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How to facilitate a virtual workshop

By Daniel Monthan on Mar 26, 2020 11:31:24 AM

Many of us are currently facing the challenge of turning a workshop that was planned to happen in person, to a virtual one. Whereas many facilitators are incredibly good at leading a group of people in a physical space, virtual facilitation can bring a new set of concerns and questions to the table. The same rules as to facilitating any workshop still apply - there needs to be a purpose and goal with everything as well as a carefully planned timeline. 

Common challenges with virtual workshop facilitation

1. How to activate people and create a relaxed and trust-filled environment in a digital workshop?

When a group meets in person, it may be a little tricky at first, but usually, discussions start to flourish and people feel more relaxed over time. Brainstorming and post-it exercises take place, alternatives are discussed and sometimes even decisions are made. But what happens when the group meets virtually, and what does the facilitator do there?

If we translate this example into a virtual workshop, many times I hear people say that there is not as much activity. "People do not participate in the same way", "Nobody is engaged or seems willing to contribute". What I often ask the facilitator is if they planned the process as well in the digital space they did in the physical? Do they facilitate the process in the same way that they would do if they were with the group in front of them? Are they asking the same questions, using the same methods and approaches to create engagement? In virtual workshops it’s even more important that you make the participants feel safe and secure to start the dialogue. Therefore don't oversee the importance of the traditional check-ins for example. A short question that’s easy to answer from a personal perspective. People need to get warmed up. Also if you are in a video meeting, make sure you have the same rules for everyone. For example if the camera is on or off, how to announce that you would like to speak etc. And with the tools of today, you are still able to make use of your well-earned skills of facilitation.

2. How to manage the tools? Which are the right tools to use?

It’s important, that you as a facilitator feel like you have control and understanding of the tools you are using. As we all know, there is plenty of choices. The combination we favour is any video conferencing tool that you feel comfortable with, like Zoom, Teams or Hangouts but also a separate digital facilitation platform in addition. In big workshops, everyone trying to share their thoughts and experiences in taking turns talking in a video call will end up with a lot of participants just staying quiet. Mix different methods just like you would in a live setting: which questions are best answered in polls or multiple choice? Is talking more effective for the question at hand, or writing? Post ideas, cluster them and create groups based on them. Vote and prioritize on ideas real-time.

Make sure you have a script of what happens when and with which tool, and clearly communicate that to participants as well. Test new things and tool combinations beforehand with a colleague or a friend so that you can start the workshop relaxed and knowing what you’re going to do.

3. How to hold people’s focus and attention for the whole virtual workshop?

Maybe you can’t. And that’s why I would never suggest turning a full-day live workshop to a digital one as is. Instead, it’s better to have a plan based on smaller interventions mixed with shorter synchronous video calls. In general, people tend to have a shorter attention span when it comes to working in a digital environment as it’s also harder to tell how the energy in the group is. Mix things up with a higher frequency than usual, even during a 1-hour video session.

It’s also valuable to think about what the participants can do beforehand to be able to start effectively when you have shared time online. Can you take some parts of the discussions in smaller teams, or maybe have smaller groups discuss in writing on a facilitation platform based on their own interests.

It’s very important to set clear expectations

You need to facilitate each digital interaction as much as you would do if you met face to face. What is your meeting culture for online interaction? Maybe you haven’t talked about that? 

Leading in the digital space is not the same as leading in the physical. It can definitely have the same purpose and goals, but it still requires some new type of skills and insights on what works and what doesn’t. 



If you'd like to explore the world of digital facilitation in more detail, go ahead and download our free eBook: Top 5 tips and tricks for powerful digital facilitation.

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