Nothing quite feels the same as real face-to-face time with people—but when you have a dispersed workforce, figuring out how to collaborate effectively despite the distance becomes an imperative.
When it comes to facilitating brainstorming workshops, this can be especially important to get right. Just because everyone’s body isn’t in the same room doesn’t mean their brains can’t be!
My experience managing a team with people in California, Tennessee, Argentina, and the U.K. has taught me a few things about taking everything we love about collaborative, creative workshopping and doing it with people around the world—and it’s not as hard as you might think.
Step 1: Be Thoughtful About Your Setup
A huge amount of the success of a workshop that includes remote participants hinges on getting the tech setup right so that everyone can focus on each other instead of frustrating logistics. If running meetings with tools like Google Hangouts is new to you or your participants, this is especially true.
Some basic considerations to help things go smoothly include:
- Be conscious of time zone differences. When everyone is in the same room, an all-day workshop might make sense. But with when your 5pm is their midnight, things aren’t going to go well. Splitting a focused session up is not only considerate, but can be beneficial in giving people time to sleep on ideas and come back refreshed.
- Make sure the meeting link is included in the event invitation. This is very easy to do with Google Calendar. Including your agenda and support docs in the event is also very helpful for folks to find what they need fast before, during, and after the workshop.
- Ensure remote participants have access to digital versions of anything you’ll be passing out during the meeting. This means setting up the access permissions and sharing links before they join. You can even ask them to print materials if you’re including activities that involve hand-writing responses.
- Reserve a room for people joining from other office locations (so they don't have to join from their desk or a noisy shared working space). This ensures they’ll be able to hear and be heard and helps to create that “getting out of our usual environment” feel you want to fuel creative thinking.
- Test out your audio and visual connections in the room you’ll be using. Ideally, the video should allow the remote team member to feel like they are sitting at the table, so pay attention to how the camera is positioned and how in-person participants are seated. You don’t want backs to the camera or far-away and muffled voices.
Step 2: Create a Level Playing Field
Right up top, it’s important for everyone to be on board with the idea that team members joining remotely are just as valuable to this workshop as those in the room.
- Start with connection. Besides basic role-sharing introductions among a cross-functional team, you can tap into the power of human connection by sharing something a bit more vulnerable, like what you're grateful for that day.
- Disconnect from distractions. At the beginning of any workshop, I like to ask everyone to close their laptops* and put away their mobile phones. Since remote participants are using their computer to connect, it helps to ask them to close any email/chat tabs so they can be just as fully present.
- Non-verbal cues are key. Remote participants should ideally have their videos on throughout the workshop so that their non-verbal queues can be read (give them a head's up about this expectation ahead of time so they don't feel pressured into an unwanted pajama party). Similarly, unless you have a large number of remote participants, I like to encourage folks to keep their mics unmuted—this allows for informal feedback (“hmmm” and “uhuh” type responses) to create a more natural connection with the group.
- Explicitly invite input from remote members. As a remote participant, speaking up can be difficult since in-person participants might not see your non-verbal queues of having something to say. As a facilitator, if someone joining remotely hasn’t spoken up in a while, invite them to weigh in on the discussion. This can help that person feel included in the conversation and remind any in-person participants to check in with their online colleagues.
- Pay attention to the clock. Time-boxing activities using an alarm everyone on the call can hear helps focus activities. Equally as important is making sure to take regular breaks—and be clear about when to return (e.g., "Let's take a 10 minute break and restart at 11:13.").
* Having laptops in the room, however, can be really useful for breaking up into smaller groups by connecting on separate Hangout connections.
Step 3: Get Creative with Traditionally Analogue Activities
There’s nothing I love more than a well-structured activity to get people engaged and talking with one another. When everyone is physically together, this often involves a lot of sticky notes and whiteboarding (sound familiar?). Initially, this can feel difficult to duplicate with remote participants, but some simple adjustments can help.
One lesson learned: video of whiteboarding is almost entirely useless. It’s hard to write big enough for notes to be clear and video comes through fuzzy when people are moving around in front of the board to write. I wouldn’t recommend it—but don't worry, there are equally effective alternatives!
Sticky note-based activities are great because they can help people generate lots of focused ideas without worrying much about structure or if the concept is completely thought out. While there are online tools available for more directly replicating this super helpful and beloved analogue activity, these tools can often be more work than they’re worth (you spend all your time trying to use it instead of focusing on the brainstorm itself).
Instead, use a low-tech tool that mirrors the idea of casual sharing—like a Google Doc, Sheets, or Drawing. I actually love to blend the analogue with the digital by having all participants generate ideas on sticky notes, then verbally share their thoughts while one designated note taker writes everything out on a shared doc, which the group can also vote on. There’s the added benefit of having instantly sharable documentation of your discussion.
One element that I still find tough to replicate with remote teams is the “hallway conversation”—the discussion that happens as people filter out of a meeting room after the workshop or run into one another at lunch the next day. But spending this dedicated time together in a workshop setting builds connection beyond that workshop time, which can be paired with great tools like Slack to facilitate an ongoing conversation.
Ultimately, with some creative planning and consideration, remote workshops can be a total success for your team to grow together.