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What’s the difference between digital, virtual, and face-to-face facilitation?

By Hanna Liimatainen on Mar 14, 2018 8:03:00 AM

One of the greatest things about new technologies is that they can be used to either digitize existing processes or develop completely new ways of working. However, when it comes to inherently people-centric processes like organizational development or learning, it’s best to not to get too excited about a new and shiny technology, but to approach the task people-first.

In this post, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of digital, virtual, and face-to-face facilitation to make it easier for you choose the right approach for your next workshop, project, or process.


Face-to-face facilitation

Face-to-face facilitation relies on human interaction that happens in one place at a certain time. In fact, pretty much all traditional meetings and workshops rely on face-to-face interaction.

The benefits of face-to-face facilitation include:

  • Relationship building
  • Shared context
  • Access to nonverbal cues like expressions and body language
  • Increased effectiveness and engagement (compared to asynchronous communication)

The downsides of face-to-face facilitation include:

  • Limited length of interaction
  • Deeper knowledge sharing siloed to small groups
  • Travel time and costs
  • Disruptive in nature
  • Manual post-workshop documentation
  • Limited number of attendees

In other words, face-to-face meetings and workshops are suitable for situations with a specific agenda and a clear, short-term goal. However, when it comes to longer and more complex processes, face-to-face interactions should be complemented with ongoing, asynchronous communication to ensure that the team continues to work beyond workshops.

Virtual facilitation

Virtual facilitation, on the other hand, refers to online meetings and workshops that are held remotely. In other words, they entail interactions that happen between people in different places at the same time. Meetings hosted through Skype, GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts are great examples of virtually facilitated interactions.

The benefits of virtual facilitation include:

  • Increased productivity – no time spent on travel
  • Cost savings – no money spent on travel
  • No need to worry about meeting logistics (like booking a big meeting room or organizing refreshments

The disadvantages of virtual facilitation include:

  • Limited length of interaction
  • Limited access to facial expressions and other nonverbal cues (especially without a video connection)
  • Lack of context
  • Limited relationship-building opportunities
  • Limited opportunities for one-to-one communication
  • Limited number of attendees
  • Poses technical requirements: high speed internet and a virtual meeting tool

Much like face-to-face facilitation, virtual facilitation is suitable for meetings and workshops with a limited number of attendees and a clear goal. However, successful virtual facilitation requires a skilled facilitator, especially in workshop situations and meetings where some of the participants are attending remotely while others are in the same physical location.

Digital facilitation

Digital facilitation is an umbrella term that covers face-to-face facilitation using a digital platform like Howspace, virtual facilitation, and asynchronous facilitation such as the exchange of emails and instant messages. In other words, digital facilitation combines asynchronous and synchronous collaboration with remote and physical interaction, and by doing so, allows the facilitator endless possibilities to engage with the participants.

The benefits of digital facilitation include:

  • Increased flexibility
  • Unlimited number of participants
  • Enables asynchronous and synchronous multi-way communication
  • Extended length of interaction and the ability to collaborate not only during but also before, after, and in between workshops
  • Opportunity to combine different approaches
  • Reduced need for post-workshop documentation
  • Supports different kinds of personalities, learning styles, and communication styles

The downsides of digital facilitation include:

  • The facilitator must be willing and able to learn and adjust
  • Poses technical requirements: internet connection and a device for each participant

Unlike the other facilitation approaches, digital facilitation is suitable for longer engagements like learning programs and organizational change processes. 


If you're interested in learning more about digital facilitation, download our free eBook: Top 5 tips and tricks for powerful digital facilitation.

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