How to Master Digital Facilitation: Best practices and an easy guide for online workshops
With COVID-19 virtual work and collaboration became necessary to conduct business. Digital tools allow people from distant locations to connect and work towards a common goal without the cost, time and carbon emissions involved in physical travel. With tools continually advancing and becoming more life-like, virtual workshops are here to stay – even if we are slowly returning to the office. They will be an integral part of our future of work. When approached properly, virtual workshops can be just as effective as their in-person counterparts. That’s where virtual workshop facilitation comes in. In this article, I will provide guidance on how to host and facilitate a virtual workshop. I will go through the process step-by-step, sharing tips and tricks to make your next virtual workshop as successful and engaging as an in-person session.
The role of a digital facilitator
Being a digital facilitator takes practice and confidence. But the good news is that you are not starting over from scratch. You can leverage the facilitation expertise that you already have and enrich it with digital technologies and tools. I encourage you to bring your insights from the offline to the online world and enrich it with some fresh approaches. If you are interested in learning more about types of sessions, benefits, and challenges of virtual workshops, check out my blog article Remote Collaboration Is Here to Stay: Become a Virtual Workshop Expert
Remote workshop facilitation step by step
Your remote workshop facilitation can be divided into three parts:
Before the workshop – How do I prepare and set up a virtual workshop?
Map out workshop logistics
- Align the goal for the workshop with your stakeholders. These could be internal stakeholders as well as external customers. What are their expectations? What do they want to get out of the workshop?
- Agree on participants. How many people will participate? If the group is very large, you might want to split them up in teams for breakout sessions to ensure they stay engaged during the workshop. Also think about the group setup: are the participants split, hybrid or all remote? In which time zones do people sit? This might have an impact on working synchronously or asynchronously.
- Set the time and date for the workshop. This can be challenging, especially if you have a large group. You might want to think about required and optional participants and use a scheduling software to find the best slot. Especially when working with people from different countries, take public holidays and school holidays into consideration. Be aware of time zones.
- Build a “communication” plan. Who is setting up the meeting request? Who is going to invite the participants? Which information needs to be shared in advance to the meeting? Will there be a preparation call? All these questions need to be discussed among the stakeholders. I recommend findingssomeone to help you with these logistics, so you can concentrate more on the facilitation.
- Think about a co-facilitator. You don’t need to do this alone. A co-facilitator can be very helpful especially when individual participants encounter technical problems or when you need to split the group.
Build a remote-friendly workshop agenda
- Set length of the workshop. A one-day virtual workshop might feel like three days in the offline world 😉 In my personal opinion, a remote workshop should not last longer than four hours maximum. If you need more time – depending on the objectives of your workshop and the outcomes you want to achieve – separate it into multiple sessions that you spread over a few days.
- Select the right methods and exercises. Review the workshop activities carefully: how do they work in a remote setting? Are they engaging? Does the timing allow for interactivity? If you have a co-facilitator, use them as a sparring partner to discuss these questions.
- Plan enough time for breaks. While an onsite workshop gives you an opportunity to slip out of the room if needed, the situation in a remote workshop with the camera on is more difficult. Don’t forget to allocate enough time to grab a coffee, have a bio-break or just move a little. I also had very positive experiences with alternating 50 min work and 10 min break slots. If you are planning to break up the group for specific exercises, please also plan in some extra time for sending them to their breakout rooms and getting them back again.
Select and setup digital facilitation tools
- Get an overview of available tools. Go through your agenda and get an idea about what types of tools you need: Video Conferencing (e.g. Zoom or Teams), Online Whiteboarding (e.g. Mural or Miro), File Sharing (e.g. Teams or OneDrive), Survey Tools (e.g. SurveyMonkey or Google Forms), and other real-time Engagement Tools (e.g. Mentimeter)
- Combine the right tools. Usually, the tools mentioned above are combined to fit the purpose of the workshop. A typical combination is for example a video-conferencing tools like Teams side-by-side with an online whiteboard like Mural.
- Ask your customers. No matter whether it’s an external or internal workshop. Ask your customers. Which tools are they using? Do they prefer any tools? Do they have any technical constraints in using the tools. In order to save precious time during the workshop, it makes sense to clarify these questions upfront and choose the tools with which your customers have the most experience.
- Last but not least – setup your tools: schedule a call, prepare templates, set up a survey as necessary. Some tools e.g. Mural might offer great pre-built templates out of the box. Check them out and customize as needed. You might also want to perform a little pre-check to make sure your participants can access everything.
PRO TIP: Once you finished your workshop preparation, I highly recommend setting up two briefing calls: one with your internal or external customer, and one with your co-facilitator(s) to walk them through the workshop step-by-step, test the tools and answer arising questions.
During the workshop – How do I run a virtual workshop?
Kick-off the workshop
- Allow some time for people to join. Usually, virtual workshops do not start on time because lots of people are caught in back-to-back meetings. Allow for some extra time. Alternatively, start your workshop a few minutes after the top of the hour.
- Set the stage. Onboard the participants by explaining goals and outcome of the workshop and walk them briefly through the agenda. Also do a little tool orientation. Your participants need to understand which tools are used when and for which purpose.
- Introduce the tools playfully with a warm-up or energizer that integrates the remote setting. Allow some time for questions. The co-facilitator can help to solve individual tool problems. If you are very short on time, you might want to offer a tool orientation session before the meeting.
Run the workshop
- Explain the exercises as you go. Overcommunicate! I also recommend writing down the instructions and put them onto your virtual whiteboard, so people can check them again if necessary.
- Break up the group – and get them back again. In most workshops, I would split my participants into working groups to allow for high interactivity. Make sure that there is a facilitator or at least a person that knows what needs to be done to complete the exercise in each room. Use the features of your video-conferencing software to communicate with all participants, e.g. send a message to all to let them know how much time is left to finish an exercise and when you will get them back to the main room.
- Stay connected with your co-facilitator(s). Establish a back-stage chat facility by using the messenger of your choice. It helps to communicate during the workshop without interrupting the flow and facilitates making decisions, e.g. adapting the timing of exercises.
Wrap-Up the Workshop
- Recap the session and decide on action items and next steps. Make sure you capture these on your digital whiteboard as you discuss.
- Gather feedback. Depending on the tools you use decide on a method to get the participants’ feedback. You could, for example, create a designated feedback section on your online whiteboard or do a quick poll. I highly recommend doing this as part of the workshop because experience has shown that after the workshop everyone is busy with their own stuff again 😉
After the workshop – What do I need to do as follow up?
- Tidy up your online whiteboard – if you have used one 😉 update it with the key results and most important insights. Delete empty post-its. Make sure all the content is readable.
- Create a summary and share it with the group. Send the workshop artefacts to every participant. Optionally, set up a call to discuss the results.
- Set up an internal de-briefing to recap the workshop. What was good? What needs improvement? Incorporate the feedback and update your methods and templates as necessary.
6 Best Practices to make your next virtual workshop run efficiently
Check-In regularly with participants
Because you don’t meet in person, it is important to check in with the workshop participants to see if they are still (physically) connected and attentive (mentally) as well as comfortable with the workshop flow. You can do this verbally by asking them a question or use webcams for nonverbal communication e.g. a thumps-up or nodding the head. Depending on the tools you use, you might also leverage special features like raising a virtual hand or sending an OK.
If you think you are explaining too much, it’s probably just right 😉 in a remote environment it is more important than ever to clearly guide the participants through the workshop flow. If I do break-outs, I kick-off and explain the activity in the main room, then divide the group, and move from subgroup to subgroup, repeating the exercise brief and asking for clarifying questions before they begin.
Engage a co-facilitator
Especially when working with a large group, it makes sense to engage a co-facilitator to help you with the session. A co-facilitator can take on different tasks e.g. being responsible for a certain break-out group or helping participants with technical problems. Make sure you assign roles and set clear expectations before the workshop. During the workshop, I recommend setting up a back-stage chat to stay connected.
Design for maximum engagement
With lots of distraction around, it is hard to get the participants full attention. That’s why it is super important to design an interesting and engaging workshop to keep everyone attentive. Motivate the audience by communicating a clear goal and outcome at the beginning of the session. Throughout the workshop, give opportunities to share experiences, interact and collaborate. Breakout rooms give everyone a chance to be heard and work as a team and thus can create a lot of energy.
Don’t be too ambitious
This has different facets: First of all, set realistic and achievable goals for the sessions. Rather consider tackling too less than too much. Secondly, limit the virtual workshop in terms of time. No one wants to be in a full day Zoom session. If you require more time, split the workshop into multiple shorter sessions. And last but not least, don’t try out too much at once. Don’t go crazy trying out all your new ideas in one single workshop but choose what fits the purpose of the workshop best.
Get feedback and improve
Ask the audience for their opinion. How did the workshop feel for them? Did they experience any problems with the tools? What would have helped them to stay more engaged? You can either collect feedback as part of your workshop or send a survey afterwards. Either way it will help you to continue learning and improving your digital facilitation skills.
I hope this article provided you with everything you need to get started or improve your digital facilitation skills. Share your experience or let me know if you have additional questions in the comments sections!
Let’s learn from each other and improve so our virtual workshop can be as productive and engaging as the face-to-face counterparts 😊 If you are interested in more trends around the future of work, be sure to check out the Future of Work Community Page.
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