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How to facilitate a virtual workshop

By Daniel Monthan on Jun 15, 2018 10:10:13 AM

There are many facilitators that are incredibly good at leading a group of people in a physical space. A common scenario can be a group of people who are in a development process and have a facilitator to help them find their way of collaborating. Usually they meet offsite somewhere or in a conference room, the facilitator has carefully planned the different steps and areas to work through. There is a purpose and goal with everything, timelines and different elements of work to be done.

The problem with virtual facilitation

When a group meets in person, it may be a little tricky at first, but usually discussions starts to flourish and people feel more relaxed. Brainstorming and post-it exercises take place, alternatives are discussed and sometimes even decision 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?

Choose the right time and place for everything

Everything you do doesn’t have to be done digitally. I'm still advocating you to do what you usually do but include the digital aspect throughout the process. Extend, supplement, replace or change. Review your process and consider what purpose and value each moment has. Then consider whether this purpose and value are most appropriate in the physical or digital space. Ask yourself: Should this element be done when meeting physically? What would it give us if we did this digitally?

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 the new type of skills and insights on what works and what doesn’t. For example, take the general "post-what-you-want-wall" as many express a need for and trust in. It would be a good digital feature for people to gather around and share spontaneous ideas and thoughts. A good idea but that rarely works.

The contradiction in the physical environment would be to open the conference room door in the office between 8am–5pm and say to everyone; feel free to go there and discuss anything you want. Feels like a rather difficult and unstructured exercise for most. And the result would probably reflect on that. Instead, imagine that you invite to a meeting that is of value to the participants, then probably most of them will come. If you ask relevant questions at the meeting, probably most will answer. The same thing applies in the digital space.

Set expectations for virtual workshops

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 or I would guess it's the same as every other meeting but do the participant understand that and have you all agreed on it? What would you do if no one participated in your weekly business meeting? No one showed up. Whatever it is, try to apply the same principle for when you have the next digital interaction.

We are in the middle of the disruptive digital change that affects all of us. Everything from self-driving cars to cashless communities. Likewise, our professions and working methods are digitized. Whether we want to or not. Everything that can be digitized will be digitized. So ask yourself: What can be digitized in my work and what do I need to conquer in order to do that?


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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