Virtual Workshops: Transitioning from Offline to Online Formats

Codemill
Mar 31, 2020

At Codemill, as with any other Swedish workplace, we love our fika (coffee break), team stand-ups, our whiteboards and post-its when we are brainstorming and trying to come up with solutions or ideas. Sure, we have embraced a host of tools and services to make our workplace collaboration easier and accessible from anywhere. However, it is my experience that many of these tools with a few exceptions were always used asynchronously. Earlier this week we got a chance to test some of these tools and a few new ones.

I am part of a group at work that is looking into improving the onboarding process for new employees. In an effort to make the process as comprehensive as possible, colleagues from different departments and roles are involved. The interest group leaders had originally planned to run a workshop to flesh out different ideas and perspectives. As with any workshop, it involved a conference room, a whiteboard, and sticky notes.

This meeting was scheduled several weeks in advance but now with the mandate to work from home we were faced with a binary choice: postpone it till we get back to the office or figure another way to run the conference virtually. We decided to try and do the workshop virtually. Our very resourceful colleague Emil decided to investigate with a tool stack that would help us transition the offline workshop to an online one.

The Workshop Format

  • Exercise 1 - Participants were asked to think of what they would want to see as part of the onboarding process as a new employee.. Everyone works individually and then shares their thoughts with the group. Time allocated 5 minutes.
  • Exercise 2 - Group breaks into groups of two-member subgroups divided by role i.e sales team, front-end, back-end, and UX. This exercise involved thinking about onboarding specifically through the lens of your role/department. Time allocated 15 minutes.

BREAK -

  • Exercise 3 - Elevator pitch for your role. Groups continue to work in pairs based on role or department wise. Time allocated 15 minutes.
  • Exercise 4 - Information that is important for a new colleague to know about our industry vertical i.e. Video Technology for the Media, Broadcasters & Entertainment. Groups are mixed to provide a more balanced perspective. Time allocated 7 minutes.

Sacrificing being in the company of colleagues without sacrificing the format

While we were willing to make some trade-offs in how the workshop was conducted, there were a few non-negotiables.

  • The ability to have a whiteboard functionality
  • The ability to write on a sticky and share it on a whiteboard
  • A way to have a countdown timer for each activity.
  • The ability to have breakout rooms within the workshop so assigned teams could work in pairs on different tasks given in the workshop and the ability to jump back into the main group when done

The whiteboard and sticky note functionalities were already available with tools we currently work with so it was just a question of tweaking it to work in a virtual setting. However, the break out rooms functionality was not available in our current web meeting tool.

Whiteboarding with Miro

All our project, product and UX teams use Miro internally, so it was our preferred tool of choice. Miro is purpose-built for ideation and brainstorming. With its infinite canvas, sticky note and timer feature, it was an easy choice. Since there were quite a few of us in the workshop, navigating around the canvas was a challenge. Emil however made interacting with the Miro board even more easy by using the frames feature. The frames feature allows users to navigate to a specific block in the whiteboard without having to manually drag the canvas around.

miro exercise 1

Miro whiteboard session

Designing the canvas for the workshop

Each exercise was allocated its own workspace within the canvas. Each workspace had the following blocks

  • The Introduction and Instructions for the exercise.
  • A block where an individual or the subgroup could work with their post-its
  • The Output block where all groups would gather to present their ideas

The instructions had the questions, the time limit, what to do, etc. In addition to the exercise specific work whiteboards, a parking lot was also added across all of the exercises. The idea was to move any sticky notes to the parking lot of any interesting ideas that came about during each exercise that were out of the scope of the exercise.

Overview.png

Overview of the entire Miro Board for the workshop. The left-hand panel is the frames feature. The horizontal board on the top is the parking lot.

Miro - Exercise 1.png

Screenshot of an output board

Zoom Web Meetings

Emil looked around for a web conference tool since our existing tool didn’t have the breakout room feature. Zoom was chosen for this purpose. We used Zoom’s free tier since this was still an experiment. One limitation is that zoom caps the meeting duration to 40 minutes. We worked around this limitation by creating a new meeting link and posting it on the slack channel.

Zoom breakout rooms-1x.png

The virtual whiteboard workshop experience

Signing in

Since this was our first attempt at doing this, it was not all smooth sailing all the way. For example, a few colleagues who run Linux based operating systems had trouble getting the audio to work.

Screen Sharing

Emil, the workshop leader, shared the screen and took us through the introduction and the instructions for each exercise. This was easy enough. Moving post-its from the individual or group boards to the output board was a little harder.

Zoom in and Zoom out.

While working individually or in a group the respective participants zoomed into their respective workspaces to make the sticky notes. But when it was time to move the sticky notes to the output whiteboard it was time-consuming.

When many participants are involved there is a good chance that many ideas have similar themes. During workshops, we usually tend to cluster these themes together. Some participants (myself included) struggled to move the sticky notes from our workspace to the output board. This operation usually involved zooming in to pick up sticky notes then zooming out to locate the output map and then zooming into the appropriate cluster of sticky notes.

Some ways we worked around this was using the cut-paste function to move the sticky notes around faster. We also dragged the entire workspace boards closer to the output board to speed things up. Other participants also helped by pointing out where to cluster a sticky note when there was more than one group that came up with the same idea.

We also had to prioritize the best ideas from the output boards in some of the tasks. For this, we used the voting feature to pick out the individual idea/sticky notes. The most voted ideas get taken forward and used in the onboarding document.

Out of Time

We were only able to complete the first two tasks within the allotted time. So we had to schedule another meeting. We found things easier to do in the second attempt.

Our learning and recommendations

We had a chance to reflect on the whole workshop and we came up with some general recommendations to improve effectiveness.

Planning

  • Check if workshop participants are familiar with the tools that are going to be used. If they are not, then try one of these two. First, schedule a short training session to help them get familiar before the workshop. Second, allocate time at the start of the workshop for them to get familiar.
  • Decide on your web conferencing tool based on needs. If you do not need the breakout rooms feature then use your existing web conferencing tool. Familiar tools make things easier for participants.
  • Encourage participants to log in to the web conference tool beforehand to make sure they can get their audio, video and webcams working with their hardware and operating system set up.
  • Plan for a longer online workshop than what was originally planned for the offline session. Alternatively, split the workshop into parts to stay within schedule.

Virtual Whiteboard Design (Miro Specific)

  • Depending on what you want to accomplish from your workshop Miro has an exhaustive template library to get you up and running quickly.
  • You can also refer to our Miro screenshots for inspiration.
  • Have the instructions for each exercise written on a board for each exercise or activity. Also write these instructions in each breakout group’s workspace. Also include shortcuts and hacks that will help participants work with Miro.
  • Make sure you make good use of the whiteboard real estate and space out each breakout group’s workspace. We had a maximum of 8 and a minimum of 4. Be sure to test things out if your participant and group count is higher.
  • Use the frame feature to help participants to navigate quickly and save time from scrolling endlessly across the board
  • Have a parking lot whiteboard for good ideas whose time hasn’t come yet.
  • Assign different sticky note colors. Depending on the circumstances one color can be assigned to each participant/group or to a specific theme within an exercise.

Running the workshop

Workshop leaders

  • Join the web conference 5-10 minutes earlier.
  • Run through the agenda and make sure you have all the information necessary.
  • Keep a checklist of things to say and do during the workshop.
  • Keep the list of attendees handy and do a quick headcount

General

  • Have 5-minute breaks between each exercise.
  • Use the countdown timer in Miro to help users keep track of time.
  • Remind participants about keyboard shortcuts and navigation hacks to give participants a better experience of using Miro. Two big-time savers are the frames feature and using ctrl+x ctrl+v / ⌘+x ⌘+v.
  • Be patient and encouraging to participants unfamiliar with the tools. Pair them up with a user who is familiar or have the workshop leader assist them.

Next Steps

We believe we have found a good solution to run our whiteboard workshops virtually. We will continue to iterate and improve our ability to work with these tools. We plan to try and do our UX workshops with our clients in the coming months.

Final Thoughts

Many of us depending on our industry and line of work have some experience with working remotely and are familiar with digital tools to get things done. Others might be venturing into this territory for the first time. There is going to be an adjustment period until many of us are comfortable working remotely and virtually by choosing the right tools and working together as a team and helping each other make this transition. We hope you found our guide useful. Feel free to reach out if you would approach a virtual whiteboard session differently or just need some help from us.

My colleague Johan also shared his thoughts on working remotely during this period. You can read it here


Dinesh is a sales manager who works at Codemill & Accurate Video, a professional services and technology company offering cloud-native tools to enable remote working and collaboration for content teams in the Media & Entertainment industry.

With inputs from

Emil Edskär is a UX designer at Codemill and works with Media & Entertainment customers on a UX driven development approach to ensure products and solutions meet the user and business requirements.

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