 days on discovery work with a new client. This often includes desk research, brand or web audits, customer surveys, stakeholder interviews and group workshops. As we usually explain quite openly at the beginning of a workshop: “We know nothing about your business, and you know everything. So this is our chance to find out”. It’s our opportunity to dig into a client's business and find out as much as we can about them.

People performing a physical workshop
This is how our typical workshops look (although not usually in a laboratory!)

I know it’s a bit of a meme—a design agency, rocking up in their Converse, a box of post its and a pile of Sharpies. But it’s great for us. Our team gets an insight into the client, their market, the team, and what the opportunities are. But it’s also great for the client team because:

  • Workshops engage an often hesitant and dubious client team.
  • They involve people from right across the business who wouldn’t normally get involved in design and marketing.
  • They help management teams get a sense of what their people are thinking (seriously, some have been a bit like therapy sessions).
  • Early engagement helps client teams understand the reasons for the final outcome of our work.
  • This engagement creates a feeling of empowerment and the people involved become ambassadors for the work internally.
  • It helps the client team get to know the people doing the work and vice versa.
  • Plus there’s often a nice lunch and loads of coffee.

Our workshops are task based, designed around the theme of drawing out answers about a specific topic and then grouping and prioritising them. So how do we get the same outcomes remotely?

Going remote

Since moving to working remotely we’ve had to think hard to ensure we get what we need from a workshop. But also get that all important engagement from our client.

I did a fair bit of research, looking at the tools and techniques that people use to workshop remotely. We played with using Google Docs, Figma, Zoom, Trello, Mural and a whole bunch of other options. We outlined the most important things about running a remote workshop:

  • Clients needed free, easy and sign-up-free access to whatever tool we used.
  • Visual and audio communication was key to picking up on nuances and building relationships.
  • Whatever the platform/tool, it needed to be straightforward and intuitive for clients.
  • We needed to be able to replicate our usual format as it’s proved very successful over the years and we know it works.
  • We needed to be able to clearly facilitate the session, quickly spot if a participant is struggling and help out if needed.
  • The ability to easily export the results of the workshop would be a big bonus.

Enter Miro

During my research I sent a tweet asking for options and the overwhelming answer was ‘MIRO!’

And, my twitter friends were dead right. Miro is a great tool for running workshops. It’s designed to facilitate all kinds of collaborative working, and they’ve recently updated many of the options for workshopping (great timing).

Miro can (with a team account) can have multiple collaborators who can all get access with a simple link (no sign up required). It features an ‘infinite canvas’, which means the group can’t run out of space (unlike the walls in our studio) and a selection of tools.

One great feature of Miro is the premade templates for running all kinds of workshops, from mind mapping to dot voting. I didn’t actually end up using the templates out of the box, but they really helped show what was possible and gave me the starting blocks for setting up my workshop.

Screenshot of the templates in Miro
Miro provides a great starting point with the selection of pre-designed templates

Getting set up

I started with a blank canvas and set up a bunch of tasks. Each task is in a frame and you can pretty much do whatever you want with them.

I set up an intro frame, so I could talk through how the workshop would work, along with 7 tasks and an agenda. I also included an ice breaker—mainly for participants to learn how to use Miro.

Using digital post its, I asked the client team to write down their three favourite ice cream flavours. Then using a set of coloured dots I’d drawn up they prioritised the best answers. This follows exactly what we do in a physical workshop.

Screenshot of the Miro interface

Miro does have a voting plugin which I played with, where you can highlight specific items on the canvas for people to vote on. You can specify how many votes each person has, and set a time limit. It’s a really great function, but needs a large group of participants to be useful when trying to prioritise answers.

Once the team was comfortable, which they all were by the end of the icebreaker, we moved on to the main tasks. In this workshop we were trying to determine the audience groups and content needs for a web design project. Here’s how that looked...

Our goal for this type of workshop is to gather a wide range of information and then focus on the highest priorities. This helps establish site and content structure, design and user flow through a website.

Facilitating a remote workshop

One of the keys to a successful workshop is clear, concise and supportive facilitation. The facilitator is there to make sure everyone participating clearly understands what they’re supposed to be doing, feels comfortable in the environment and feels like they’re contributing what’s expected.

Miro offers integrated video chat as part of the team plan, but for some reason when we tested it with the team, we found some people unable to get it to work successfully. It also has another issue. To start the video chat participants would need to get access to the Miro interface and know how to start the video chat function (and give the correct permissions for the site to access their camera and mic etc). For some, this may be straightforward, but not for everyone. So we decided to use Zoom for the video chat part. That way we could get everyone on the Zoom call, and then ask them to fire up Miro. This allowed me to talk them through it without people getting lost.

Pros and cons

So, do remote workshops work? Yes! Could they feasibly permanently replace physical ones? Yes, absolutely! Are there a couple of issues, well yes.

The good:

  • At times like these, and when working with clients not based locally, remote workshops are a perfectly good replacement for doing it in-person.
  • Participants felt comfortable and confident using Miro.
  • Discussion, conversations and ‘banter’ flowed as well as they usually do.
  • Participants felt engaged and valued.
  • We got all the information we would usually want.
  • Having breaks seems better remotely, as people can just turn their video off and actually have a break, rather than just ‘killing time’ as can sometimes happen in a physical setting.
  • Collaborators using Miro show up as anonymous, which helps people be a little more free-thinking.
  • There are fewer distractions. I was concerned about this, but because people are using their computer to take part, participants seemed less inclined to check email etc.
  • It’s far more convenient and easier to juggle diaries running workshops remotely.
  • It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly than running them physically, going through a box of post its and Sharpies.
  • The results are immediately recorded and available to share. This is biggie for us. We’d often spend hours typing up the info we collected.

The issues:

  • Tech—There will usually be some kind of technical issue—browser crashes, internet issues, aging or low power equipment might all cause a problem.
  • Focus—we often run full day workshops in a physical setting (which is often hard enough for participants). I don’t think you could expect people to focus for the same amount of time remotely. This could be combated by running more, smaller remote workshops.
  • Relationship building—Doing workshops remotely may put up some barriers and make putting faces to names in the agency more difficult. That’s something we’d look to do in another way.
  • Value—I can see that a client may see less value in remote workshops in comparison to coming to the studio, being waited on and looked after.
  • No endless stream of coffee and biscuits.

Overall, my view of running remote workshops is extremely positive. We could quite easily replace the majority of physical ones we run (even post Covid-19). Even when/if we do run workshops in person, I’d still be keen to use Miro as long as everyone can access it.

Speaking of Miro, it’s a great tool. We haven’t fully tried any others to the same level, but I’d be happy to recommend it. Our clients liked it too, so much that they plan to start using it for their own collaborative working. If you think it might work for your business, head on over to their site and take a look.

As always, there’s more to learn and I’m excited to add to our workshop offering. If you’ve got any questions, or tips I might find useful I’d love to hear them—drop me a tweet or an email.