There are very few things we truly have control over, and a pandemic is not one of them.
In these past few months spent in isolation, our DevFacto UX team has reflected over the processes that made us successfully pivot into remote working – what works, what doesn’t, and why the mute button is so much more elusive whenever there’s more people in a meeting. Early on, we shifted all of our discovery workshops online and developed a formula for facilitating effective remote meetings via Microsoft Teams. Here, we share our top tips on how to make remote meetings work.
See, for us, UX professionals, being in the same room with our customer early in the project is incredibly beneficial to the final product. It is actually one of the reasons why we turn our software discovery sessions into collaborative ideation workshops.
Normally, we run these sessions in person, sometimes even in a specially designed room. During ideations, the group comprised of client stakeholders generates divergent ideas and converges on an action or decision to move forward. As a UX designer, this is usually the longest stretch I get to communicate with clients in person. It’s also my best shot at gaining a full understanding of the complex business problems they face. Being so, the workshop becomes a crucial step in establishing the necessary amount of trust to build software that humans love to use. Understandably, the stakes for our remote meetings are high because the success of the final product starts with expert meeting facilitation.
How do we understand a problem, gather requirements, and design a solution when we can’t meet our customers face to face? It starts by following these five tips during our Microsoft Teams meetings (but you use these with any remote meeting tool):
When we think about remote working, the most difficult barrier is the inescapable awkwardness of trying to collaborate while we are physically alone. Where the solution begins, is us – the facilitator of these sessions.
It was my eighth-grade teacher that told me, “trust takes years to build but just a moment to break”. I can’t imagine how long it would take to build trust trying to facilitate workshops remotely with your camera off.
The first step in eliminating something is to acknowledge it. There is a spirit to human connection that a computer could never replicate. The subtleties in facial expressions. The cues we get from an intake of breath. Shifts in posture. The presence a person brings to a room.
What we found was the most pivotal in creating an engaging environment was to acknowledge firstly, that this can be awkward, probably will feel awkward, and it is not ideal. Then to establish a human connection, we start by turning our cameras on, looking into it when we speak, and making it apparent that we are not bots on the other side of the screen. We are humans enduring something that is completely out of our control and making the best of it.
Another barrier we have come to identify is the lack of eagerness to asking questions.
Think about it in a typical workshop setting. Questions come up when a facilitator gives space for participants to feel comfortable asking them. We take these cues from a facilitator when that space has been created in the pauses in their speech and the open air, they let fill the room. When we find ourselves in remote settings, those kinds of cues are gone, resulting in fewer questions and less engagement.
Our solution is to start off with an ice breaker, aka energizer activity, at the beginning of these remote sessions. These serve to get everyone involved in a meeting, but they also come with another purpose – to create confidence through education. At DevFacto, we specifically choose exercises that can introduce concepts related to the workshop we are running to equip participants with the knowledge and confidence needed to share opinions.
This knowledge usually comes in the form of guidelines and terminology. We found that by doing so, participants felt more comfortable and assured in voicing their opinions and, at the same time, we were able to give them deeper insight on why we were making certain recommendations.
Another method we use at DevFacto is to frequently pause to ask for questions and have slides with questions to serve as a prompt to participants. My advice to remote meeting facilitators is to be comfortable facilitating to silence – it’s necessary for reflection.
Our final barrier that we’ve identified is the distraction that comes from working in a home environment. Part of creating a space for collaboration is making sure the participants know what is expected of them in a meeting. Do not surprise your participants with tools they need to download and links they need to visit on the spot.
Give your participants a sense of control with a more transparent approach and send out a detailed agenda prior to a remote meeting. Include how long each activity will take, any links or tools they should have ready, and when the breaks are going to be scheduled.
For each break, encourage the participants to turn off their cameras, mute their mics, and stand up. Once everyone has settled back into the meeting, re-energize them again with a light-hearted activity.
Keep in mind to choose activities that require collaboration and interaction to keep your participants engaged. At DevFacto, we’ve adapted by introducing online collaboration tools like Mural into our workflow with features that allow participants to add, remove, and vote. Some of the best exercises to facilitate remotely are retrospectives, problem framing discussions, and journey mapping.
When we remember the human side of facilitation, doing it remotely doesn’t seem so overwhelming. The thing is a good facilitator is a good facilitator. Enter any space and make it safe to share ideas, offer yourself in an honest way, and recognized the value in the insights of your participants. Remote collaboration is a unique experience that requires an adaptable and flexible way of facilitation. Once you overcome the barrier that is your screen, you will see the amazing connections humans can build.