When was the last time you were part of a face-to-face workshop? For me, the last time I facilitated an “in the room” workshop was January 2020. Initially I experienced a definite hankering for getting back to face-to-face working. As time has gone on, and and as I have more fully explored my inner geek and got comfy with quite a few different digital whiteboards, I have settled in quite happily into the world of virtual facilitation. I have not longed to return to working in person, face to face, with actual bodies in a room. I had sort of put that to one side for the time being.

But I won’t pretend my heart didn’t give a little leap when I was asked to facilitate a face-to-face board away day. Initial excitement however was quickly followed by several thoughts (not necessarily in this order):

  • How do I do this (thinking about Covid – social distancing, masks, hand sanitizer)?
  • Can I do this – will it actually work (or will it all just be too complicated)?
  • When will we be able to do this (lockdown rules – how many people can we legally have in one space and when?)
  • Is this safe or should I be running a mile?
  • Is it better to just do it on Zoom? – I know that it can work rather well….
  • Can I even remember how to facilitate in person!? – hopefully it’s like riding a bike…..

Why face-to-face

Having come to understand how well virtual facilitation can work and considering the constraints of actually getting live humans together in the same physical space, I did initially question whether face-to-face was actually the right way to go. But I quickly came to realise that for this particular group the experience of being together was quite possibly more important that the actual outcomes of the day. Added to which, however much effort you put into creating a brilliant and accessible virtual space, for some people participating from behind a computer screen is not just “not the same” but actually horribly hard work.

Something that was established quite early then, was that this was something that was wanted, was needed, and the participants were all on board with. One of things that did come up several times was also the fact that most of the participants had also had the vaccine.

So how did it work?

A lot of work goes into planning an away day at the best of times, but creating a workshop process that was Covid Secure (a term I discovered whilst on this journey!) presented its own unique set of challenges. The very question of what Covid Secure actually meant was by no means the least of these.

  • I created a fairly flexible process in the first instance, ruling out the obvious Covid contravening activities. For example those that would involve people getting close to each other and mixing up, moving around and sharing resources. The group was small (8 people) which made planning easier and being able to work almost exclusively in plenary a viable option.
  • I fine tuned the plan, alongside the usual discussions with the client but only really added the real specifics of how it would work nearer the time. Somehow this allowed me to focus on the outcomes and the facilitation design first, rather than let it be totally defined by the things I was trying to avoid doing.
  • There was a fair bit of “extra work” starting with a lot of questioning about what the actual rules are (and a discovery that the guidance is at best quite unclear for this kind of work). I completed a risk assessment, exchanged copious e-mails and phone calls with the client and visited the venue (fortunately a large airy space inside, and space outside too).

In terms of creating a Covid Secure environment there were a lot of things that we set up:

  • Individual packs of paper, post-its, pens (and the realisation that my default pre-Covid approach is to provide way more paper and pen options than is needed!)
  • Participants well spaced out and sat down, no changing seats and tables when inside to stop chairs being moved about too much.
  • Only I was able to use the Stickywall or add post it notes to the flipchart canvas I had created – pieces of paper and post its came to me, and I add them to whatever it was we were using.
  • We had hand sanitizer and wet wipes everywhere
  • The big back doors were open wide
  • Once it was warm enough we moved everyone outside to work

There was also careful though put into food and drink – individually wrapped biscuits – (a definite bonus on the chocolate front!), covered plates of food for lunch, and make your own hot drinks.

Issues and challenges

The issues that arose were actually relatively minor. Several people were quite cold when we were inside as we had the doors open which meant they were a bit uncomfortable. The spacing meant that not everyone could see the Stickywall easily, and being sat down most of the time (apart from breaks) was not ideal.

But after careful reflection about the day, it is fair to say that a lot of the challenges were actually my own and perhaps raised lots of questions that I don’t have the answers to. For the participants I think the visible relief of them being able to work with each other in the same physical space outweighed most of the minor niggles.

As a facilitator, having to tip toe around the Covid safety was perhaps more of a design challenge than a real problem. To some degree you could argue that just like working in a less than ideal space, you just have to get a bit creative. On the other hand there is a certain degree of frustration when you know that a certain way of doing things might have worked better if only we didn’t have to worry about getting too close to each other. The process I created was absolutely fine. Feedback from the day was completely positive, and the client got exactly what they needed from the day.

Alongside the usual things you might think about when facilitating (has everyone has a chance to say what they think, how much time have we got left….) I was constantly concerned about whether everyone was alright. I had taken the decision to outline the rules of how the session was going to work (use the packs I give you, your seat is just for you etc), but not to police the participants in terms of their social distancing, use of hand sanitizer and general adherence to post-it note sharing. The responsibility to follow the guidelines was firmly on them and this had been discussed and agreed with the client. But this didn’t stop me worrying about it.

The mental shift from virtual back to face-to-face was really interesting. Just as I found that working in a virtual environment when you are used to working face-to-face is to a large degree about reframing the way you think about it all. The same is true in the reverse. I did find myself at one point imagining the consensus building exercise we were doing on a digital whiteboard!

What now?

Having popped the virtual bubble I most definitely want to do more face-to-face facilitation again. When I was preparing my flipcharts the night before I felt that familiar rush of excitement as I drew the outlines and envisaged people populating my chart and discussing what they had written! However much you can achieve in the virtual environment, the work we do is not always just about the outputs, but about the experience of bringing people together and eating lunch in the sunshine.

There are however lots of questions that have come up for me about how we set up such face-to-face events. As facilitators part of our job is to ensure the group’s psychological safety. When we set up our rooms, the layout is important but pre-Covid my biggest concern about people’s physical safety was probably whether anyone tripped over my flipchart stand. This physical health and safety has not so far been something we have had to think about in this way.

How much does focusing on Covid rules affect our capacity to facilitate and does it distract is from the “real” job in hand? For me I found that it was perfectly possible to create a great process and do my job well. But there was always a part of me that was thinking about Covid safety and I can easily imagine a scenario where the balance of that focus tips the wrong way. If indeed this is just now part and parcel of what we do, then we do need to make sure we are adequately equipped to work in this way. Learning from each other’s experiences and sharing what works is an important part of this.

Like any workshop process, this safety needs to be agreed with the client, but how can we make absolutely sure that what we have agreed is okay for everyone participating in the run up to the workshop? It in part it depends on who the group is, and what agency they have around participating in face to face workshops and events. We can’t just assume that it is all okay, but at the same time it is not an easy thing to assess. We should also not underestimate the time and energy that these kinds of conversations may require in the run up to the workshop.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure that Covid Secure rules are followed by the participants? In fact who sets the rules in the first place given that the actual government guidance is very much open to interpretation? One of the things I did discover was an interesting white paper written with the events industry in mind – but actually this away day wasn’t an event, so it didn’t apply. I could not find anything that stated unequivocally the rules we should follow for this away day. We can write risk assessments and share these with the client and participants, draw on the broad rules that everyone has to follow day to day, and set ground rules at the start. But when it comes down to enforcing these rules in the room, the participants are adults who have been living with Covid guidelines for over a year. These are quite different to the other ground rules we are used to. Or are they?

How do we ensure our own safety as facilitators, particularly as the quantity of requests for face to face increase? At no point in this workshop did I feel at all unsafe. But we do need to make sure we look after ourselves. While we can set the scene and say what we expect, there may be things that happen on the day. Maybe a participant that maybe needs some up close help. Maybe something unconscious we do because we are focused on something else. So we need to know where our own boundaries are.

And what about the future? Even when restrictions are finally lifted, really truly understanding participants’ comfort zones in actively taking part is going to take some time to adjust to. Just because it has been decided that everything is “business as usual” there may still be people who are feeling scared or unsure.

The answers to a lot of these questions and more are probably “it depends”. Who the group is, how big the group is, what the space is like or whether the manager or team leader is in the room in the first place are familiar questions. But whether people have had the vaccine and how well everyone can social distance are quite different things.

Do you think you are ready for a face-to-face workshop? My experience tells me that I am ready to do more, but also to acknowledge that it is most definitely not business as usual, and there are indeed an awful lot of things to think about.

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