As we enter the second half of 2020, the year that has definitely got the whole world in a spin I find myself in need of some for reflection and contemplation. Like many people these last few months have been rather turbulent and there has been all kinds of reassessing and realigning to enable me to continue doing what I do. Face to face facilitated workshops are definitely still off the cards at the moment.

Once the washing machine cycle (fast spin I think) stopped somewhere around the end of April and I’d discovered which way was up I began my journey into facilitating virtual workshops. This was always something a bit on the back burner for me, something I needed to add to my skill set. It was something that I would one day get around to doing more of, but had never fully embraced. I had facilitated a few virtual workshops, but nothing regular. I was pretty clued up on Zoom having used it quite a bit for various meetings and 1:1 conversations. But even though Zoom has become a byword for virtual meetings of all kinds, there is far more to having successful online group conversations than knowing your way around the most popular video conferencing platform of the day!

It did feel like being plunged in at the deep end. But if I cast my mind back to how my facilitation journey started the first time, it ended up pretty well in the end. It has been both a challenging and rewarding time and it’s fair to say that I have come out a few months later feeling pretty good about it all. I don’t want to be one of those people who spends the whole time lamenting the lack of face to face. I miss it, I do, and I miss my Stickywall. But I am quite enjoying the virtual world too and plan to continue being able to offer both.

virtual facilitation

So what have I learnt?

  • It’s not really about the tech – at the heart of any good workshop (including an online one) is a good process. You can have all the shiny digital tools in the world, but actually if you don’t know what you want them to do, you’re not gong to get what you need from them.
  • The biggest hurdle is actually mental. You need to shift your mindset and your mental patterns to make a virtual workshop work. If you are quite an intuitive facilitator, and pick up a lot of energy from the room and respond to what you feel as much as what you see and hear, this is a challenge. But the more you do, the more you are able to rewire your brain to manage and to actually enjoy it. At least, that is how I feel.
  • It surprised me to realise that one of the things I missed most was movement. I get a lot from physically being able to move around a space. This includes the physical act of writing – typing taps into a different part of my brain and somehow doesn’t give me the same feeling.
  • It probably won’t be as interactive as you’d like and accepting that there are limitations and you can do a best fit is okay. Constantly comparing it to face to face and with the level of participation when there are people are in the room is not going to help. It’s a different kind of participation.
  • You can still get creative but it is a different type of creativity which is often about getting around small problems. In the face to face world I enjoy creating nice looking flip charts and pulling out all the stops to make the workshop a really good experience. In the virtual space there are limitations to what we can do to the physical environment, but I am quite enjoying thinking outside the box a bit to get around some of the challenges. Did you know for example that Zoom has an interpretation feature for different languages in a workshop?
  • It is not just about your technical ability as a facilitator but about the comfort level and tech familiarity of your participants too. Even though you may have created a beautiful activity using Mural or some other exciting digital whiteboard, and you know how it all works, participants will need to get to know it too. And for some people that will be easier than others.
  • It’s good to explore different ways of doing things and different digital tools, but there are a lot out there. Don’t get overwhelmed – find something that works and get to know it. Like any face to face tool there will always be more than one way to do it, but half doing an activity on several different platforms is not as effective as doing it well on one.
  • Having a co-pilot is very helpful, someone to drive Zoom (or whatever video conferencing tool you are using) and keep an eye on the tech while you focus on the process and the people. In fact co-facilitating is a great way to learn on the job and is one of the things that has helped me to get to grips with everything quickly.
  • Just like a face to face workshop, too many moving parts is hard work. There is a delicate balance between making sure people are engaged and interested and not just sat there listening to one or two people speak. And having them bouncing in and out of breakout rooms, flitting between multiple screen shares and digital whiteboards. It’s exhausting!
  • Including some asynchronous (a new word for me meaning not in real time) work before of after the workshop is really valuable. I have learnt that in the virtual world the “weight” put on meetings and group gatherings somehow needs to shift. This asynchronous work can also help people get familiar with a particular digital tool, and gets participants warmed up. And takes some of the load off doing everything in the workshop. Because……..
  • You definitely don’t want to be spending the same amount of time in a virtual workshop as a face to face one. At least not in an ideal world. Everyone’s capacity to take part and stay engaged is reduced when sitting behind a computer. Although it does feel like it has become so much more normal for people now.
  • It’s harder to absorb information that has been added into the workshop by participants on a tiny screen. Here I’m thinking about the kind of work that a breakout group may do that you might not be a part of. Or in between workshops when there has been asynchronous homework. It takes me (and most probably the participants too) a lot longer to process than writing on a flipchart for example. Although handwriting is definitely less of an issue!
  • Ice breakers and warm up activities have a new level of importance. There needs to be some kind of activity to encourage people to get involved and get comfortable. And to make the workshop feel as human as possible.
  • It’s not all negative and it’s important to remember – some things are better in the virtual space, for example including a wider range of people from different places without having to travel.
  • Lastly, but maybe most importantly – once you get over your trepidation of the new, it’s actually not that different from facilitating a face to face workshop. The fundamentals are the same, and it’s nothing to be scared of.

What next?

I think it’s fair to say that I still prefer facilitating face to face workshops and I won’t deny that I am looking forward to being able to work with groups in the flesh. But they definitely won’t be the only way I do things in the future. Being able to facilitate in the virtual space creates a broader range of options and is something that is here to stay. For some people not being face to face is in fact more comfortable and there are definitely many positives. I will continue to learn new tools and techniques but am pleased with what I’ve discovered. I would say that I have not just taken on the challenge and expanded my comfort zone, but am far richer and more diverse in my skill set because of it.

What are your experiences of learning to facilitate in the virtual world?

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