Apr 082020

Business as usual

I have been working remotely for a little over ten years, so the current work from home is in many ways business as usual for me. I haven’t turned a wheel on the car for a couple of weeks, have only been outside the house to walk the dog and buy milk, and I haven’t been closer than 6ft to anyone but my husband. All normal. So much is not normal, but these things, for me, are comfortable.

In all that time working from home, in globally distributed teams, I have learned some things. Ways to work effectively, ways to collaborate effectively. I know that much of this is second nature to many of the people in my network, but it is new to a lot of people who have had their work environments turned upside down.


Workshop facilitation can be particularly challenging as a virtual activity, and I do agree that it is normally better to do it in person, face to face, with a whiteboard, yellow sticky notes and all that goes with physical co-location. Sometimes that is not practical; when the team is globally distributed and a half day workshop would cost significant time and money is the traditional reason, but social distancing is the more pressing reason.

So how do we gather round a virtual whiteboard and harness the energy that would have been in the physical room? I have some pointers, I am sure that there are others who would approach this equally well, but differently, just as people approach face to face facilitation differently.

Understand what you do in the physical room

As a facilitator you ‘work the room’, monitoring what everyone is saying, and what they are not saying, looking for non-verbal clues to their thoughts. The online environment is not that rich, you are going to lose something, learn to manage that and live with it. What we need to do is to make the workshop as good as it can be.

Understand your environment

What tools do you have available? Do you know how to use them? Does everyone else know how to use them? In what ways can they work as a replacement for face to face elements of interactions? As the facilitator, you need to understand how the tools work, and you need to be able to talk participants through any lack of understanding.

Understand the distractions

The idyllic setting of a full day in a whiteboard lined room with working pens and enthusiastic people is not happening here. Expect dogs barking, doorbells ringing, and in the current climate expect children and partners to interrupt.

Set realistic time blocks

Two hours is probably enough for any session. Stick to a timetable, give people a lunch break and restart on time. Setting an all day meeting when you don’t have a captive audience is not going to work for most people.

Why are you running the workshop?

What is the purpose? Some of the exercises that you would run face to face would be better replaced with alternatives if you in a virtual session. Get to the root of ‘why’ to plan the best methods to achieve the goal.

Manage the group size

A physical room with six to ten people is really productive, and a few more can be accommodated in many cases. With a virtual workshop, ten is a lot of people to manage, three to six is probably a better size. Run more, smaller sessions.

Make use of all the tools

Do you have an effective backchannel where you can message individuals, or where they can message each other? Use it for questions, use it for exercises, use it to prompt the quiet people.

Use the screen

It is good to see people with their webcams, but make sure that you share a whiteboard view – Use the tool of your choice whether that is PowerPoint, a fancy sketching tool, or a webcam and a real whiteboard, but share a common view of stuff being recorded. For a larger meeting, have two facilitators, one with the current activity, and one with more reference material, and switch who is sharing to look at the appropriate flip chart or whiteboard as it would be in a physical room.

Use the chat for idea capturing

If you were going to collect ideas on sticky notes, then collect them in the meeting chat instead.

Aim for equality

One person on the end of a phone and nine in the room does not work well. Everybody on individual phone lines works much better, as nobody is disadvantaged.

As a facilitator you look around the room for the person who is fidgeting, eager to speak but can’t get a word in, or is too shy to interrupt. Finding that when working remotely is hard. If you have a backchannel then use it, if you have a raise hand facility then use it, if you don’t have these then regularly check with everyone if they would like to add something. Pick up on where there is an expert opinion available but silent and seek it out.

Use break out sessions

Split the group into two, each with a prepared facilitator, each with a separate conference call session. Rejoin the main call in 30 minutes – that is not so very different from going to another room, or the other end of the room in a physical session.

Be creative

Keep in mind the reason for the activity, are you trying to expand thinking, organise information or form a plan. Take the reason for the face to face activity and design something that will satisfy that reason in the virtual space.

Be nice

This is hard for some people, working from home is a new experience for many, and there are many stresses beyond the project work. A well facilitated physical workshop is an enjoyable experience, and there is no reason why a well facilitated online workshop should not also be enjoyable. Keep the ‘why’ in mind, be patient, and be prepared.

Stay safe

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