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Running Remote Workshops

As humans we are hardwired to prefer to collaborate using many physical and visual queues, and we often find it easier to explain and share complex ideas through drawing or other visual collaboration means that are made easier when we are in the same room, were we can use tools like whiteboards or simply a pen and paper.  In the current climate, where we are either unable to travel to collaborate or because we just want to reduce our impact on the environment, the ability to effectively collaborate remotely is critical. 

Even with the rise of great and ubiquitous video conferencing capabilities, remote collaboration often leaves a lot to be desired. Whilst not the same as being able to look someone in the eye or be physically present with them, there are a number of things we can do to make remote collaboration easier and more effective.

Rules of engagement

  • Everyone must be on camera
  • All participants to utilize headphones or good quality conference speaker device
  • Ensure that you have a reliable internet link
  • Act like you are physically in the room
  • Focus your attention on the session

General standards

  • Keep sessions short, max 4 hours, but preferably 2 hours
  • Create and adhere to a formal agenda and times
  • Break up the sessions over several days as necessary
  • Be aware of time zones when planning
  • Break at least every 90min

Facilitators

  • Ensure that everyone is included and participates 
  • Ask for input and and feedback frequently
  • Avoid having long periods of one person presenting or talking
  • Timebox inputs, but still give people the opportunity to share their thoughts 
  • Try to keep an open microphone during the sessions  (and encourage others to do so). I know this goes against the conventional wisdom, but it’s better than talking and presenting into the void. (Note that this doesn’t apply in a noisy or distracting environment.)

Individual participation

  • Turn off notifications to reduce distractions 
  • Treat the session with the same respect you would as if you were in the room with a customer or colleague; don’t read email or do other unrelated work
  • Where possible, try to utilize two screens: one with the participant videos, and the other with the presentation or whiteboard

Tools 

  • Instant Messaging: Setup a dedicated Workshop/work session channel to share links and pictures (for example, Slack)
  • Video Conference: Pick the best possible video conferencing tool that all participants can access (such as Zoom, Google Hangouts (some companies forbid the required Google accounts on corporate machines), Webex (functionality can be limited on some operating systems, such as Linux), and so on) be aware of the participant limitations.
  • Web Whiteboard: Pick a online collaboration tool that allows everyone to participate and encourage everyone to get involved (See below for some options)
  • Shared Docs: Share agenda, notepads, spreadsheets, and so on with the whole team and let everyone contribute in real time (Google Docs)
  • Cellphone: Your camera can be used to share pictures of diagrams and anything else relevant.
  • Pen and Paper: Take notes, capture your thoughts, doodle 

Whiteboard style Collaboration Tools

We can use a number of different tools, including:

Google JamBoard

  • Link: https://jamboard.google.com
  • Web Browser and/or Mobile App: Both
  • Cost: Included in GSuite (There is a paid interactive display for Boardrooms)
  • Pros and cons: 
    • Integrated with Google GSuite and GDrive
    • Simple and intuitive to use
    • Work in web browser and/or app
    • Requires google logon to secure file access (Challenging if some attendants don’t have a Google account)
    • Can add sticky notes, but can’t add text directly 
    • Can add a image from Gdrive and embed other GSuite docs
    • Through the IOS and Android apps you can directly access the camera and embed images.
    • Jam can be downloaded as a PDF or saved as an editable frame
    • Multiple frames can created in one Jam
    • Jams can be opened and added to later.
  • Conclusion: Jamboard is a great tool and if the need to share it with external people who don’t have google accounts isn’t a issue it look like a great tool

A Web Whiteboard

  • Link: https://awwapp.com/
  • Web Browser and/or Mobile App: Web Browser
  • Cost: Advertisement, premium version is ad free
  • Capabilities: 
    • Simple and intuitive to use
    • Can be shared with anyone just via the link
    • Board can be exported as an image or PDF
    • Requires a account to save a board or create multiple boards
    • Has tools to create basic shapes (Rectangle and Circle)
    • Can add typed test directly 
  • Conclusion: Great simple web whiteboard tool that anyone can access, but if privacy and access control is an issue then don’t use it.

There are of course many others, some with great features, but these are the ones that I have tried.

Workshop Setup Checklist

We’ve found that the more we prepare for a workshop, the greater the degree of success we’ll see.  Some things we’ll want to consider:

  1. Create a detailed agenda 
    • Agenda Template
      • Attendee List
      • Start and End Time
      • Detailed Session Description
      • Collaboration Tools to be used
      • Links to Collaboration tools and any relevant docs
  2. Agree on the workshop start and end times for each session
  3. Send the agenda out for comment and feedback at least a week before
  4. Setup and test the Teleconference Tools, make sure ahead of time that everyone can access the chosen tool and test it (there is nothing more frustrating than having to deal with connectivity issues that eat into the session time)
  5. Create Shared Docs and ensure that all attendees have access to the docs
  6. Link all docs to the agenda

Conclusion

Remote work is likely to become more common even after the current emergency, particularly in the IT field, but while it can be jarring to those who are used to face-to-face contact, teleworking options are already quite advanced, and there’s no reason we can’t communicate effectively while spread out around the world. We just need to be certain that we’re prepared, both in terms of content and in terms of technology.

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