In the wake of the pandemic, businesses worldwide rapidly adopted tools such as video conferencing technology to facilitate remote collaboration within distributed teams. Despite the move towards this technology, large workshops that were traditionally dependent on physical spaces have continued to remain in-person events for many organizations.
And I get it—meeting in person can help foster camaraderie and sidebar conversations. Employees can tune out from the constant Slack and email notifications, focusing on the task at hand. But in my experience, in-person working sessions also bring on massive inefficiencies. Many colleagues are forced to dust off their suits and travel from various locations, disrupting their routines and sleeping habits. Despite efforts to gather everyone in person, inevitably there are individuals who either live in distant markets or couldn't attend in person and must virtually dial in, leading to a fragmented experience. Whiteboarding is done on large Post-it notes, requiring someone to take pictures and manually transcribe information for digital sharing. Employees end up spending long days in conference rooms, feeling drained, and often feel obliged to attend happy hours.
Companies aiming to sustain or even improve creativity, culture, and engagement need to invest in alternatives that meet the flexibility of the current business environment.
According to a Gallup poll, 51% of employees report disengagement from their work. The difficulty lies in maintaining a robust company culture when most interactions occur through screens (source).
Benefits Of Virtual Workshops
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While many argue that in-person workshops are more personal and interactive than remote meetings, new and innovative technologies are bringing benefits to distributed brainstorming:
- Productivity: Parallel team ideation leads to significant time savings, shorter time to produce artifacts with templatized digital materials, and accelerated decision-making with digital features such as voting and timers.
- Cost Savings: Digital meet-ups are far more cost-effective than teams traveling to a centralized location, workspaces are quicker to set up, and they require less logistical coordination than in-person sessions.
- Greater Inclusivity: Virtual sessions guard against groupthink, creating an equitable environment where no single individual or group dominates ideas.
- Streamline Documentation & Scale: Teams can easily share workshop documents, create standardized company-wide templates, and integrate with existing external digital tools/workflows. Digital whiteboards maintain “the whole story” of the session as well as reduce the need for duplicative notes.
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As a management consultant, I often act as the facilitator, incorporating virtual workshops in various scenarios across clients. Here are some ways I have leveraged remote workshops to enhance collaboration:
- Process Mapping: Partnered with teams to develop a new marketing process by grouping various stakeholder groups and mapping the current state customer journey from start to finish. Understanding the customer journey helped the team come up with innovative ideas for the future state.
- Gap Assessment: Created a structured, collaborative discovery framework to help a company determine gaps across people, processes, and technology in their current operations. Recommendations to remediate current challenges were voted on and prioritized, which created the design of future projects.
- OKR Coaching: Utilized a virtual whiteboard to organize ideas for OKR development. The team identified strategic themes and prioritized the most critical areas of focus. We created an actionable plan with defined objectives and key results.
- Retrospectives: Leveraged the agile retrospective framework “Rose, Bud, Thorn” to recap and reflect on a program that required cross-functional collaboration between teams. Walking away, the teams felt they had fostered a culture of continuous improvement and ultimately improved morale.
Additional popular use cases include prototyping, “Design Think,” team stand-ups, strategic planning, project charters, and more.
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To ensure successful virtual brainstorming sessions, consider the following best practices:
- Choose the Right Tool: Select a collaboration tool that is quick to learn, requires minimal setup, and aligns with any company security requirements (i.e., industry regulations, privacy, GDPR, etc). My favorite tool is Mural, given its optimized user interface, flexible permissioning, and timer features.
- Define the Scope: Clearly define objectives, problem statements, and establish guidelines for communicating through the session.
- Design: There is no need to recreate the wheel; take advantage of templatized frameworks. Think about how you want to organize and prioritize ideas as a group.
- Choose a Facilitator: Designate a facilitator to ensure a productive and respectful environment.
In conclusion, embracing virtual workshop tools can transform remote working challenges into opportunities for enhanced collaboration, creativity, and engagement within distributed teams.