Communication matters, whether it's through a screen or face to face
Humans. Curious little creatures. We are explorers by nature, always looking to discover new worlds, pushing beyond our limits.
Our world has changed, and so did the way we work and collaborate. The new context has brought new challenges, new dynamics as well as new possibilities.
As explorers, we have always found a way. So what will this new world of virtual collaboration look like? How would we talk to each other? How would we share ideas and align our understanding? What would we value? How would we make decisions? How would we innovate?
Today, the answer to many of these questions is often virtual workshops. Unfortunately, not all are created equal.
Some team collaboration sessions empower, engage, and inspire, while others leave us disappointed, depleted and frustrated, regretting the time we have just lost. And the virtual environment will amplify all our negative feelings while muting an otherwise positive experience.
The moment we lose our best communication interface, the face-to-face interaction, we're forced to change the way we understand each other. Unlearning and learning how to communicate efficiently in a virtual environment comes with plenty of challenges.
The common pain points of meeting facilitation and participation
Talking to facilitators, I collected the most frequent challenges they faced when transitioning their workshops from in-person to virtual:
No feedback from the team
Time-consuming digital workspace setup
Multicultural remote practices
Keeping the attention of the team
Getting everyone to participate
But it’s not just facilitators who encounter difficulties. Workshop participants experience their own problems:
No organic side conversations
Feelings of insecurity around speaking up
Certain members overtaking the conversation
Making an analogy, all these challenges, are like symptoms of a disease which ultimately leads to lack of, or ineffective, collaboration.
Treating one symptom or another might help, but to find the cure we need to go to the root causes of what prevents team collaboration in a virtual environment.
To do that, we can use the Fishbone Diagram. The fishbone diagram, also known as Ishikawa diagram or cause and effect diagram, provides us a visual structure to display all possible causes of a problem.
🚀 PRO TIP: You can use this template to create a fishbone diagram in MURAL.
The 5 root causes of ineffective team collaboration
Working with facilitators we narrowed down to five main categories of root causes for ineffective team collaboration:
Lack of preparation. We can't achieve excellent outcomes and enable team collaboration by simply putting people together in a virtual room. There are many factors that can derail the team: a flawed plan, ad-hoc activities, information overload, poor schedule of activities and time management, lack of breaks, screen fatigue, not planning for individual reflection moments, unbalanced synchronous vs. asynchronous activities. These all need to be considered ahead of time.
Lack of clarity. We tolerate ambiguity differently. Some are more comfortable with uncertainty, unpredictability, and operating in new environments than others. When we don't know enough about the topic, the workshop purpose, expected outcomes we get stressed and stop contributing.
Lack of understanding. The coffee breaks, the "water cooler" talks are natural opportunities for us to get to know each other, build relationships and sometimes even align our understanding of the different topics discussed in the meeting. The absence of spontaneous social interactions and side-conversations can decrease our empathy level and, subsequently, lead to a lack of trust in each other or in the facilitator.
Lack of motivation. Cognitive fatigue, resistance to new, irrelevant workshop topics can influence our engagement level. Previous negative experiences with that specific workshop (or even team members), the pressure to perform in front of others, internal competition, unrealistic expectations, and the lack of psychological safety will significantly decrease our motivation.
Technology savviness. The novelty and rapid rise of tools for virtual collaborations means we have different tech-savviness levels, some of us experts while others are still at the beginning of their learning curve.
Prevention is better than cure
"A clever person solves a problem; a wise person avoids it."
💡 Albert Einstein
As facilitators we have limited means to react in the moment to a problem, but it is well in our power to anticipate problems and come up with proactive strategies to address them before they happen.
The first step is to cover the basics by answering the following questions related to our upcoming session or workshop:
Why? Why we do this, what is our objective, and how will we measure its success?
What? What topics must be covered, and what are the top priorities?
Who? Who needs to attend, and why is their contribution important?
Where? Where will this virtual workshop take place, and how will people access it?
When? What's the date and time, and the workshop duration?
How? What's the workshop sequence of activities and schedule? What are participants required to do?
Once that is clear, we can look at what proactive strategies we can employ to ensure that our workshop will run smoothly and the team will collaborate effectively while enjoying the experience.
Looking back to our root causes, here are a few critical strategies to employ before any virtual workshop / co-creation sessions:
Set up the working environment (proactively).
Communicate and bring clarity (proactively).
Design the human interactions (proactively).
1. Setting up the working environment (proactively)
Preparing a virtual collaboration event is not that different from an in-person one. The only thing that changes is the communication interface. An online event requires a lot of attention to small, essential details that need a perfect synchronization to ensure everyone has a seamless experience.
Communication. Set up and organize your synchronous communication tools (Zoom, MS Teams, Webex, etc.) and asynchronous communication (email, chat, shared space for documents, etc.).
Visual thinking. Design your digital whiteboard templates in MURAL to help participants brainstorm ideas, organize their thoughts, align their understanding and make decisions together.
Coordination. Send out calendar invites, plan and organize the team's project management and tracking tools.
Test everything, use another set of eyes if you can to check that everything works and can be accessed.
2. Communicate and bring clarity (proactively)
When we don’t have enough information about an upcoming meeting, workshop or event, we might feel a bit anxious and maybe reluctant to take part. Some will ruminate about it, asking themselves questions like:
Why should I join this? What would I get at the end of it? I don't want to waste my time.
Who else is joining? Do I know them? Do I like them? I don't want to feel uncomfortable.
What if I have a difference of opinion? Or I don't agree with the rest? I don't want to look too negative.
Do I know enough about this topic? I don't want to seem ignorant or unprepared.
What will they expect me to do? What if I can't deliver? I don't want to make mistakes.
What If I'm not that tech-savvy as the others? I don't want to look incompetent.
The easiest and most efficient way to prevent these anxious thoughts is to communicate early and before the event. Conduct a one-hour onboarding session, the week before, so all participants get a common knowledge base, build trust in each other and in you, as a facilitator.
Here's what needs to happen in your teamonboarding session:
Introduce the agenda: purpose and desired outcomes.
Explain why everyone was invited and how they will bring value.
Do a short MURAL training using fun and engaging games so participants learn the basic features progressively with you supporting and coaching along the way .
Ask everyone to introduce themselves focusing on their strengths, skills, expertise and interests to surface similarities between people.
Introduce the workshop topic, and capture everyone’s opinion and thoughts about it. Capture these insights as you will use them during the actual workshop.
If needed, ask the team to prepare more and give them specific homework.
Discuss workshop agenda, key activities and everyone’s roles. Make sure everyone can clear their schedule and address possible conflicts.
Answer questions and share other relevant information with the team.
3. Design the human interactions (proactively)
The building blocks of your workshop need to reflect on the MURAL board helping the team foster cohesion right from the start. Must-haves elements of your MURAL template:
Expected Outcomes. Work with key decision-makers to define realistic expectations and start the session by communicating them to your team. Having a clear focus from the start will create a positive momentum individually and collectively.
Plan/agenda. Give your workshop participants a helicopter view of all the activities and how they contribute to the desired outcomes. The agenda must be visible and easily accessible in your MURAL board at all times. When people can anticipate what will happen next, they cope better with anxiety and concentrate on their tasks.
Team contract. Ask the team to define the rules and set the boundaries for what's okay and what’s not. By jointly addressing behaviors, values, decision-making, and communication, the team will frame their expectations regarding failure.
Personal working areas. Leave no one behind and include in the template work areas for each participant so it’s easy to capture everyone's input during individual activities like brainstorming, ideation, etc.
Team activity areas. Make sure to include clear directions, examples and structure the board in such a way that it’s easy to capture conclusions, make decisions, etc. This also includes creating a Parking Lot for ideas and opinions that are not directly connected to the workshop goals.
Progress tracking. Design the MURAL board as a journey where your participants can track their progress and gain a sense of accomplishment as they progress through it. People are more willing to get the ball across the goal line when they acknowledge each small win.
Feedback. Design a feedback area in your MURAL board to allow participants to recognize, reward and celebrate collaborative behavior.
Emotional Index area. Every collaboration session can become an emotional rollercoaster. You will need the ability to diagnose and label your team's emotional state throughout the workshop so that you can better manage the interpersonal processes. Embed an emotion diagnosis tool into your MURAL board and refer back to it after each critical exercise. (check out Design Sprint Academy’s Emotional Rollercoaster template)
Icebreakers and energizers. Incorporate short moments of play to boost your team's energy before the most challenging parts of the workshop.
🚀 PRO TIP: Check out our most popular meeting warm-ups and energizers here.
Set the stage for success
Once you set up the stage for effective visual thinking, guiding your team through the entire series of exercises feels like on autopilot. But regardless of how well you plan and prepare your boards, you will still need to ask the right questions, manage the group dynamics, and effectively lead the team through the process. You'll need to brush up on your facilitation skills and get ready to employ some reactive strategies for a new set of yet unknown problems.
In a nutshell, preparation is key to avoiding the problems that you can already predict, and it’s as important as the skills you will apply in the workshop itself.
Dana is the co-founder and Head of Training at the Design Sprint Academy. She teaches business leaders from global organizations how to solve problems through design sprints. You can find her on Twitter @dana_vetan