Bixuit’s formula to create successful hybrid workshops: Part-remote, part in presence

July 12, 2021
Methodologies
Luca Lisci
|
Daniela de Giorgi
Taira Colah

"To have the customer on board" is a goal that more and more organizations are pursuing.

The factors that determine the success and longevity of the consultant-client relationship over time can be summed up in 5 simple words: transparency, participation, trust and exchange.

The workshop is a practice that allows us to achieve these goals.

Why?

Because the workshop is the tool that connects, that brings together, that creates a dialog - even between departments and functions that do not normally communicate with each other.

But this is not an ode to the almighty workshop, but rather the story of what we learned and the solutions we found when faced with the new challenges that remote collaboration brings.

Index

    Workshops, Bixuit style

    There are several well-made and very complete guides, videos, and articles about workshops. Amongst the most inspiring are those of AJ&Smart and IDEO, to name a few.

    First, for those unfamiliar with this working practice based on the Design Thinking approach, we can define the workshop as a collaborative session in which the consultant and client engage together in practical activities aimed at identifying or solving problems.

    In the pre-pandemic period, workshops were conducted in person - usually with us going to our clients’ offices. The preparation phase required - besides the definition of objectives, the agenda, and the participants – the procurement of physical materials (stationery to be precise) to use during the workshop activities: A1 flipboard paper, innumerable amounts of post-its (you could never have enough), markers for everyone, tape and the inevitable laptops used to project information to share with the participants.

    The preparation was time consuming and logistically complex. In addition, once the workshop was over, at least an entire day was spent digitizing a lot of what was on those post-its and papers so that they could then be turned into deliverables for the client.

    Let's face it: an effective but unsustainable mode of working!

    Effective because the face-to-face relationship served to build a close relationship of trust between us – the consultants and our clients. Not very sustainable however, due to the environmental impact and the costs involved in all these trips.

    None of this has gone away, but it has changed. It has changed radically with the arrival of the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the resulting restrictions on mobility.

    But as the saying goes, there is good in every evil.

    And so, like many others, we immediately rolled up our sleeves and did our best to bring that same old passion and desire to share an experience and a few hours of work together, to our clients.

    In this article, we'll talk about:

    • The Digital Transformation of Workshops: Aiming for Sustainability and Efficiency
    • Bixuit’s basics for organizing a workshop in hybrid mode.

    The Digital Transformation of Workshops: Aiming for Sustainability and Efficiency

    As we know, the first direct consequence of lockdowns was the need to transfer all the activities that we had previously carried out in the office and at the client's premises to digital platforms.

    Working remotely was a natural transition for the Bixuit team, but it wasn't so easy for some of the companies we work with. That's why we've guided our clients in learning about and using new collaboration tools, so they always feel like they’re part of the team.

    We’ve replaced some of the ‘face-to-face’ and ‘paper-based’ tools with other digital tools like Teams for video conferencing, Typeform for surveys – a quick hack for interviews, Miro and Mural that are digital collaborative workspaces to conduct our workshops and other activities in a collaborative way – still sticking post-its, just this time, they’re virtual.  

    Screenshot from preparatory workshop session on Mural, Bixuit 2021

    You may be wondering, "Okay, but what was the impact of this new approach?"

    For simplicity's sake, let's distinguish "pros and cons," although, as always, it's better not to go to extremes in either direction.

    The “pros” of the digital workshop

    First, remote workshops allowed us to significantly reduce material waste - mainly paper and markers. Which, thinking from an environmental sustainability perspective, is a great achievement for us. It helps us sleep better at night.

    Paper consumption WW from 2020 to 2030, Statista 2021

    Despite global concerns about climate change, deforestation, melting glaciers and the resulting increase in endangered animal species, the role of paper remains important in the digital age, being a ubiquitous material still used daily for many purposes. As the research conducted by Statista shows, the demand is constantly increasing, and it is estimated that paper consumption will reach about 461 million tons in 2030 (+60 million tons in 10 years).

    Who’s have thought, huh?  

    We have also set aside the markers, which were used extensively. As you can imagine, these are also a source of pollution for the environment (unless you opt for ecological ones).

    Furthermore, conducting workshops remotely allowed us to virtually bring people from different regions and countries to the same table. In this way we had the opportunity to optimize and make the sessions more efficient, eliminating “dead times” and any logistical inconveniences. Above all, we were able to broaden our audience of participants from different company locations, making the meetings even more fruitful.

    Not to forget, completing our workshop sessions with clients, knowing that the work has already been digitized allowed us to dedicate our time and focus on elaborating what emerged. Major increase in efficiency.  

    To sum it all up, these were the main benefits that were very evident:

    • Reduction of waste of paper and other stationery materials
    • Reduction of Co2 emissions caused by continuous trips
    • Reduction of travel and accommodation costs in the cities where our customers are located
    • Possibility of allocating the saved budget to other activities useful for the growth of the business unit
    • Reduction of downtime caused by transport systems that are not cutting edge
    • Simultaneous access to the workshops for people from different regions and countries
    • Increased time to devote to processing the deliverable for the session
    • More work-life balance for the people involved who can choose to spend the time spent traveling differently.

    The “cons” of digital workshops

    There are no real cons, it is more a question of challenges to be overcome largely related to communication.

    Yes, because compared to the benefits listed in the previous paragraph, there is a single fundamental condition.

    As usual – miscommunications and misunderstandings, our old friends, are always waiting on the sidelines ready for their ‘ta-da’ moment to make a grand surprise entrance. For everything to truly work - it is fundamental to communicate every aspect of the work that will be carried out clearly and simply.

    Organization is a central element; it certainly was even before. Now, however, in addition to the agenda and updates to be shared, there is also the explanation of the tools that will be used - that are not always known to everyone – and aren’t always usable by everyone: think firewalls and censorship.  

    The most important probably, especially when people are participating remotely, is to work a lot on their 'buy in'. Paying a lot of attention to helping them believe in the process and staying committed.

    Here’s another summery. These are the points to consider when organizing digital workshops:  

    • Communicate the agenda, tools, and objectives of the workshop in a clear and simple way.
    • Keep the participants involved and their attention high
    • Communicate to participants the importance of each step, the way it must be approached to achieve results
    • Ensure you have the full commitment and trust of the participants

    None of these challenges mentioned above are new per say, but now the effort required is much greater because from a distance the chances of being distracted are higher. The benefits we found however, are completely new.

    All of this to say, that the pandemic brought us too this point at the Bixuit where we have found a great balance in the hybrid way of conducting workshops. It combines the benefits of remote maintenance with the level of engagement and commitment that can be achieved in person.

    Let's have a closer look at the main steps we suggest to successfully organize a workshop in this hybrid mode.  

    Bixuit's basics for organizing a workshop in hybrid mode

    Workshops have always been an integral part of the way we work. So, when the pandemic really hit us here in Milan in March 2020, we responded promptly by transforming what we would normally do in presence with our clients to doing things via digital platforms and adapting them to our needs.

    Some things remain fundamental: It was important before and it is even more so now to clearly identify and define the problem to be solved. It is important to be objective and find a problem for which there is no obvious solution, and which requires the work of multiple cross-functional teams.

    The other fundamental is our old trusted, working framework. It is driven by our undying obsession for research, analysis, experimentation and sharing, and therefore the workshop as a concept, as described above, fits perfectly because it is the best way to let businesses collaborate, solve problems, design, and test solutions.

    Bixuit's framework to improve the running businesses, Bixuit 2021

    Some of the rules that were previously sacred in face-to-face workshops, now fall flat on their faces. They just aren’t very feasible asks any longer. For example:

    • Asking participants to put away their phones and laptops during the session
    • Preparing the room visually with notes, post-its, dedicated areas, markers, etc.
    • Calling on participants and checking that everyone is present.

    There are some other rules of the game however that must remain unchanged.

    • Creating a relaxed and open working atmosphere
    • Accepting feedback
    • Letting everyone actively participate and ask questions
    • Challenging ego-related thinking.

    If we were to break down the basics of actually organizing a successful hybrid mode workshop, we would consider the following:

    1. the agenda
    1. the environment and atmosphere
    1. the working tools

    The agenda

    While we can maintain the flow of our face-to-face workshops, we will need to overcome some limitations. While participating remotely using tools like video calls and collaborative whiteboards, one may encounter some difficulties: on a technical level or in general on a more personal collaborative level.  

    Here's how we overcome those limitations in Bixuit:

    • We get participants on board by engaging them, giving them time to introduce themselves or doing icebreaker activities together.
    • We create digital templates that show examples of exercises that can serve as breakouts at the beginning of each activity
    • We choose the right exercises, drawing on widely used and easy to understand methods that can help in the conception and design process (some examples are Crazy8s, Sketching, Break Up letters, Lightening Demos, Stinky Fish Canvas and KKUU)
    • We set the right time limits for exercises and make sure to stick to them. We also set a time for the presentation of the results of an exercise.
    • We digitize on the spot. While the facilitator accompanies the participants along the exercises, the other team members start to elaborate and digitize the concepts that have emerged, taking the time to identify and clarify sensitive points.  
    • At the end of the workshop, we briefly summarize the key points, thank the participants, explain what the next steps will be and if applicable, usually indicate that the follow-up of the session will take place within the next 48 hours.

    The environment and the atmosphere

    Last year we published a guide to remote working. A lot of what was covered there resonates also here.  

    The following points deserve special attention if we are to make a hybrid workshop really work:

    • We try to establish a sort of seamless feeling of connection between those participating virtually and those in presence. We do this by engaging them in icebreaker and other collaborative activities.  
    • It is also important to create a relaxed atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable.  
    • Being flexible to accommodate those who are remotely connected from home to answer their intercoms or listen to their children without disturbing them or making them feel pressured about it.  
    • Testing technologies and tools before we use them in the workshop. It’s a good idea to share with the participants in advance what the minimum technical requirements to better manage the session are.
    • Whenever we introduce a concept, show something on screen, or introduce an exercise, we ask if everything is clear – making sure everyone is on the same page before moving on.
    • Workshops that last 5-8 hours don't work if we have remote participants. The attention threshold is reduced compared to workshops in attendance (assuming it makes sense to do workshops that long!) Better to condense, synthesize, optimize!
    • If you need to create separate work teams, you must be very careful about where and how they meet and collaborate.  
    • We recommend fewer, but slightly longer breaks than in a normal face-to-face workshop.
    • The people you invite to the workshop are one of the most important building blocks. As always, it is good to have a wide range of perspectives (if the project calls for it). Ideally there should be about 1 facilitator for every 3-5 participants.

    The working tools

    We give our stakeholders the opportunity to prepare by giving them an overview of the agenda and the working tools that will be used during the workshop phase.

    • The workshop facilitator introduces and explains each activity to participants, focusing on why we are doing what we are doing
    • Through planned (and usually ‘fun’) activities, we get participants to try out the platforms while explaining certain essential features to them (e.g., how to create a digital post-it on a Mural board)
    • We always have a "time box" present (and user timers) to ensure everyone knows the time limit for each activity
    • Each activity is done sequentially. This is to emphasize the interdependence and importance of each activity
    • Third party web conferencing tools such as Teams, Zoom and Google Meet are used as well as live polls and surveys such as Tyepform, Google Forms and Mentimeter. There is an exorbitant number of tools available, obviously the best result is achieved when the chosen tool is perfectly suited to the client's needs.

    In conclusion

    The advantages of digital workshops are countless, and at the Bixuit we have tested all their possibilities.

    We are sure that in some cases, the face-to-face workshop remains the superior workshop, especially at the beginning to establish the trust and camaraderie. However, it is not the only method that guarantees excellent results because, as we have seen, much depends on organization, communication, and practice.  

    Moreover, the possibility of conducting remote workshops in perfect continuity with the logic of smart working, makes us more environmentally friendly and gives us the freedom to use time in an equally profitable, perhaps even more efficient and edifying way.

    For this reason, for us, the future of workshops is a mix of the two modes, digital and physical, meeting in person only at certain, more delicate and strategic stages of the project.  

    Authors

    Luca Lisci
    Head of Design, CXO, Author, Angel Investor

    Develops his career across Design and Marketing. In 25+ years he founded its endeavors on the vibrant mix of humanities and technology exploited by the Internet revolution. He's a designer, a thinker and a maker working to make good things happen, day by day.

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    Daniela de Giorgi
    Communication Strategist

    Raised in the digital space, but with a strong humanistic bent. She combines a background as a digital marketer and a soul as a content designer.

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    Taira Colah
    Design Strategist, Innovation Consultant

    Researches and designs strategies to create innovative products, services and businesses that can contribute to building meaningful sustainable futures, helping organizations to anticipate, design for and capitalize on the future.

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