Suzie Miller is a Creative Director at Clarity Partners.  Her typical process has completely changed as a result of quarantine and social distancing.  Here she shares the ways in which she is adapting to the current environment and creating experiences remotely.

 

A Zoom meeting will never replace an in-person design session.  A virtual whiteboard will never replace the experience of working through ideas with a client on a physical medium.  Screens will never replace the ability to convey emotion for which you can explain your creative decisions.

However, the driving necessity to utilize remote creative collaboration has one very important benefit: it allows us to create new models for existing techniques.  We’re expanding our capabilities to create meaningful experiences between our colleagues and for our clients.  With a strong agenda, a little resourcefulness, and rigorous preparation, remote settings can serve anyone seeking to reinvent face-to-face collaboration.

 

The Hurdles of a Remote Workshop

To adapt to the change in collaborative workshop dynamics, let’s first outline what is missing from the virtual experience.

 

Non-verbal language is important

The spoken word only accounts for part of the messages we deliver.  Our body language and tone contribute to the meaning of our words.  When we are remote, we lose those aspects of communication, which can lead to a gap in the ability to convey important details.

 

Building a virtual “open forum”

Quality collaboration begins when team members feel secure, if not empowered, to express ideas.  There is a vulnerability that comes with contributing our thoughts, feedback, and criticism.  Establishing trust amongst collaborators in a remote setting can be increasingly difficult, attempting to build a rapport that body language can naturally/non-verbally establish.  As a result, team members may respond with reluctance.

 

Lost in space

Dedicated physical space encourages team members to focus during in-person workshops.  The virtual space of remote workshops, or our screens, occupy only a small portion of our larger environment. The remaining space—especially while at home—offers a plethora of distractions.

 

The Process of Creating a Remote Workshop and Toolbox

Now let’s cover what it takes to build this digital experience.

 

Planning

All collaborative workshops, whether in-person or remote, require some initial planning.

 

Who are the players?

Take time to think about the session contributors.  For each person, consider background, influences, role, language, and time zone.  How can you best communicate your ideas to them?  Are they analytical?  Visual?  Are they conceptual or prescriptive?

 

What is the goal of this workshop?

The goal of the workshop should be clear to the session contributors.  Are you seeking constructive feedback?  Additional guidance?  Maybe you just want to create team alignment.  Regardless of what you want to accomplish, it should be defined and specific to make the session as effective as possible.

 

How do the players collectively reach that goal?

A distinct goal should ease the effort needed to form an action plan.  With consideration of your fellow collaborators, you will need to decide next steps.  How will you facilitate the conversation?  Do you need to prepare visuals?  Do you need to take notes, document, or design in real-time?

 

Agenda

Outlining next steps with a good agenda ties the planning process together, connecting the phases of a creative workshop to the achieved goal.  Each agenda item has a clear purpose and should result in a defined outcome.

Be deliberate in opening and closing agenda items.  Make sure team members understand the purpose of the exercise both when you begin and as the exercise comes to a close.  Be sure to reiterate the steps taken and outcomes achieved.

Along the way, over-communicate and engage with people individually and directly. Repeat important information and call people by name. This helps establish familiarity and creates that “safe space” where everyone can comfortably contribute.

 

Toolbox

Whiteboards, Post-it Notes, and Sharpies are time-honored traditions in collaborative workshops for good reason.  These tools help us communicate our ideas visually, work through iterations quickly, and document.  For now, we must honor the function of our favorite tools rather than their form.

At minimum, you will need tools for:

  • real-time communication
  • real-time documentation
  • collaboration & iterations
  • asynchronous communication

 

Now Pivot That Toolbox to Work Remotely

Take stock on the working elements

The tools needed are likely at your disposal, so before you reinvent the wheel (aka subscribe to more software), take inventory.

  • What tools do you have?
  • What functionalities are you familiar with?
  • Are there functionalities you were not aware of?

 

Remember your audience

Will your collaborators need to learn your tools to contribute?  How will you teach them?  Add this to your agenda.

 

Remember your meeting goal

Once your audience/fellow collaborators have the tools and know how to use them, evaluate your agenda and adjust accordingly.

 

Remember your agenda items

Does your existing toolbox provide everything you need to meet your goal?

 

Clarity’s toolbox

At Clarity, we recognize our minimum requirements for collaboration can be met with our existing toolbox:

  • Zoom & Slack for real-time communication
  • Google Docs & Google Sheets for real-time documentation
  • Sketch & InVision for collaboration & iterations
  • Slack & email for asynchronous communication

Be sure to identify and address all the details that could hinder your workshop and its effectiveness.  By determining the things that could go wrong, you can ensure everything goes right.

 

The Devil is in the Detail

Be sure to identify and address all the details that could hinder your workshop and its effectiveness.  By determining the things that could go wrong, you can ensure everything goes right.

 

Be resourceful

Design software like Sketch and InVision (traditionally used for design purposes) can help facilitate remote collaborations, even when specific design decisions are not on the agenda.

 

Time each agenda item

Our definitions of time are blurry until a 3-hour, remote brainstorming session gets put on your calendar.  All of a sudden, you remember the concept of time. Your collaborators will appreciate shortened, hyper-focused moments of tunnel vision and timed agenda items will keep your momentum rolling.

 

Prepare templates

Just as you would come to an in-person meeting with tactile supplies, you’ll want to come to your remote session with your digital supplies.  Think of your documents for review as the paper you’d place on the office wall.  Would you be asking your participants to put up Post-Its?  Would you ask them to mark-up visuals or sketch?

 

Examples of digital supplies

Remote dot voting

Dot voting is a common in-person collaboration technique.  It is used to help team members make decisions and prioritize together.  Session participants “vote” by using colored dot stickers.  Groups of colored dots help session participants visualize what decisions should be made.

In virtual space, this technique can be leveraged simply by creating a template.  Your template document should have screenshots of the items being discussed and colored circles already created.  As your session participants are viewing your screen, call on individuals to cast their “vote(s).”  Place their dot for them by copying and pasting the colored circle template.

 

Remote whiteboarding

Who doesn’t love a good whiteboarding session?  They are low maintenance. Contributors are able to just show up and communicate their ideas without any prep work.  Remote whiteboarding sessions should also remain low maintenance for contributors.

Facilitators should come prepared to share documents and teach contributors how to use annotation tools.  When opening an agenda item that requires annotations, show team members how to use the tools and let them practice openly. Then, give them the space and freedom to express their ideas.  Don’t forget to grab screenshots—or, ask someone else on your team to do so.

 

Conduct a practice session

“If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.”

– Miles Davis

Practice sessions allow you to work out the kinks before the actual meeting, fine-tuning all of the details.  Before the meeting, run through the entire workshop with an internal team member as they follow along.  Share your screen and uncover all the ways this “won’t work.”  Do this in the comfort of a familiar face and have fun.

 

Summary

In-person collaboration allows for ease of efficient communication, trust-building, and engagement.  By favoring the functions of the tools typically used in person, we can build a whole new experience and successfully execute constructive team collaborations.  With a little imagination and a lot of preparation, the virtual experiences we create for our clients give them space to share and refine their ideas and have confidence in the creative process.

 

About Clarity Partners

Clarity Partners is a Chicago-based, full-service management and information technology consulting firm that specializes in delivering comprehensive solutions to complex public sector and non-profit challenges. We provide management consulting, enterprise performance management, application development, website design and development, cloud solutions, project management, and IT staffing services to a diverse mix of businesses across the full spectrum of industries.