A how-to guide for virtual facilitation and collaboration with remote groups
We’re in the midst of a collective “ah-ha” moment.
In recent weeks, we’ve been forced to fully take both our professional and personal lives online. If we’re lucky enough to be able to do so, we work remotely and spend our days in front of screens. And as we do, it’s increasingly evident that virtual life and “real”, in-person life can be complementary but are certainly not the same. We are butting up against the limitations of online means for connecting. We cannot read body language or make eye contact. We cannot feel each other’s energy. There’s no sense of presence. There is distance and awkwardness. There is fatigue from sitting in one position staring at a screen.
We are learning the hard way that virtual experiences cannot capture or embody all of the ways in which we connect to each other as humans.
Our mistake is to assume there can be a one-to-one transfer from real life to virtual life. Virtual experiences don’t have the capacity to achieve the types of intuitive connections, learning, and understanding that we would achieve in person. Virtual just cannot replace real, live human interaction.
When we assume they’re interchangeable, we set the wrong expectations for ourselves and for the others participating. We cannot get the same things out of virtual meetups as we do out of real-life ones in the same way. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have fulfilling online experiences. It just means that we can’t take our real-life activities and put them online as they were previously designed. We have to be more thoughtful, more deliberate — and we have to redesign our virtual activities, often starting more or less from scratch.
Collective Mind organized a series of webinars on virtual facilitation and collaboration for remote groups in late March with participants from around the world to think about these challenges and consider constructive ways forward. The majority of those participants work for networks, which means that a core part of their work is to engage members and other stakeholders — an exceedingly difficult task in the best of times. The majority of the participants worked remotely already; most of them had in-person events planned that they now had to either postpone or re-envision as virtual activities. We have integrated their thoughtful questions and contributions into the advice below for how we design online activities and events.
First, adjust your expectations.
Online activities require a different mindset and approach. First, we have to fully integrate the understanding that we cannot achieve a one-to-one transfer of our anticipated in-person activities to online ones. We cannot hold a three-day face-to-face meeting in three consecutive 9am-5pm days of Zoom meetings, for instance. Instead, if we are to achieve our objectives online, we must take the human element even more into account than we would otherwise. This means normalizing an online working environment. Schedule more breaks. Acknowledge and accommodate people with children and pets. Give people time to share how they’re coping. Let them move around with their device or turn off their video to have more privacy at times. In other words, hold the space for people to show up as full humans.
We also have to define the space more clearly and consistently than we likely would in person. This means our online activities require more clarity, more preparation, more structure, and more guidance than in-person ones. Have a clear agenda and set out specific expectations — and spend even more time on this than you would for an in-person meeting. Likewise, facilitation will need to be more directive. Our participants can’t rely on nonverbal cues or side conversations to double-check instructions. They’ll need clearer guidance about how to participate and contribute, which means we have to communicate more and more explicitly with them. We may also need to utilize more channels for engagement — for example, utilizing the chat function for additional contributions during a video call but also offering times and spaces for one-on-one or smaller group discussions that are offline outside of those online activities.
Finally, be sure to give yourself space. Find ways to graciously accept that we have to do more at the same time that we have less. We will potentially have less information about our participants. We will have less opportunity to meet and connect to them on a personal level. We have to facilitate these sessions without being able to read the room or understand how people are feeling or responding. We may open up a discussion and find that no one contributes so we sit in awkward silence. That’s ok: we all need more time to connect and feel comfortable online. Online activities also require more time and energy to make them happen. This means having more people who can help as organizers and facilitators. Ask for help. Tag team it. Set clear roles and responsibilities. (More on this below.)
Once you’ve adjusted your mindset, clarify your objectives.
We all already know that setting goals and clarifying objectives is foundational for any activity. However, as we approach our online activities with a new mindset, we may realize that we’re not as clear as we think we are. For example, one webinar participant realized that purpose of the annual learning event that her network organizes was not actually learning but networking. Learning was a pretext for creating spaces and ways for people to connect who wouldn’t otherwise meet. To achieve a networking objective, the plenary and breakout sessions designed for presenting and discussing content needed to be reconceived and complemented with other activities to foster connections. The organizers could no longer rely on serendipitous meetings between participants who might sit next to one another. Additional ways and means for determining the basis for common interests and connecting people to one another, both online and off, needed to be designed to complement the learning components.
Because we can’t transfer an in-person experience to an online one, we have to be crystal clear about what the purpose of our activity is and what we want to achieve from it. What do we need to accomplish? Do you have multiple objectives? What do our participants need or want? What’s the value you’re providing to them through this activity?
Design processes instead of events.
Form follows function. Thinking deeply about our objectives can help us understand the form that our online activities should take. A single activity could be taken online reasonably easily where it has a clear, simple objective (e.g. a team meeting or a short presentation and open response discussion). However, depending on the level of complexity — for example, if we have multiple objectives to achieve — our events should often become processes that integrate both online and offline activities as component parts.
Designing in-person group activities as processes instead of one-off events means breaking down your activity into multiple steps that, in sequence and complementing one another, will help you to achieve your objective(s). Once you’ve defined those objectives, think about breaking down a series of generic steps that you would use to achieve those. For example, one of our webinar participants described a situation in which they had planned to have a three-day face-to-face meeting with their network’s governing board. The board needed to review findings from a new research study, analyze the findings together, brainstorm the implications for their network, and make decisions about how to respond strategically. Given that they could no longer bring these already-busy people together for a face-to-face session, we discussed how to define a process that could be broken into component parts, each with its own format. The staff could first hold one-on-one phone calls with each board member to discuss the research findings and clarify the process to get to decision making. Following these individual calls, board members could be paired up or put into small groups of three to analyze the findings and brainstorm the implications including recommendations, giving each pair/group a specific section of the report. The board could then hold an online meeting to present these implications/recommendations and make final decisions together. These steps could feed from one to the next to achieve the same outcomes, formatting each step in a way that is most targeted and effective in a hybrid online/offline process.
Conceiving an event as a process changes the format but also changes the timeframe, which stretches to spread activities pre- and post-event. Preparatory activities can take place in a sequence before online sessions. For example, advance online surveys can help gather intel to better understand your audience and inform your sessions. You may also consider advance “icebreakers” to start fostering connections, such as an online coffee or happy hour to give people a chance to start getting to know each other outside of formal online sessions.
The process likewise doesn’t end with the online session(s). Don’t think about an online session as an endpoint — it’s a milestone in that broader process towards achieving your objectives. For example, it may be that your online session is to develop a work plan for all stakeholders involved in a large collaborative project. Rather than assuming you can make much headway on planning during an online session with a large group, use the session to a) build consensus around the need for planning and some core priorities and to b) establish smaller working groups that can take action on planning different components of the project. During an online session, be clear about what will happen following the online session and what participants should expect as next steps and further communication.
Manage your online sessions differently.
Once you’ve adjusted your mindset, clarified your objectives, and designed your process, you have to be ready to manage the online sessions that comprise that process. This requires some further preparation including, specifically, attention to both roles and responsibilities and to ensuring participation during sessions.
Managing effectively is all in the preparation. Below are some tips for preparing to effectively manage your online session(s).
· Always share an agenda with participants. Ensure that it reflects your clear objectives and expectations for their participation.
· Articulate a set of clear ground rules about flow, tone, and technology use to communicate at the start of the session.
· Consider how you can get to know the group in advance if you don’t already and how you might help them get to know each other as well. It will likely take some time for a group of people unfamiliar with each other to warm up in an online session. Doing advance introductions or taking an informal roll call at the start of a session can speed up the connections and thereby the discussion.
· Set up your technology plan and communicate that format to your audience in advance (e.g. platforms to be used, best practices for it, if there will breakouts or online workspaces and worksheets, etc.). Consider offering some time slots to test the technology in advance with participants, especially for global and/or new participants, to test connectivity and comfort with the chosen technology.
· Set up multiple channels of communication to allow for different comfort levels with engagement both on- and offline. Make information about the use of these channels available to participants.
· Determine and prepare for roles and responsibilities including who will facilitate and who will support (e.g. checking the chat, helping mute lines, taking notes, etc.). For longer meetings, split up the facilitation responsibilities to maintain the energy and group dynamics.
· Prepare to facilitate the process. Develop conversation starters or prompts. Develop and share templates that may help participants move through discussions or decision-making.
· Designate someone who can synthesize when there are bottlenecks by summarizing contributions (i.e. “what I heard is X, Y, Z,”), stating how the points connect and helping the conversation to move forward.
· Be prepared for and comfortable with awkwardness and silences, and to allow time for your participants to feel comfortable. This may mean front-loading the agenda with low-engagement items and leaving the heavier-agenda items for later in the agenda after people gain comfort.
Most importantly, be ready to adapt in real-time. Re-evaluate your own expectations as you go and be patient with the process, the participants, and yourself.
We hope this was useful to you!