Survey report: online facilitation and virtual meetings

on on 16 min read 4 comments

We are in a transition where leaders have canceled all their in-person events (due to coronavirus) and don’t yet know what their teams need. Many institutions have frozen spending and so there is a lot of unknown as to what my client landscape will look like as we go forward. 95% of my existing contracts were canceled so there’s a lot of transition and adaptation going on.

Survey respondent

It’s no secret that the current global crisis is affecting the world of facilitation. Organizations are freezing budgets, canceling live meetings, and figuring out how to restructure their businesses for remote working environments.

Facilitators are having to adapt too. Transitioning from running live workshops to holding online sessions is a challenge. Redesigning agendas to work in an online environment and keeping participants engaged takes a renewed effort and the adaptation of even the most basic facilitation skills.

At SessionLab, we wanted to understand the impact of the current pandemic situation on facilitators and see how they’re adapting. We held a short survey and invited our users and facilitators to contribute their insight and experiences. We received 140 responses and have collected what we’ve learned below.

The results show some common challenges and trends, highlights some of the most popular online tools currently used for remote sessions, and also points to a number of best practices that facilitators might learn from moving forward.

By pulling this information together, we hoped to first understand the nature of problems facilitators are facing so we can help, and secondly, we hope to help other facilitators too!

Let’s dig in! 

How has the current pandemic impacted facilitators?

At SessionLab, we care about helping facilitators and organizations design and run better workshops, whatever the format.

To better understand the impact of COVID-19, we started by asking respondents how their workload and working format has been affected. The results here paint an interesting picture.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of our respondents are moving their online sessions online. 66.9% of facilitators who answered our survey are running all of their sessions online, while a whopping 81% of respondents were transferring at least half of their sessions online. 

10% of facilitators expected to run none of their sessions online this month. For those users, there was some concern over client cancellations and a lack of client confidence in transitioning certain sessions online.

Some users talked about the current uncertainty meaning that clients did not have an appetite or budget for facilitated workshops, or that events had simply been canceled as businesses entered crisis mode. This is likely to be a fluid situation as organizations find their way through the current crisis and reposition themselves ahead of running external workshops.

Beyond the obvious challenges of transitioning to this new online environment, facilitators need to consider the changing needs of their clients and how to position themselves as a result. 

Facilitated workshops always have value, though their format, focus, or purpose may need to change to be valuable for organizations watching their budgets.

Unsurprisingly, the number of sessions facilitators are running has decreased. Just over 61% of facilitators report they are running fewer sessions than previously.

Interestingly, 29% of facilitators report an increase in the number of sessions they are running. Those respondents who reported an increase in sessions tended to show a greater knowledge of online tools and of the unique challenges and considerations of remote facilitation.

It’s difficult to gain any concrete takeaways from this data alone: there are many factors that could affect the number of sessions held which were not accounted for in this survey.

That said, it appears that knowing your tools, learning about the unique challenges of remote facilitation, and jumping in feet first is a solid approach to gaining new clients or convincing your existing clients to try remote workshops. 

Comparing the numbers of sessions directly shows again that a large number of respondents have seen a decrease in workshop numbers. Interestingly, those few respondents running more than fifteen sessions a month did not see their numbers decrease.

Those respondents that reported a large increase or a large number of sessions generally had some commonalities. Chief among these was the use and integration of online tools businesswide, and a pro-active approach in educating and reaching out to clients new and old.

Online collaboration tools were mentioned in greater numbers by these participants. They also tended to work with teams where online tools and processes were more deeply ingrained with the organization. 

Encouraging the use of online tools and helping clients transition to working in an online environment is worthwhile and appears to be part of the skillset of these high performing facilitators.

For those facilitators out there facing a lack of client work, helping organizations with their general transition to online working and helping to facilitate organizational change, use online tools, and structure remote work etc, might be the way to go.

Transitioning to online workshops?

What tools are facilitators using to run online workshops?

One of the first challenges to overcome when transitioning to online facilitation is choosing the right tools. There are a huge number of tools available for every aspect of running an online workshop, and finding those that are right for both you and your client can be overwhelming.

In this section of the survey, we asked facilitators what tools they were using and to recommend their favorites. We’ve broken these results down by the kind of tool to gain some insight into which are the most popular tools used by facilitators. Hopefully, this will give you some insight into what’s being used by facilitators and how you might use those tools too!

We use Zoom. It’s good for what it is. Breakout rooms are commonly mentioned in survey results as being the best part of training online.

Survey respondent

When we asked our respondents what tools they used, we found that the majority used more than a single tool – 65.4% of respondents use two or more tools when facilitating online and just over 25% of participants use four or more tools as part of their process.

It’s worth noting that these tools often include a mix of video conferencing tools, asynchronous collaboration platforms, online whiteboards, and engagement tools.

We also heard from many facilitators that used different tools with different clients based on their needs: it’s worth considering having a toolkit that works for power users and less tech-savvy clients.

Video conferencing tools

Of all those users who mentioned a video conferencing tool, Zoom was the clear frontrunner, with 67% of participants mentioning Zoom as their video conferencing tool of choice.

The primary reasons cited for using Zoom included:

  • Zoom’s breakout sessions – a very useful feature for many workshops and meetings
  • User familiarity
  • Low barrier to entry

It’s also worth noting that the majority of folks who mentioned using Zoom used it alongside other tools such as online whiteboards and engagement tools. Using Zoom (or any video conferencing tool) alone does not appear to be enough for most facilitators and it’s worth considering how your toolset might work together when selecting which to go for.

We use Zoom, Miro/Mural and Mentimeter during sessions, and then Slack and Google Drive for asynchronous communication afterwards.

Survey respondent

The next most popular video conferencing applications included Microsoft Teams (10.9%), Google Hangouts (5.1%), and Skype (5.1%). The primary reasons cited for using these tools included user familiarity and existing use of Microsoft or Google’s suite of tools.  People like what they’re used to and in difficult times, not having to learn a whole new toolset can make online facilitation a little easier.

Interestingly, a number of participants mentioned using multiple video conferencing tools and shifting based on their client’s preference. While this presents its own challenge for the facilitator, there is value in using whatever the client and their team are most familiar with.

Remember that good facilitation should always be in service of the group: this idea extends to choosing tools too!

We use Zoom/Whereby plus Stormboard for low entrance barrier. Sharepoint with Microsoft Teams (or Zoom/Whereby) for sessions where we have participants that work in security-heavy ICT infrastructures.

Survey respondent

Here’s a complete list of all the video conference tools mentioned in our survey alongside the percentage of participants who used them.

Microsoft Teams 10.9%
Google Hangouts5.1%
Skype 5.1%
Adobe Connect2.9%
Big Blue Button0.7%
Blue Jeans0.7%
Whatsapp 0.7%

Online whiteboards

Online whiteboards are great tools for remote facilitators: allowing real time visual collaboration for distributed teams that can help engage and excite participants.

While there are clear frontrunners when looking at this survey data, there are a greater range of options present here. Mural takes the lion’s share of the results, with 39% of participants choosing their tool as their online whiteboard of choice.

Miro comes in second place with 24.6%. Both tools are great and share many of the same features. The general consensus is that Mural is a little more user friendly and easier to upskill clients with. From playing around with both tools, we love them both, though find the biggest consideration comes down to pricing based on your case use.

Padlet comes in third with 9.8% of the vote. It’s a great tool that excels at creating asynchronous learning materials: it integrates easily with Google Classroom and other teaching platforms. If you’re creating training to be completed asynchronously or work in education, Padlet is a great platform to check out.

Google’s Jamboard is a popular choice for those already using Google Suite and on a budget. While not as fully featured as some of the other choices here, it is an easy to learn tool that might be fit for your purposes.

Figma is another tool mentioned by a few users that excels for certain case uses. Primarily a design tool, Figma can be used as a place to share and iterate on design in real-time. Being able to collaborate on advanced designs in one tool is potentially a huge boon to remote designers! 

When it came to choosing an online whiteboard, facilitators cited a number of items factored into their decision:

  • Baked-in interactive features such as polling, voting, and instant feedback
  • Ease of use (particularly for non-tech savvy clients) 
  • Reusability of content (templates etc) 
  • Stability of platform

As we’ve seen here, choosing the right online whiteboard likely comes down to your case use and client base. While Mural or Miro might be the best general purpose whiteboards, there are alternatives that could be better for specific case uses. Our advice is to try a few, talk to your fellow facilitators and land on one that hits that sweet spot for you and your clients. 

Mural 39.3%
Boardthing 1.6%
Explain Everything1.6%
Ideaflip 1.6%
Nureva 1.6%

Engagement tools

Keeping participants engaged and making sessions interactive was one of the greatest challenges cited by respondents to our surveys. Making workshops interactive and experiential in a remote setting is challenging, and finding exercises and tools that can help you achieve this online is a concern for many.

While some online whiteboards and video conferencing software have some additional engagement features, a fully-featured engagement tool such as those seen here can be a key ingredient of a successful online workshop!

Mentimeter is one of the standout tools used by facilitators to engage online participants, with 50% of respondents who mentioned a standalone engagement tool citing this one. With features including real-time polling, quizzes and presentations, Mentimeter covers a lot of bases in one tool.

Kahoot comes in second with 18.8% – it’s a great engagement tool with a focus on gamification and e-learning. With a library of public games and working examples, it’s a great tool for getting started swiftly and effectively.  

While most of these tools offer similar features, they each have a target niche and depending on your needs, you may find one of them stands out for you. We’d recommend taking a look at each – whichever you choose, there is a lot of value in using an engagement tool to make your sessions more interactive.

Mentimeter 50%
Poll Everywhere6.3%

What challenges are facilitators facing? 

We asked participants in our survey to outline the challenges they were facing. We all know that the current crisis is forcing facilitators to rethink their approach to everything from workshop design and choice of activities all the way through to etiquette and delivery.

Our respondents noted several challenges which came up time and time again. Here, we’ll outline the biggest challenges facilitators are facing at present.  

A. Finding the right mix of tools to be able to use workshop methods such as whiteboards, sticky notes, video feeds, without running into huge costs. And it wouldn’t hurt if these tools played together well. Impossible, I guess.

B. Getting participants into a workshop feel, such as “this is a protected room.”

C. Planning for technical difficulties.

D. Netiquette and individual discipline for online workshops (e.g. switch your cam on, but switch your mic off unless you are talking, don’t interrupt, don’t keep talking for too long).

E. Finally, the thought that maybe my trusted and reliable method mix for in-person workshops might need a completely new approach for online workshops.

Survey respondent on the challenges they face

Engagement & Interactivity

The most common challenge noted by facilitators was around engaging participants and making their sessions interactive.

Getting participants actively involved in a session is a concern when leading workshops in any session, though this can be more difficult in an online session where fatigue sets in faster and it’s more difficult to deliver varied and engaging activities. 

Experiential learning was another highly noted challenge – figuring out how to get participants to use what they’ve been taught and learn through experience in a remote setting was a concern of many facilitators.

Interactivity is another piece of the puzzle: the format requires some rethinking in order to effectively include interactive elements. What might have worked in a big conference room with everyone present may simply result in frustration in an online setting.

A key takeaway here is that with the right design, delivery and tools, engagement and interaction are possible in an online environment. It’s not enough to assume what works in a live workshop will work remotely: facilitators need to adapt their sessions and exercises to an online setting.

Design with the limits and opportunities of remote workshops in mind. This likely means reducing the length of sessions, incorporating the use of collaboration and engagement tools, and finding remote friendly exercises to put in your agenda. 

Remember that engagement and interactivity can be achieved remotely: you just need to tailor your approach and design around the challenges. Tools, of course, are a large part of this. Using real-time co-creation in an online whiteboard is a great start, but try going further with some of the engagement tools listed above.

Breakout groups are also useful in recreating the engagement and interactivity of a live workshop. In small breakout sessions, participants have the opportunity to engage more fully in a task and speak freely without fear of major crosstalk issues. 

Keeping the human factor 

Not everything works online – I miss the people

Survey respondent

Human connection and engagement are two of the most vital ingredients of a successful workshop or meeting. While live workshops are fantastic at buiding connections, this can be more difficult to achieve remotely. 

Helping participants to connect, understand one another and grow together was another key concern our survey participants had. A number of respondents cited personal connections and human contact as part of what made workshops effective, and achieving those things in an online setting was a key challenge for them.

Using breakout sessions where smaller groups of people can engage meaningfully as part of a larger session can really help foster this sense of connection. 

Remote-friendly games and activities can also be a vital part of creating an atmosphere conducive to connection. Remember that for many remote workers, an online workshop or meeting might be the only real time visual connection they have with their colleagues. Use the opportunity for team building and try to create space for moments of fun in your agenda. 

Adapting existing content

Switching to remote: Finding formats that make sense for learning and paying the bills at the same time.

Survey respondent on the challenges they face

Adapting existing content to online workshops was another key challenge for those who responded to our survey. Many facilitators have a toolbox of methods, exercises and formats they know works for them and can be reused and adapted for any of their clients. 

Redesigning or adapting this existing content for online workshops isn’t straightforward, and some of those tried and tested facilitation techniques require substantial redesign or simply won’t work online. 

This process of redesign is a challenge for most facilitators and their clients. Talking to your clients and your fellow facilitators has never been more important. We’re all collectively discovering what works and what doesn’t and being open can really help everyone grow and achieve their goals.

We’d also say that the process of redesigning existing content should take a back to basics approach. What are you trying to achieve in each step of your workshop process and what is the easiest and most effective way you can make that happen under present circumstances?

Your process should be designed with your participants and the set-up of your workshop in mind. Trying to adapt live workshop content for a remote setting without accounting for these things is unlikely to be as effective as rebuilding for all the particulars of the online environment

Redesigning everything so it still feels interactive, inclusive and has the same atmosphere as with face to face sessions.

Survey respondent on the challenges they face

Another key aspect of this adaptation process is learning which live processes can be recreated with tools and then, finding what tools can effectively recreate those workshop staples. 

Creating a collaborative space where participants can intuitively and easily work together should be your first port of call when adapting your workshop to the remote setting.

In a live workshop, participants have personal table space in which to work, as well as communal wall space to post artifacts and reflect. They often have small group discussions or pair work, as well as full group plenaries. Consider how you can recreate these ways of working online. 

Putting everyone in a single large group for unstructured discussion isn’t how facilitation is done in live settings, nor should it be that way things are done online.  

Finding the right tools

Google tools, Zoom, Slido, Mural, Mentimeter… too many to be honest!

Survey respondent

A number of participants noted challenges around selecting the right tools. Depending on case use or client base, finding tools that are easy to learn or are fit for all purposes is a struggle for many facilitators.

Selecting the right tool is heavily dependent on the needs of your clients and the format of the workshop. It’s a balance between ease of use and features you may need to encourage collaboration and engagement.

Remember that any tools you use should be in service of the group: if a tool is difficult to learn or you only use 10% of it’s feature set, you may want to rethink using it.

Respondents also noted that many people are facing tool overload: using what every client is familiar with is also a viable strategy, though it does increase your own workload.

Finding the right tools is likely to require some testing, liaising with clients and other facilitators and finding a toolset that works for you. The list of tools above is a great place to start.

Our advice is to keep things simple where you can and if you have to use more complex tools, limit their number. Using a video conferencing tool everyone is familiar with like Zoom means that you can avoid friction on that front, while allocating resources for them to learn an online whiteboard such as Mural.

Need more advice, check out our post on free online tools for some examples of great tool sets for your online workshops. 

Client confidence in online processes and cancellations 

Getting new business. Helping potential clients to realize they can still achieve the same results online. They are running scared, even though they still have money to spend and outcomes to achieve.

Survey respondent on the challenges they face

Remote facilitation can be as effective as live facilitation, though as a still developing field, it has its challenges and a teething period to go through. Many respondents noted difficulty when it came to keeping clients invested in workshops, in proving the value of online sessions and in finding new clients in these difficult times.

One user noted that: “We are in a transition where leaders have cancelled all their in-person events and don’t yet know what their teams need.”

One takeaway here is that the facilitator’s role is now to help educate clients in why remote facilitation and online workshops are valuable and how they can be used effectively. There are opportunities for facilitators who adapt well, and taking advantage of these opportunities while improving client confidence in an online process is also something to think about.

The overload of information, online courses, e-books; hard to ‘compete’. Pricing – most courses online are now for free; how to price?

Survey respondent on the challenges they face

Facilitators have always needed to demonstrate the value of their work, though this is perhaps even more important now. One participant noted that one of their biggest challenges was, “Helping potential clients to realise they can still achieve the same results online.” 

Be proactive and show how well facilitated sessions are still important in times of crisis and change. Share you online workshop agendas early and demonstrate how much organisations can still achieve online. Periods of upheaval often require organisational change and the facilitation and management of that change is somewhere facilitators can provide value to organisations that may have put a hold on other kinds of workshops.

Resources & remote-friendly exercises  

How do you translate methods and tools to an online format? How do you convince people that they need to continue their sessions?

Survey respondent on the challenges they face

Finding exercises and activities suitable for engaging an online audience was another common concern faced by our respondents. Not every exercise works in a remote setting and activities which require movement, certain kinds of communication or large spaces are simply not viable when facilitating over Zoom. 

Other activities can theoretically be run online, though they simply aren’t as effective and require a rethink in order to be viable. Online energizers and games that are as engaging as real-life activities was a common request and trying to find a varied set of exercises for online meetings is a continuing challenge for many. 

Thankfully, this challenge is a little easier to solve. We’ve added remote-friendly methods to our library of techniques and activities and compiled a list of the best online energizers too!

Think of this transition period as an opportunity and experimentation. There’s going to be an element of trying out techniques, tools and exercises and seeing what works. Share with your fellow facilitators, engage with the community and don’t be afraid to try new things. 

Honestly, we’ve adapted pretty well. Internal teams are LOVING SessionLab to stay organized and readjust times, etc.

Survey respondent

Wrap up

As we’ve seen above, the effect of COVID-19 on the world of facilitation cannot be underestimated. Facilitators and organizations are having to rethink how to create space for discussion and problem solving in a remote setting.

While the challenges are many, there are also opportunities for those facilitators who can adapt and use the best of what online tools have to offer. Hopefully, the above data can help reduce any concerns you have and make you feel a little less alone while also giving you some practical insight into what facilitators are doing to respond to these challenges. 

Looking for more advice on how to be an effective online facilitator? Check out our resource centre for remote facilitation for tips, advice and remote workshop templates.

Have anything you’d like to add or was there something we missed? Get in touch in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!


  1. Suzanne Ouellet May 1, 2020 as 8:28 pm

    This is so useful. Thank you!

    1. Robert Cserti May 2, 2020 as 7:26 pm

      You’re welcome, Suzanne :-)

  2. LE TEXIER May 6, 2020 as 5:13 pm

    Great work! Thx to the SLab team! @Airbus we are experiencing all what is listed and those piece of advices are of great help.

    1. Robert Cserti May 7, 2020 as 9:30 pm

      Happy to hear you’ve found it useful, Maxime – best wishes with transitioning to remote!

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