On Monday the 16th of March began the week that turned all of our lives upside down. Coronavirus hit the UK with a force and the circumstances forced entire companies to work, collaborate, and socialise remotely for weeks on end, and we are yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
While there is an unprecedented amount of uncertainty and most industries are suffering (with travel and hospitality in particular), it has also been encouraging to see both kindness and innovation flourish, with humans turning to virtual ways of connecting with others, and companies pivoting their operations in a very agile way, reaching out to their customers in new ways through delivery, technology and virtual connection.
Innovation has always run through the core of Hellon’s operations and that is what we help our clients do – innovate on services, propositions as well as customer and employee experience. However, much of our work has previously required face to face interaction, when conducting research and facilitating workshops and co-creation. For us too, the question on how to conduct these tasks in this new normal arose. Luckily, as a relatively small (45+ employees) and agile company, we took action very quickly, and true to service design logic, started thinking out loud.
On the first day of our remote work setup, we already had a company-wide workshop on the best remote collaboration and meeting tools. By the time of writing, we have already conducted 10+ remote workshops and customer research using digital tools, as well as internal collaboration. Here’s what we learned:
1. By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail
Whereas a rough agenda might be fine for face-to-face sessions, “winging it” isn’t an option for online workshops. Detailed planning is crucial, as is the creation of clear and specific instructions for each activity, a timeline of what is done in each phase (and by whom), as well as what tools will be used. Ideally, participants will already have registered for the tools in advance (e.g. day before) to ensure no one has access problems on the day of the session.
A test run with the core project team is also critical, especially if you are new to a platform, to go through the technicalities and potential scenarios that might happen during a workshop (e.g. someone can’t access, how to chat/ raise hand etc.). Our “tests” have ensured that we are well-prepared for a variety of hiccups which might happen in an online environment. Finally, keep in mind that discussions and exercises take longer online, so plan for less activities than you normally would for a face-to-face workshop, and ensure people get enough short breaks from their screen.
2. Choose the best tools – for your company
There’s a plethora of digital collaboration tools out there to choose from, which can make the selection of a tool or platform feel daunting. When making your selection, consider things such as; What is the desired outcomes of the exercise I am planning and how do I share them? How many participants are there? Which tools are in line with policies?
At Hellon, we usually use a mix of tools depending on the objective of the exercise. Often, we use a video conferencing platform such as Skype or Teams for communication, and, another platform on which to collaborate or ask for feedback. Miro and Mural are great platforms for post-it-type workshopping, in which all participants can work on one canvas or template simultaneously, which works very well for journey mapping, ideation and analysis.
Howspace is another platform we use, on which you can build your own “page” using various widgets. Thereafter, a variety of functions can be added, such as images, videos, reports, chat, polling, voting etc. This is a good tool for e.g. showcasing concepts and asking clients/ customers to provide feedback in real-time. Finally, at times we also use a specific polling/ voting tool such as Slido or Mentimeter, to gain feedback and spark discussion. This is what works for us, now consider the needs of your company.
3. The importance of facilitation
In online sessions, the facilitator’s role and ability to engage participants is emphasised. It’s important to create an inspiring and engaging online session, minimising participants’ desire to multi-task while on a remote call. Practice facilitation, plan engaging exercises with enough breaks and shorten the monologues to keep people active.
This is also where planning and preparation come into the picture. Ensure that the workshop has a clear structure, and that you are on top of the agenda at all times. Assign clear roles for the team if you have multiple people facilitating. For larger groups, a clear lead facilitator is required as well as supporting facilitators to communicate and assist with smaller – predetermined – groups (e.g. breakout rooms). Also make sure that the exercises are simple and easy to understand, and that there are clear instructions for the participants to follow. Finally, nurture the energy in the “virtual room” and build a connection with the participants, even though they are not face to face with you. Icebreakers can also be added into a virtual workshop, which will create a more relaxed atmosphere, and interactive activities ensure participants are engaged and focused.
4. Remote research doesn’t have to be boring
If you thought qualitative research was phone interviews and focus groups only, think again. Today, the likes of Google Hangouts and Webex allow us to conduct interviews over video, through which we can observe reactions and feelings towards a topic similar to an in-person interview. There are also multiple other innovative research approaches which do not require face-to-face interaction.
At Hellon, we’ve had many discussions on whether this situation will lead to the rise of design probes, which allow people to self-document their experiences and then share them with the researcher e.g. through a diary, or by taking pictures and completing tasks.
There is also an opportunity to do online listening and online ethnography to understand customers’ online behaviours related to a topic, as well as customer reviews and sentiment online. After all, this is where most of your customers are in these times.
5. Take care of each other!
While we are definitely trying to find the positive side to the current circumstances and keep our spirits high, many of us are of course struggling with adjusting, which is completely normal. Many of us are working and home-schooling kids simultaneously, we miss having in-person connections, and some of us are going slightly stir-crazy at home. But we check in on each other and we build a social closeness online.
It is important to set daily routines that bring everyone together while being physically apart, and it is crucial to see your colleagues most days and talk about non-work-related things with them to sustain the “normal” office chat.
Our company Slack has been “on fire” in the recent weeks; we share our crazy home outfits and “my kid interrupted the meeting” (or emptied an entire bag of flour – true story) stories, we organise virtual lunches and an after work drink here and there, and we embrace the “humanness” in each other – human-to-human business is our mantra after all. And that, I believe, makes all the difference in these difficult times and brings the light “into the tunnel.” Be kind to one another!
Hopefully these tips are useful for both conducting remote research and collaboration for everyone out there who is experiencing the new normal with us.