Just as Don Draper and his team (Mad Men) famously used workshops to find ways to sell everything from beans to booze, workshops have long been the places where his real-world equivalents come together to bounce ideas around, collaborate and imagine the new. I'd be willing to bet that every one of the human-made objects you can see right now came from a creation process that involved a workshop somewhere along the line. And that’s before all the workshops that are held to decide how to market them to you.
Workshops have always been my medium; I’ve run thousands and Curve has trained many hundreds of people to be brilliant facilitators. This is our definition of a workshop: “A group of people engaged in activity on a particular topic to create something, learn and enable change.”
Through 2020, the pandemic forced almost all knowledge work online. Most people abandoned the idea of groups collaborating in a workshop form and switched to meetings on Zoom or Teams, often subsequently giving up on these as they’ve realized that, just like face-to-face meetings, online meetings waste most of the time they take up! For someone who loves the energy and human connection that a great workshop creates, this was traumatic.
Creative work was initially pushed to individuals or very small groups. Often using brilliant collaboration tools like Mural and Miro but still losing most of the interactivity and human connection of in-person workshops. Trust is critical to coming up with great ideas and being able to give as well as constructively receive feedback. Usually, this trust is established in the time around the workshop activities, but harder to replicate in online collaboration.
And this looks like what the future may be for a very long time to come. Many of the leaders I speak to have already closed their offices permanently, as a way to save money in the hard times predicted and because they've discovered they love working from home.
All is not lost. It turns out that this challenge reframed has created a Petri dish for innovation in facilitation; we often incorporate movement, meditation, nature and games as well as tried and tested design thinking tools to create memorable, enjoyable and productive remote workshops. Even skeptics have seen in the last year that collaborating remotely can be as good or even better than getting in a room physically — and the environmental, financial and accessibility benefits are enormous.
We can’t afford to go “back to normal.” We must step boldly into the future.
Now more than ever, society and businesses need to solve problems, come up with new ideas, and change the way they do things. So we must continue to push the limits of what’s possible through remote workshops and co-creation in ways that encourage collaboration and diversity of thought.