4 Lessons from a Virtual Workshop during Covid-19

Joseph Volk / 7th April 2020 / Comment / Content Strategy

What We Learned from Running a Virtual Workshop during Covid-19

At Wheelhouse, one of the services we often find most helpful to clients is customer journey mapping. Customer journey mapping is a versatile tool, and in our digital marketing context, it is often a crucial first step in developing a strategy because it offers such a great opportunity to uncover knowledge and create alignment around our clients’ business goals, their users’ needs, and the biggest opportunities to satisfy the latter while meeting the former.

Of course, during this time of coronavirus quarantine and nationwide WFH, we’ve had to figure out how to offer virtual versions of the collaborative workshops, brainstorming and stakeholder interviews that are such a crucial part of developing customer journey maps and similar deliverables. We’ve learned some lessons about what works and what doesn’t and coming off of a successful virtual customer journey mapping workshop last week, we wanted to offer some tips for anyone who’s trying to figure out how to run an effective virtual workshop.

1. Focus on the outcomes, not the tools

Whether you’re using Zoom or Teams, Mural or Miro, we’re all spending a lot of time these days learning the features of all the various programs designed to facilitate virtual communication and collaboration. These tools are impressive, but that’s all they are at the end of the day: tools – a means to an end.

No tool can replace the focused planning and execution that is required to ground a workshop in clear outcomes, reinforce those outcomes throughout, and ensure they are met by the end of the workshop. Many of the how-tos, lists of tips (like this one!) and guides you’ll find online for virtual workshopping are so preoccupied with tool features and recommendations that they overlook the most important thing: if you are laser-focused on your outcomes, that focus will allow you to make wise choices about which tools and features to use.

If you’re overlooking your outcomes and instead counting on tools to do the work for you, to make the client feel like they’re “getting what they paid for” or to maintain engagement in a meandering workshop without clear goals, the quality of the experience and the business value of the output will both undoubtedly suffer. The impressive features and UIs of tools can make it all too easy to “put the cart before the horse” whereas only a consistent focus on thoughtful, precise outcomes will lead to reliable success in journey mapping workshops.

2. Prepare participants to backchannel

In order to allow for ideas to be vetted and to give internal processors and those less confident sharing aloud on a conference call the opportunities they need to develop their thoughts, I’m a proponent of one-on-one breakout brainstorms and other similar practices that require backchannels in virtual workshops.

Tools like Zoom offer multiple features, from private chats to separate rooms within a single meeting, to provide space for this, but it’s also important you prepare your participants.

When you send out a brief or agenda before your workshop, make sure to signal clearly that backchannel conversations will be part of the workshop and specify whether you have a specific technology you’d like participants to use or if you’re fine with them using whatever is at their disposal already (Slack, texting, etc.). You should also clearly state the expectations for the output of backchannel times, so that when participants are directed to use backchannel collaboration, they know what they are accountable for and do not spend that time getting sidetracked.

3. Be curious about participant engagement

This part can be risky, but the fact is that during a virtual workshop you have to be proactive and risk some social awkwardness in order to ensure that everyone remains engaged and that all potentially valuable input is heard.

Some workshop participants will thrive while contributing over a webcam or conference line, while others may be dealing with a hectic WFH environment, shyness about contributing, or dozens of other factors that could lead to diminished engagement. As facilitator, it’s YOUR responsibility to be curious – not judgmental or scolding, but to ask how people are doing, why they are silent, why they seem more tentative (or, for the big talkers, more energized) about certain topics, why their body language or facial expressions are what they are, etc.

If you do this gently and non-threateningly, you will not only make it more difficult for folks to passively disengage, you will probably also uncover feedback (including feedback about your own process and effectiveness) that will prove valuable on a number of levels.

Perhaps a silent participant is skeptical that data exists to support claims other participants are making, providing you an excellent opportunity to pressure test ideas that are being proposed. Perhaps someone is looking concerned because some of the possibilities being discussed put other operational priorities at risk, which could force a valuable discussion about projected business value and priority of items under consideration. Perhaps a participant who is disengaged doesn’t understand the “why?” or “so what?” of a given activity and can provide an important opportunity for you to reinforce those. Whatever the case, you will maximize your value to the workshop as its facilitator by probing and expressing consistent curiosity about what participants are thinking and feeling throughout your time together.

4. Talk about coronavirus

This fourth lesson may seem counterintuitive given how much stress folks are understandably experiencing with every fresh news update on the virus. I certainly don’t mean that you should begin a workshop with a thorough review of latest infection rates, but instead that being transparent about the circumstances and how they’ve affected you personally while also asking participants questions about their experiences when you feel it’s appropriate can be a great way to build trust.

After all, trust is the foundation of any successful customer journey mapping workshop or similar exercise. The client isn’t simply investing in an aesthetically-pleasing final deliverable or paying for access to a nifty brainstorming tool – they’re extending trust to you, opening up about what they’re proud of and concerned about in their business, and inviting you to help them gain greater alignment and clarity. As this excellent recent Harvard Business Review article points out, strong customer relationships will survive this crisis in part due to our ability to “Humanize” this moment and be more honest, creative and courageous in addressing the immense human challenges this moment holds. Workshops, with the extended collaboration and candidness they provide, are an excellent opportunity to build that foundation of genuine connection and trust.

How Can Wheelhouse Help You?

If you’re struggling to find alignment and prioritize possible paths forward during the Covid-19 crisis, one of our customer journey mapping workshops, messaging workshops, persona development processes or other similar offerings might be what your team needs to pull together and re-set during this time. Alternatively, if you’re unable to start any new projects at the moment but are just looking for some advice and outside perspective, reach out to us and we’ll happily offer whatever guidance and insight we can.

During this time, we’re relying on our values of Helpfulness and Generosity more than ever and are working every day to find new ways to support our past, present and future clients, so now is the ideal time to connect with us and let us know what we can do to help you.

P.S. All the above lessons should help no matter who your client is, but in our case, we were fortunate enough to have our first all-virtual workshop with a client who is passionate about providing their customers with a superior experience and who needed very little guidance in coming up with tons of valuable insights and possibilities in our workshop. Puget Systems is a wonderful local custom computer business here in Seattle and we invite you to check them out, especially if you’re looking for new systems to support your team during an abrupt shift to WFH or other timely solutions to whatever other technological challenges you’re facing.

By Joseph Volk