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The Power of Collaboration – remote or in-person, the same rules apply.

Now that the depths of COVID are behind us we’re starting to see more and more in person collaboration/engagement/work. However, we must not throw away everything we’ve learnt on our journey through the COVID lock down(s). Remote collaboration is definitely not going anywhere, and it has the potential to be a powerful tool in your kete (basket).

What is remote collaboration?

Putting it simply, it’s the 100% virtual facilitation of a workshop or space using online tools. Controversial statement incoming… Remote collaboration isn’t really any different to face-to-face collaboration. Here’s why.

  1. Creating great spaces still requires consideration and preparation, this will never change. 
  2. Ensuring you’re really clear on the purpose of the session, what you will take as a given, how the activities flow and fit together, and knowing who will be in the room (or on the call).
  3. Facilitation is a team sport! You need a well organised and aligned team to make it happen. In a physical workshop you might have a front of house facilitator, along with people who are dedicated note takers, scribes, time keepers, or DJs (yes, music is important). In a virtual space these roles aren’t too dissimilar, you need people.
  4. It’s all about the kōrero! The space you create, be it virtual or physical, as in service of the people and what they need to share, unpack and build, together. While you might make the most beautiful worksheets, being able to be flexible to the kōrero is essential, as any misalignment between participants might mean that you have to bin half your agenda and prepare something new. In a physical space this can be hard if you don’t have immediate access to large format printers or more flip charts
  5. You still need to be a good host. That means being there early to welcome people, ensuring you honour the appropriate tikanga of your participants, making sure they know why they’re here and the wider journey, and making sure that people have breaks for the wharepaku or tea.

What can enable remote collaboration

Remote collaboration relies on three, broad categories. These are tools, methods, and capabilities — once again, no different to doing it face to face you just have no control over the physical space a participant is in. This is both a blessing and a curse as you don’t have to worry about finding a space, but you also have no control over what is happening (or distracting) your participants, there are plenty of videos from our lockdowns that reinforce this point. However, coming back to what enables remote collaboration.

  • Tools – We’re starting to see market saturation for virtual collaboration with brands like Miro, Mural (annoyingly similar names, I know), Figma, Microsoft Whiteboard, Google (yes you can run a workshop in slides), and I’m sure there are more I’ve never heard of. We generally stick to Miro as it has the most robust functionality without restricting what you can do. We’ve used it as a presentation tool, designed artefacts and facilitated workshops in Miro. There is also a community library of artefacts which you can use to kick start the design of your workshop, these are extremely useful when you find yourself rinsing and repeating the same activity. It’s not all rosy as the lack of control over the copy in a text box and only being able to send objects to the front, or right to the back is very frustrating, but these are all pretty minor.
  • Methods – There is a lot to discuss here, but putting it simply, the methods and models that we might usually apply to our work are still the same. To zoom into one that most people are familiar with, double diamonds, divergent and convergent thinking is still a powerful tool to guide the flow/agenda of your workshop. One of the upsides of a virtual space is that it can be easy to see the journey that you have taken your participants on through exploring in the divergent space, and narrowing and deciding in convergent spaces. This is great for ensuring everyone is aligned and that the team is heading in the right direction.
  • Capabilities – Digital literacy is important here as trouble shooting peoples issues can take a lot of capacity away from your team, relying on one person to do this, especially if it is your facilitator is not the best idea. The rest of the capabilities are no different to face to face collaboration. Being able to hold the space, ensure the kōrero flows, and knowledge is being captured are all still the same, just in different mediums. Regardless of where your workshop is happening, ensuring your worksheets are functional will require some graphic design ability (and testing with your team beforehand) to ensure activities will work to achieve the outputs and outcomes needed for the session to be successful.

What I’ve personally observed

Over the past two and a half years of COVID, across multiple jobs, clients, and projects I’ve been fortunate enough to run hundreds of virtual workshops, both with internal teams and with people external to my team or project. While I was lucky to be introduced to a lot of virtual tools early, before COVID, there was plenty of learning along the way. The following are a few of my key observations.

  • The learning curve for a lot of digital collaboration tools can be really steep. On top of this, these tools can be intimidating with unclear functionality or iconography. However, don’t let this scare you off getting people in there. There are plenty of fun ways of introducing the functionality in a productive (and sometimes non-productive) way. In the past we’ve had participants build out their own ‘persona’ as a way of both familiarising them with the tool by getting them to use a wide range of functionality and as whakawhanagatanga. We also use it when we hang out as a team. Here is an output of a recent team members leaving party that was 100% virtual. While this can easily be written off as time wasted, learning about the functionality, and limits of your tool will ensure that you, and your team are ready, when you need to to use it practically.

Rutherford Dungeons and Dragons Team Exercise (drawn on computer, not by hand)

  • As stated earlier, collaboration is a team sport, and once again this is no different to face-to-face workshops, if not it’s more important in a virtual workshop. Ensuring you have channels to communicate and are aligned on your roles is extremely important to ensure everything runs smoothly and that you can be a good digital host. For example, if you want people to break out virtually, you might need someone in there, supporting and capturing the kōrero. To keep us aligned during a session we set up a google chat channel to allow us to communicate between breakouts and where we can, we assign a dedicated ‘back of house facilitator’ that can roam between breakouts and monitor if an activity will need more time. Below is an example of the communications that occurred during a recent virtual workshop.

  • The importance of resetting is amplified and takes longer. When we get busy we sometimes forget that humans are humans. Physically coming into a new/different space aids in resetting us, however, logging into a zoom call doesn’t have the same effect. This increases the importance of the activities at the beginning of your session. Ensuring that these ground your participants in the kaupapa, clarify the journey that everyone is on and ensure everyone has the space to connect and get to know the people they will be working/collaborating with. Be intentional and make sure everything is in service of the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. For example, in a recent kick off workshop for a project which has a large research/customer interview component we created canvases to enable each participant to interview one of their team members, capture it into a canvas, and share it back with the wider group.

Closing thoughts

Virtual collaboration is still a powerful tool in our kete, but we need to make sure that we’re making the most of it. Remember:

  • Collaboration should happen regardless of our ability to do it face-to-face. And now that we have the tools to do it digitally, we need to make sure we’re using them.
  • Not a lot changes in the principles and practices. We need to consider everything we would, if we were to work together face-to-face.
  • Resist the urge to treat virtual workshops as talk fests or an extraction exercise, build in moments to connect and time to understand the kaupapa and join the journey, this will result in better buy-in, in the long run.

Ultimately virtual collaboration should be commonplace in your organisation by now. If not, we’re happy to chat and see how we can change this.

Aaron Baxedine is a Senior Service Designer at Rutherford Consulting

It all starts with a conversation over coffee.  Let’s meet.

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