<img alt="" src="https://secure.shoo5woop.com/166494.png" style="display:none;">

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

By Hanna Liimatainen on Oct 8, 2020 3:23:29 PM , updated on Jul 29, 2021

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 e-learning, it’s best to weigh your options. Face-to-face facilitation involves being in the same place at the same time. Going with virtual facilitation is growing wildly in popularity but has the potential to disengage employees. Perhaps digital facilitation is the way to go? Read on to find out why. 

Every task no matter how big or small is going to require a different approach. 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

Let's start with the most familiar. 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 meetings.

facilitation for creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project.

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. Remote work is becoming huge business, and with more and more employees working remotely and preferring to work remotely, it may be the way of the future. Virtual facilitation entails interactions that happen between people in different places at the same time. Meetings hosted through Skype, GoToMeeting, Zoom (here's a great list of tips and tricks for Zoom from ZDNet), or Google Hangouts are great examples of virtually facilitated interactions.

Having said that, there are some downsides. 

virtual facilitation with creative business employee having a videocall in a modern office

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
  • Lack of context (A great read: why context is important in the workplace
  • 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

What is digital facilitation? Well, digital facilitation is an umbrella term that covers face-to-face facilitation using a digital platform (like, hey, Howspace), with 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.

It's the best of both worlds. 

Two  colleages discussing ideas using a tablet and computer

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 facilitation 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. 

Ultimately, virtual meetings and face to face facilitation both have their benefits. In person meetings will always play a role in building deeper relationships and virtual meetings allow for greater remote work (which is extremely important at this time). However, it shouldn’t be a discussion of one versus the other. Both facilitation methods are needed in the modern work age. That is why digital facilitation is so important. It allows facilitators to get the most out of every meeting be it virtual or face to face.

If you're interested in learning more about digital facilitation, download our free eBook today