In a previous post I summarized my experiences and takeaways from a facilitation demo by Grape People. The event was inspiring and the content felt useful for everyday work, so I decided to attend their virtual facilitation demo as well. Fitting for the topic, the demonstration took place online so I was able to see firsthand in my own experience how virtual facilitation works. The demonstration was done via Skype, and participants were able to contribute by using the annotation tool.
Virtual meetings and workshops are becoming more common, as it often makes it easier to arrange a common time without asking people to travel. Therefore it was great to hear new ideas and tips for how to best facilitate virtually. Many of the same principles apply to virtual and face-to-face meetings, but the fact that people are not present in the same room gives an extra twist to the situation and some extra responsibilities to the facilitator. Just like in face-to-face meetings, most often the meeting process is the biggest reason for bad meetings and workshops. The workshop target should be clear from the start, and the facilitator should be well prepared with a structure and timeline for the meeting.
Screenshot from the welcome slide, asking the participants to check certain tech issues and to check in to the meeting by writing their names to the slide.
The demo focused mainly on online business meetings, but of course the same principles apply to any virtual get-together with an official agenda. Below are some best practices for virtual meetings:
Remember your role as a facilitator. It’s easy to slip from your role when you cannot see the other participants and how they react. As a facilitator you need to keep the energy up, engage participants, and ask questions. Use visual aids and tasks to help the participants to stay focused. Just like in any workshop, remember to stay neutral towards the topic!
Indentify the type of the meeting. Set the tone of the meeting by clearly indicating what the meeting is all about. Are you implementing a previous decision, workshopping and creating something new or following up on an existing process or decision?
Utilize group memory. Keep the group focused on one thing at a time. Keep the subject or topic visible all the time (e.g. at the top of every slide). When workshopping, write down the results, as written items feel more concrete and do not disappear as discussion would. Voting makes people read the content, and asking one of the participants to summarize keeps the facilitator neutral.
Take care of the process. The structure of a good meeting includes clarifying the task and expectations, creating solutions and finally agreeing on the actions. These three items are at the core of every workshop, face-to-face or virtual. Clear start and ending should also be included.
Engaging the participants virtually is crucial, as it is easy for them to drift away or stay silent. Luckily most virtual meeting tools offer some functionalities that can be utilized for different kinds of engaging and visual tasks. Five tasks were used in the demo
1st task – a slide with pictures was shown, and everyone was asked to choose which picture represents their feelings this morning. Everyone was then asked to explain their choice. The aim is to find out how mentally present the participants are, and to activate everyone to speak. A exercise is good for getting everyone focused.
2nd task – Why are you here, what are your expectations, what would you like to learn? Write your answers to the chat function. You have 50 seconds!
3rd task – A picture of a scaled line was shown, and participants were asked to place themselves on the line accordingly. The question was about how easy it is for you to stay neutral when facilitating, and the axis was from easy to difficult.
4th task – listing ideas (use the annotations tool, 3 ideas, 45 seconds). The topic can be anything. Then use the annotation tool to vote for the best!
5th task – Give feedback about the meeting through the chat function.
A visual task was used to engage the participants
Finally some practical things to keep in mind when arranging workshops or meetings virtually.
- Make sure the connections and technical solutions work! At the demo, 15 minutes were reserved for everyone to get online and for the facilitator to make sure that everyone can fully participate. A separate tech check can be arranged well ahead of an important meeting, so that necessary amendments can be made before the actual workshop.
- If the crowd is big, ask the participants to mute their mics. Allow some time for them to unmute whenever they wish to respond to a question.
- Ask people to let everyone know if they need to step out of the meeting at some point.
- Keep the tasks simple!
- Ask for feedback and make sure you understand what could be done to make virtual meetings better.
- Make sure the group really comes together in the beginning, as this makes it easier for everyone to contribute during the meeting.
In my own experience virtual meetings can be hard to arrange, especially if the participants don’t know each other beforehand. This is where the little tasks and ways to engage the participants come in handy, as they help a bit in breaking the ice. It’s good to keep in mind that the communication will not be as smooth as it would be face-to-face, so some extra time needs to be reserved even for the most basic discussions. Also the role of technical appliances and functions play a huge role in virtual meetings, and anything can happen with those. Therefore it’s vital to be patient and stay positive!