Considering the current coronavirus crisis and the sudden pervasiveness of the term “social distancing” into our daily conversations, we at HCL, are considering the impact that this might have on current and planned project work, and developing alternate capabilities and approaches to activities that are traditionally best accomplished in a face-to-face setting.
Most significant among these, perhaps, are the virtual requirements and design workshops. For tactical reasons, we might all agree that in-person participation is optimal. In this way, we can minimize the risk of technical disruptions and minimize screen-staring exhaustion by utilizing comfortable, “old-school” techniques such as flip charts and physical whiteboards. But the importance of these sessions goes well beyond the tactical, since they are often the first time that disparate project stakeholders have worked so closely and intensely together. Being able to read body language (Does the team need a break? Is the audience paying attention? Are they confused?) is one important aspect of in-person work. Building and maintaining good relationships and trust is another.
While all the above supports the preference for in-person workshops, there are times such as now when this may not be feasible or advisable, and we are faced the questions of should we, and how do we forge ahead. The following are some of the “pros” of forging ahead in this scenario:
- Sticking to your schedule
- Reducing travel and logistics costs
- Reducing travel-related stress
- Reducing “public speaking” stress
- Ability to expand the geographic scope of the session where practical (which may provide the added advantage of people working closely together who may not otherwise typically do so due to distances)
- Workshop/session can be fully recorded
On the flip side, let’s reiterate some of the “cons” of the virtual approach:
- Difficulty in managing time zones
- Difficulty in managing distractions
- Limitations on means of communicating and brainstorming
- Reduced capacity for team bonding
- Risk of technical disruptions or difficulties
The key to how successful we can be in administering virtual requirements or a design workshop therefore seems to be tied to how well we can accentuate the positives while at the same time mitigating the negatives. Here are a few thoughts to do just that:
- Since, presumably given the current crisis, much of your audience in a virtual meeting or a design workshop will be in a work-from-home situation, why not introduce ice-breaker techniques that incorporate each participant’s local environment? Some may enjoy showing off their pet, a view from their window, and/or a prized possession, among other things.
- Consider mailing hard copies of session handout materials, decks, agendas, worksheets, etc. This will give participants the ability to give their eyes a break from staring at a screen in the virtual meeting and follow along on paper if preferred.
- Since catering lunch or refreshments is not an option, consider sending each participant a small gift certificate or other useful handout.
- Utilize a virtual meeting software that everyone should be able to access and use like Zoom, Skype, or others. Require that users have their webcam on for a more personal engagement experience.
- Have an alternate or backup communication channel that participants can revert to if there is difficulty with the primary channel (even if it is just an audio bridge). Hold a short pre-session to test everyone’s ability to connect and work out issues prior to the main work session.
- Where possible, participants who can congregate in an office environment should still try to do so for best bandwidth and audio-visual capabilities.
- Facilitators should have access to some type of “sticky note” and brainstorming tools that can be shared and displayed through the primary communication channel. Outputs from these tools can then be shared later (e.g. as part of the meeting minutes or as documents in a shared folder). In addition to more familiar “mind-mapping” and “work-flowing” tools such as MS Whiteboard, PowerPoint, and Visio here are examples of some other capable products on the market.
- IdeaFlip - This mind-mapping software is focused on capturing ideas and aids in silent brainstorming.
- Noteapp - Is designed to help visual collaboration among teams through sticky notes. You can create boards with drag-and-drop pinning. This is particularly useful during requirements gathering sessions.
- Ultimately, we should be prepared to adopt the right tool for the audience and task at hand. In cases where many participants should have the ability to “live-collaborate” on a diagram (for example), we find that a PowerPoint file displayed from a share-access location suits this purpose just fine. It is an application that most people are comfortable with and it supports freeform drawing for users accessing through a touchscreen device.
- The whole team should have access to a shared repository for all relevant project documents. Examples of software useful for this would be Microsoft Teams and SharePoint. Any security issues due to cross-organizational teams should be worked out well in advance.
- For Agile design sessions, access to the development environment of the software being developed may or may not be necessary for most participants, unless you want them to get hands-on experience.
- Utilizing frequent online polls is a useful way to keep participants engaged and thinking, and can also be used to collect some metrics on the effectiveness of the session of to identify shortcomings that can be addressed.
- Make sure roles, responsibilities, and expectations of everyone are clearly identified and distributed practically. For example, the speaker should not be the note taker, and other such delegated tasks that are relevant.
In closing, HCL wishes everyone well during these most unusual days. We are happy to work with you in more ways to mitigate employee risk during times of crisis such as this, while pushing ahead with important initiatives for your business. Let us know how we can help.