Workshopping Remotely

Stories

Greg van Brug
Senior Software Engineer

We're all getting pretty used to remote meetings. But working remotely since last October, I felt like I had a jump start on getting comfortable in a remote setting when many others started working remotely due to COVID-19 in mid March. Sharing my screen was second nature. Notifications automatically turned off when sharing started. And muting and unmuting was a click of the spacebar.

Participating and presenting in remote meetings is one thing. Giving a remote workshop is another. As a former instructor, my general approach to running a workshop is to give an overview of a topic, assign an exercise, and then walk around the room to answer questions and help where I can. But... when you're not physically in a space, this isn't in any way possible.

Recently, I led two workshops on Docker and Apostrophe where I presented an overview of Docker, a general introduction to Apostrophe, and then showed how the two technologies can work together. After each section of the presentation, I created a small exercise so participants could see the concepts presented in practice.

In the first workshop for Code for Philly, I thought the best way to handle a remote workshop was to figure out how to virtually walk around the room. I found tools to help me pair with participants remotely and I left time for participants to work individually after each section. While this seemed natural in theory, in practice I couldn't see participants, almost no one asked for help, and I was left wondering if participants were working, stuck, or even still there. I left this workshop feeling like it went OK but definitely not as smoothly as I had imagined.

In the second workshop for CMSPhilly, I cut the remote pairing tools, and bit the bullet... I'm going to code live with the participants. I've been though a few pretty awkward demo fails so this idea gave me a little bit of anxiety, but I thought trying to run the exercises this way would make the hands on sections more effective. If participants decided to follow along, great. If they were planning on trying it out later, they could always reference the video. I'll admit there were a few small hiccups, but this workshop felt smooth, organized, and did get some pretty good positive feedback.

So, what did I learn?

Don't expect real time feedback

Depending on the type of workshop and the tool you're using to run it, you might not see your participants or they may all be muted. It does feel a little like bit like you're just talking into a void but if you think of it more like a giving a guided presentation it can help make it feel a little more natural.

Don't create dead air

Space is good, pauses are natural, but prolonged dead air is just awkward for everyone. If you're doing a longer workshop where a physical break is needed, turn off your camera for the duration of the break and turn it back on when you're ready to continue. This is a clear signal to the audience that you are pausing and resuming.

Do test your tools

In addition to practicing your presentation, be sure to try running your presentation with your remote tools ahead of time so you're comfortable using them in real time. No one likes fumbling when your screen is being broadcasted.

Do use a moderator

A conference might assign you a moderator but if you are doing something less formal and don't have one, ask a colleague to be one for you. They could help you with things like letting you know if you're sharing the right screen (and it's on the right slide), watch for comments or questions in your meeting chat, or alert you if your video or audio is cutting out. You're going to be focused on presenting. Having a moderator will give you insight into what your participants are seeing on the other end.

Do find appropriate ways to facilitate participation

If your workshop requires participant collaboration in real time, use a tool that gives participants an easy structured way to collaborate. Give each participant dedicated time to speak so everyone has an equal voice. If your workshop is more independent, consider doing the exercise yourself in real time. Keep it short and focused. Be sure to practice the exercise until you know it by heart and have a finished reference handy for when you're live. It's highly likely that not all participants will actually be participating in real time — you can't control that — and doing the exercise yourself will keep things moving. Slip ups probably will happen but with practice and a reference handy they're likely to be minimal.

While we're all still kinda figuring out how remote works, the fact that we can do remote workshops and conferences effectively is kind of liberating and exciting. Remote workshops and conferences can be more inclusive, allowing anyone to attend events that might have been physically or financially difficult, if not impossible, in the past. This opens opportunities to reach a wider audience and provide greater access to many.

 

Looking for more tips on pulling off remote meetings successfully? Check out some thoughts on how we made our quarterly retreat work online.

Greg van Brug

Senior Software Engineer

Former designer, gone Full-Stack Developer. Greg strives to develop an intuitive experience for developers and end users