How to facilitate a virtual workshop

24 Apr · 4 min read

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Many of us are currently facing the challenge of turning an in-person workshop into a virtual one. Whereas many facilitators are incredibly good at leading a group of people in a physical space, virtual facilitation can bring a new set of concerns and questions to the table. The same rules still apply to facilitating any workshop — there needs to be a purpose and a goal with everything as well as a carefully planned timeline. 

Common challenges with virtual workshop facilitation

1. How to activate people and create a relaxed and trust-filled environment in a digital workshop?

When a group meets in person, it may be a little tricky at first, but usually, discussions start to flourish and people feel more relaxed over time. Brainstorming and post-it exercises take place, alternatives are discussed, and sometimes, even decisions are made. But what happens when the group meets virtually?

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." I often asks facilitators if they planned the process as well in the digital space as 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 and using the same methods and approaches to create engagement?

In virtual workshops, it’s even more important that you make the participants feel safe and secure to start the dialogue. Therefore, don't oversee the importance of the traditional check-ins. One way to do this is to pose a short question that’s easy to answer from a personal perspective. People need to get warmed up. Also, if you are in a video meeting, make sure you have the same rules for everyone. For example, instruct participants to keep their cameras on or off and when they have the opportunity to speak. With the tools of today, you are still able to make use of your well-earned skills of facilitation.

2. How to manage the tools? Which are the right tools to use?

It’s important that you as a facilitator feel like you have control and understanding of the tools you are using. As we all know, there are plenty of choices in workshop tools. The combination we tend to favor is any video conferencing tool that you feel comfortable with, like Zoom, Teams or Hangouts, but also an addition (and separate) digital facilitation platform. In big workshops, when everyone tries to take turns sharing their thoughts and experiences on a video call, it will end up with a lot of participants just staying quiet. It's a good idea to mix different methods just like you would in a live setting. Which questions are best answered in polls or multiple choice? Is talking more effective for the question at hand or writing? Post ideas, cluster them, and create groups based on them. Vote and prioritize on ideas in real-time.

Make sure to have a script of what happens when and with which tool, and clearly communicate that to participants as well. Test new things and tool combinations beforehand with a colleague or a friend so that you can start the workshop relaxed and with a plan in mind.  

3. How to hold people’s focus and attention for the whole virtual workshop?

Maybe you can’t. And that’s why I would never suggest turning a full-day live workshop into a digital one, as is. Instead, it’s better to have a plan based on smaller interventions mixed with shorter synchronous video calls. In general, people tend to have a shorter attention span when it comes to working in a digital environment. It’s also much harder to tell how the energy in the group is. Mix things up with a higher frequency than usual, even during a 1-hour video session.

It’s also valuable to think about what the participants can do beforehand to be able to start effectively when you have shared time online. Can you take some parts of the discussions in smaller teams, or maybe have smaller groups discuss in writing on a facilitation platform based on their own interests?

It’s very important to set clear expectations

You need to facilitate each digital interaction as much as you would if you met face-to-face. What is your meeting culture for online interaction? Maybe you haven’t talked about that. 

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 some new type of skills and insights on what works and what doesn’t. 

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