Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures: Running workshops remotely
Many companies have decided to postpone or to halt development project activities due to the coronavirus pandemic. There are - luckily - other companies that have decided to seize the day and leverage this unique window of opportunity to develop their business capabilities and systems to match the customer needs, so that they are better prepared for growth, once the pandemic has been defeated. The good news is that finally there is plenty of time, resources and business knowledge available for development activities. The challenge, however, is how to leverage all of these available resources; the pandemic has made remote work from home offices the new normal. People are located in multiple different locations, usually even in very different time zones, and it is impossible to arrange any kind of traditional two-day face-to-face workshops to develop concepts or to gather requirements. One of our customers is among the companies that decided to make the best out of the situation. They wanted us to try running project workshops remotely - despite the fact that we were in the middle of a very critical concept definition phase and had project personnel from five different continents practically covering all different time zones. Gathering all this business knowledge and skills together to work towards the shared goal, posed a fairly unique challenge: How do you plan, prepare and execute an efficient workshop for a large group of participants completely remotely? Well, during extraordinary times, you will need to turn to extraordinary measures. And this is what we did:
Just like with any kind of concept definition workshop, careful planning is the key to success. To reach the objectives and to get the actual work done, you would need to have the right kind of combination of skills, knowledge and capabilities that you can split into focused teams to get more done in less time. This approach, combined with the right amount of leadership skills and motivating group exercises, usually leads to good results. In our case, this was not enough. We had to extend this planning and take into consideration the workshop objectives, split them into logical focus areas and combine them with the available participants’ skills and knowledge, organizational coverage and - of course - time zones. We did this with a spreadsheet with all the participants placed on rows and the above-mentioned dimensions on columns. With a couple of trials-and-errors, we were able to split the available two days to four logical two-hour focus area meetings and a fifth, common results walk-through session so that we had adequate representation from the business and no one would have to wake up in the middle of the night to participate in their focus area meeting. The idea of these focus area meetings was to simply to initiate group work efficiently under the planned themes, as well as to provide the groups with the means and support to get the tasks done remotely, without being constantly supervised or guided. Based on our previous experiences from eight-hour Teams meetings, we absolutely did not want to end up having this kind of online marathon with the maximum number of participants. Hence, team management, including how they worked as a team or individuals and how they collaborate, was left to be decided by the teams themselves.
To be on the safe side, we created the placeholder and reserved the workshop days from participants’ calendars roughly a month before. A week before the workshop, we then submitted the actual Teams invitations to the focus area meetings with the well-prepared workshop materials and discussion topics, so everyone could be on the same page. We had also prepared a Teams site with all the corresponding materials available for the participants to comment on or ask questions. A few days before the workshop, we checked and verified that the participants had understood what was expected from them, as well as how the workshop methodology and the used collaboration platform worked.
We opened each focus area meeting by once again explaining the objectives and expectations to the teams. We also walked through the materials with the team to make sure that any unclarities were resolved and potential questions were answered. Finally, we assigned team leads and made sure that the teams had the necessary tools and knowledge to get the work done and to present the results in the common results walkthrough session on day 2. Throughout the execution phase, all teams used the same collaboration platform which provided full visibility to what the different teams were doing. They were encouraged to organize themselves remotely, mix individual and teamwork and schedule additional meetings if needed. In addition, we provided an online support channel to the teams to resolve anything that was not clear or to identify issues during the workshop.
To our surprise, the online workshop led to more detailed and better results than the previous, traditional, face-to-face onsite workshop with the very same participants. The teams worked really well, very independently and with little support from the facilitators. The level of detail in the teams’ deliverables was excellent. Well, if this was such a good method, is there any need for the traditional, face-to-face workshops in the future? Absolutely yes; we believe it was the extraordinary situation combined with the good planning and preparation that made the teams work so efficiently and to success. We do not, however, expect the remote workshops to replace the need for real face-to-face human interaction. But for now, during these exceptional times, we will continue running workshops remotely and we encourage others to try it too!
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