How to recreate the magic of face-to-face collaboration

April 20, 2020 • 4 minute read

Here at Fwd People, we place a premium on partnership. Our ability to immerse ourselves in our client’s businesses, quickly become a part of the team and get right down to making things happen is what sets us apart.

To achieve this level of trust and cooperation, workshops are an integral part of what we do. We’ve always championed in-person sessions where practicality allows, however now that we’re all locked away at home, how do we recreate the magic of face-to-face discussions?

Let’s start with the problem. Setting up a group call and expecting 15 or more participants to contribute meaningfully is asking for trouble. We’ve all been on the two-hour video conference, feigning interest while being constantly distracted by emails, notifications, and just about anything on the internet. And that was the good old pre-Covid days, before we were also simultaneously responsible for home schooling three kids.

A well-planned and executed face-to-face workshop should promote inclusivity, productivity and resolution. A remote session should be no different. Rather than simply operating as usual and expecting technology to bridge the gap, we’ve honed our methodology and figured out how technology can support us to create the most impactful remote sessions possible.

Here’s what we’ve learned.

Be sure to over prepare

Good planning is the foundation of any productive workshop. It takes on added importance when you split your team across multiple locations and throw technology into the mix. Technical issues or a lack of preparation are amplified online, where people are more likely to quickly switch off or move onto other tasks. Let’s assume you’ve got a solid methodology and agenda in place (you have, right?) – what else can you do to prime for success?

The less time spent milling around, off-task in a virtual environment the better.

Try to bring the team together for 30 minutes a week ahead of the session, to perform introductions, set expectations and become familiarized with the technology. You can even (very briefly) demo the tasks they will ultimately perform. Use this time to anticipate issues and iron them out in advance.

You can also assign teams ‘homework’ to be completed ahead of a collaborative session. This way everyone comes prepared and ready to actively participate on the day and you can focus on generating more meaningful conversations right out of the gate.

Emphasize inclusivity

Irrespective of how lifelike video conferencing has become, there remains a physical barrier between participants. We all know video conference isn’t the ideal environment for building close interpersonal relationships, especially for individuals who are less forthcoming or vocal. So, how can we ensure that everyone plays their part?

Breakout groups are a great way to promote participation face-to-face, and the same is true of remote sessions. By assigning focused exercises to smaller teams we encourage individuals to take part and take ownership. These breakout groups can come together to complete their tasks, at a date and time that everyone can commit to, ahead of a wider group session.

Alternatively, some platforms allow us to set up separate ‘conference rooms’ in advance so we can quickly link out into smaller group discussions and then regroup back in the main ‘room’ to share our thoughts.

Maximize productivity

Participants need time to think through problems, discuss ideas, and capture outputs. However, attention spans are much shorter online and the risk of distraction is much greater. Extended silences or downtime will always result in a loss of focus and productivity. What can we do to maintain engagement and output?

Try to divide and conquer to keep people occupied. Key activities can be subdivided into a number of micro-tasks, each building on the last to reach the same ultimate conclusion. Again, consider assigning these tasks to smaller breakout groups, and find the right tool to facilitate this type of approach – Miro and Mural are two platforms that have proven to be really useful tools for us.

Another option is to really lean into solo idea generation. Spend five minutes coming up with ideas and that everyone will be responsible for sharing their favorites with the group when we reconvene. This creates a sense of ownership and ensures that quieter, more contemplative participants have the chance to think things through and feel more confident in what they are sharing. It also ensures everyone stays engaged in the task at hand.

These simple adjustments make for a more efficient use of time, keep people energized and ultimately yield better results. And while we’re on the subject of energy, downtime is no less vital when you’re working from home. We’d recommend no single session lasting longer than 90 minutes. Take 15 minutes to refresh and refocus, you’ll be better able to tackle the next task after that!

Be clear on next steps

Assuming the brainstorming has gone brilliantly, you’re now faced with a heap of valuable content. You may even have some obvious themes or patterns emerging. Now, how do you resolve all of this into a succinct set of conclusions, recommendations, and next steps?

Ensuring a workshop concludes with clear takeaways and alignment on next steps is critical in any workshop. Assign a moderator to compile notes and pull out the most interesting outputs from the session. If there’s lots to sort through, it may be beneficial to take this process offline before reconvening the team for their input.

Another technique we’ve found particularly useful is having a ‘voting exercise’ after each activity. Assign participants their own emoji (or some other unique identifier) and have them paste this next to their two or three favorite ideas. This makes it very clear which thoughts are bubbling to the top and which ideas can be deprioritized.

After voting, a group discussion can help to clarify why certain ideas resonated with people. This discussion should be approached methodically, with well-planned activities that enable structured feedback against clear criteria (and remember, always encourage participants to always make sure any negative comment comes with a potential solution).

Moving forward

We may be living through a lot of uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean you can stop the collaborative discussions required to make progress as a team. We’ve seen a lot of success from the techniques and suggestions listed above and some of the workshops we’ve done over the last several weeks have been as productive, if not more so, than our favored in-person sessions.

We’ve been surprised with how well some smart technology mixed with careful planning has been able to recreate the dynamics that make collaboration so valuable. At Fwd People we’re passionate about facilitating efficient workshops that leave everyone feeling a sense of progress and achievement. Now, we can do that from the comfort of our own homes.

Need help planning your next facilitated remote workshop? Let us know! We’d love to help.

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