Thinking outside the office – how to preserve collaboration remotely

Lucia Gore 8th February 2021

Emails, zoom calls, webinars – since 2020, we have all increased our time spent communicating online. Whilst communication is up, in-person innovation has taken a hit.

Given that over a quarter of the past year was spent in a full national lockdown, creative face-to-face brainstorming sessions have become almost impossible. Collaboration is becoming more difficult because of this, however, whilst on an ECS client project towards the end of last year, I was introduced to Mural.

Mural is a tool that was central to our workshop planning. I thought it would be helpful to outline its benefits for others that are struggling to be collaborative in this time or who need inspiration for workshops and client meetings.

Mural – the thinking canvas

There is a sliding scale of remote idea swapping – from sharing opinions in writing or verbally, to participating visually by sharing screens. In order to collaborate successfully, teams must move away from passive viewing and responding, to actively inputting ideas and methods as the project or workshop takes places and evolves. This is where Mural steps in.

Mural is an ideation and visualisation tool that proved to be brilliant for brainstorming. It is a cloud-based platform that runs on desktop browsers. There are various ways of working with Mural, but essentially it is a freeform whiteboard space where you can post virtual sticky notes and include images, videos, shapes, text boxes and templates to design and deliver a stimulating and engaging online collaboration.

Mural encourages participation from everyone, with either named or anonymous contributions. There are many templates to choose from which give inspiration and speed up the task of building the Mural board. Templates are often focussed on problem solving and solution finding. Teams can create simple but comprehensive diagrams and bat around ideas in the collaborative space that Mural offers. I’ve seen it described as a “thinking canvas” used to organise ideas, which I think is a perfect description of the tool, whether those ideas be in the form of lists, flowcharts, frameworks or drawings.

Mural’s superpowers

A great aspect of Mural is the “Facilitator Superpowers” tool. This ‘power’ means that if there is a Scrum Master or an individual running the workshop, they can have special access to certain things and perform tasks well suited to workshop ‘leaders’ – this includes summoning all members to a particular area with a click. This helps to streamline the meeting and keep people focused on the task at hand. Other tools involve setting timers for creative breakaways, conducting voting sessions and more.

Whilst creativity is the goal, it’s important to set clear guidelines for workshops in Mural.

Punctuality is key – giving each member time to speak is also crucial (many do not feel comfortable speaking over others in a remote scenario). Whoever is facilitating the Mural workshop must explain what they’re doing at all times to make sure there are no empty silences, and the other contributors know what is expected of them.

I’ve also found it to be a a good way for the less experienced to watch and learn.

Mural in a post-COVID world

Whilst this article has mainly covered the benefits of Mural with regard to a remote team, it also works well with split teams and hybrid teams.

Some people can be in the same room and work on one version of the Mural board whilst others remain remotely. Eventually, when things are back to normal post-COVID and we are less reliant on remote working tools, there will still be a place for Mural.

In fact, Mural very much takes on the philosophy that if you design with accessibility and inclusion in mind, you create better design for everyone.

Making the most of Mural

Having had a little more time recently, I’ve looked into different learning mechanisms to make the most of Mural. There is a host of different videos on the Mural YouTube Channel which are worth looking into if you’d like to get inspiration on specific ideas using the tool.

Below, I’ve included photos and links to templates that I think are particularly intuitive and useful for team planning and workshop sessions:

The Importance/Difficulty Matrix – this is a create way of outlining tasks and creating priorities in a project. Members of the workshop are forced to map out which items (on sticky notes) are the most important and the most difficult and from there, can outline the best route forward in terms of task allocation – taking into account the time frame and what requires most work from most people.

Another template that I think is very useful is the Project planning template. This maps out every aspect of the task ahead and has columns allocated for goals, success metrics, costs, participation and blockers. Participants can each have their own colour sticky note and it can be used as a point of reference throughout a project to make sure that everyone is aligned.

The future of collaborative tools

I think that as remote working becomes more and more prevalent – especially in digital companies focusing on technical transformations – collaborative tools will become more common and there will be various options to choose from. This is a trend and I have no doubt that technology capable of supporting team collaboration will certainly continue to be used going forward. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that mastering the techniques to present a slick presentation and workshop with Mural is an important skill to have in these times of remote work.

About the author:

Lucia Gore has worked in the Digital Engineering Practice at ECS for 2.5 years on a number of client site projects, including The Times, HSBC and Vodafone. After 2 years working as a developer, she trained as a UX/UI Designer and has since been working to improve her skills in this field and deliver outstanding user experience for ECS’s clients.

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