Sunday 10 May 2020

Five tips for remote facilitation

Despite the risks and uncertainties associated with independent consulting, I have never felt as privileged as I do now, living in a country with a highly developed, accessible health system, working from my customary home office, and equipped with a decent internet connection and the hardware needed to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. The crisis has been an opportunity to develop my remote facilitation skills. Before, I facilitated the occasional "real-life" workshop in a video conference room with participants in other locations joining us via Skype or the like. I have shared that type of hybrid experience on the Gender and Evaluation community pages. Now I have gone one step further, facilitating fully remote workshops from my home office. I mean interactive workshops with some 5-20 people producing a plan, a strategic review or other joint piece of work together - not webinars or explanatory videos with hundreds of people huddling around a lecturer who dominates the session. To my delight, virtual facilitation has worked out beautifully in the workshops I have run so far. Good preparation is a key element - as in any workshop. I have distilled a few tips from my recent experience and from the participants' feedback.

  1. Plan thoroughly and modestly. Three to four hours per workshop day is enough - and there is only so much you can do in half a day. Factor in breaks (at least one per hour), time for people to get into and out of virtual breakout rooms, and at least five minutes per workshop hour for any technical glitches.
  2. Try to make sure all participants can see each other's faces. Some videoconferencing platforms allow you to see dozens of participants on the same screen. If you use a platform that shows only a handful of speakers, try to rotate speakers so that everyone can catch a glimpse of every participant. Apparently, recent research shows that remote meetings are more effective if people see each other. Smile! Keep interacting with your webcam and watch participants' faces as carefully as you would if you were in a room with them.
  3. Pick facilitation tools that match your participants' digital skills. I love software that allows everyone to post "virtual" sticky notes and move them around on a shared whiteboard. But that'll work only if all (or a critical mass of) participants like experimenting with web-based tools. If many participants are uncomfortable with collaborative web-based visualisation, then you can record key points on the virtual whiteboard (life or between sessions), or ask participants to send their text contributions to you or your co-facilitator to post them on their behalf. The best way to gauge participants' readiness is a technical rehearsal well before the workshop (ideally, at least a week earlier).
  4. Share a written technical briefing before the workshop. That should include (i) the links and passwords to the conference and the tools, (ii) guidance as to how to maximise data transmission speed - for instance, by using a LAN cable or by switching off WIFI on all non-necessary devices, by temporarily disabling Windows updates, closing all other computer windows etc., (iii) guidance on troubleshooting in case of major technical problems (e.g. alternative dial-in numbers, persons to contact if a participant fails to get back on-line), and possibly (iv) links to a couple of very short (1-2 minute-) tutorials for any software you may use for web-based joint visualisation or other forms of co-creation. 
  5. Do your homework. And give homework. If the digital tools you'll use are new to you, try them out with colleagues and friends before the actual workshop. There is a growing body of video tutorials on the sprawling world of virtual collaboration; check out these resources. I also like quick primer for running online events on Better Evaluation which contains plenty of useful links. Before and in-between workshops, invite participants to try out any tools that are new to them, and/or to continue working on the collaborative virtual whiteboard.
It is generally recommended to work as a tandem, with one facilitator running the workshop and the other one looking after the technical aspects. But if you facilitate only one to two three- to four-hour sessions a week and you type really fast, then you can manage on your own. Be prepared, though, to feel totally exhausted after each session!

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