Lessons from Two+ Years of Virtual Facilitation￼
I will admit, I hit a virtual facilitation wall last fall. As someone who loves to facilitate planning sessions with clients, entering a third year of doing it virtually made me tired. I missed doing it in person and being able to engage with participants in real life and adjusting facilitation techniques and meeting objectives based on the energy in the room and how participants were feeling about the work we were doing together. It wasn’t until I signed up for a workshop series on using art techniques for evaluation facilitation by Jennica and Maya from AND Implementation that helped me get out of that rut. Part of getting out of that rut (and the workshops helped) was reminding myself what it’s like to facilitate in person and what is most important about planning activities for participants – not just what needs to be done, but the experience of an in-person session(s). These are some of the things that I have started doing since the start of the pandemic that have led to engaging, productive, and fun virtual meetings or planning sessions.
Plan a Series of Shorter Planning Sessions/Meetings
Spread what you hope to achieve over a few shorter (less than three hours) meetings. This will take a little more advance planning and more time to get to where you want, but it will result in more engagement by participants. In the before times, planning sessions were often marathon events that happened over a half-day to multiple days. It was hours of time together in the same physical space. It is unrealistic to expect people to be fully engaged on Zoom for more than three hours.
Develop an Agenda Series
If you have multiple planning meetings scheduled, then share an agenda that reflects the series of sessions. Include the overall goals for the series, as well as individual session goals, activities that participants will be doing, and any pre-work/homework. This gives participants a road map of what they will be doing and what you are collectively trying to achieve.
Be Ok with Silence
As an extrovert, in the before times I found silence on conference calls or video calls uncomfortable. But I have come to terms with the silence. Participants will need time to think about a question or an idea, give them time to do so! It may feel weird as a facilitator looking at a screen of people not saying anything, but it is not “dead air.” Instead, it is participants being thoughtful about the question you posed them.
Adapt Activities, But Accept Limitations
We have to accept the limitations of a virtual space when it comes to a lot of the activities we relied on for in-person meetings and planning sessions and adapt them for a virtual space. Recently, we were discussing how much time to allow for a gallery walk activity. I felt that participants needed more time in the activity to take in the different ideas that their colleagues had come up with and posted on the Jam Board slide. The concern was that there would be too much dead air while on Zoom and long silences over video conference are awkward. A gallery walk gives participants the chance to see the ideas/answers to a strategic question their partners thought of and allows them the opportunity to linger over an interesting idea or move through uninteresting ones. I still wanted that experience for our clients even though they were not physically walking around a room together looking at ideas. The compromise to having more time for the gallery walk was to play background music to help fill the silence. I ended up choosing a playlist that is mellow electronic house music that I felt like you would hear in a gallery.
Another example was a recent voting to gauge priorities on learning questions. We couldn’t walk around and vote with dot stickers. Instead, we assigned it as homework. We asked our clients to reflect on the questions they had developed in a shared Google document. They then had to vote by putting their initials next to the question.
Music Helps Lift the Mood
Something as simple as playing a few upbeat songs as people are logging into Zoom helps lift the dread they may have had coming into the meeting. Some of my go-to music is summertime Top 40s Pop, Motown, or chill House electronic music.
More and Different Types of Breaks
In the before times, we didn’t give people enough breaks when we were in person, but now, breaks are even more rare, even though we need them more than ever! If you are going to be on video conference for longer than 90 minutes, build in at least one five-minute break. Plowing through waning attention spans and fatigue is only going to make planning more difficult and take longer. Give participants a few minutes to use the restroom, get a beverage, and take a few deep breaths. You will see the benefits as a facilitator.
Also, consider formatting breaks beyond free time for people to step away from their computers. A break can be a moment of quiet reflection or a deep breathing exercise. It can also be a combination of free time and a “water cooler” break. A two-day, all virtual, strategic planning session that I facilitated in 2021 had one break that was 30 minutes each day to step away, check email, etc. We also left the meeting open for a “water cooler” moment where we talked about streaming shows, podcasts, or our pets.
Try New Things and Share It
Whether they are new to you or something completely new, don’t be afraid to take a risk and try something new in your meeting facilitation! If it works, share it with others who are probably in the same boat as you.
One last note…
These are just a few things I have learned from over two years of facilitating meetings and planning sessions. I would love to hear what you’ve learned and any new techniques you’ve tried that worked or didn’t work as planned! Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christina_kuo.