Remote working is often touted as the future of work. Studies show that remote workers are happier and more productive than their office working counterparts and the benefits for companies moving to distributed workforces are great too!
As teams and organizations begin to transition to working online, the need for well-designed and effectively facilitated remote sessions rises. Unstructured or poorly run virtual meetings can lead to wasted time, frustrated teams and ineffective outcomes.
In this post, we’ll explain what remote facilitation is, why it’s an important skill, and guide you through the process of designing and running great online workshops and remote meetings.
- What is remote facilitation?
- Why might we need to run virtual workshops?
- What might I facilitate remotely?
- Benefits of virtual workshops and online meetings
- What are the challenges of running a virtual workshop?
- How to design a virtual workshop
- Tips for running a virtual workshop
- How should I prepare to facilitate remotely?
- What should I do after facilitating a virtual workshop or virtual meeting?
- Tools to help facilitate your online meeting or virtual workshop
In simple terms, a facilitator is someone who makes a group process or task easier. They do this by guiding groups through a process, helping to develop understanding, and by improving participation and collaboration along the way. By employing trusted facilitation techniques and methods, the best facilitators help teams move towards their desired outcomes in a structured manner.
Traditionally, facilitators work with groups in live settings, facilitating workshops, team development days, training sessions, and more. As more organizations and teams become remotely distributed and have staff spread out all over the world, the need for facilitators to help facilitate workshops or meetings in a remote setting is growing.
Many experts think remote facilitation and the running of online workshops is going to be increasingly common and important in the future. Developing the skills and resources to be an effective remote facilitator will future proof your team and business and enable you to work with virtual teams and remote workers.
Whether you are a seasoned facilitator wanting to make the move to remote facilitation or the manager of a remote team, the guide and best practices below will help you and your team make the most of the time you spend together online.
Let’s dive in!
As more teams and organizations become globally distributed the need for workshops, meetings, and training sessions that can be delivered online also rises.
The cost of flying large teams out for live meetings or bringing together people across time zones can be high, and using online tools to hold meetings or workshops can make this process easier and cost-effective.
That said, bringing together people into an online setting alone is not enough to guarantee success. The effectiveness of any meeting or workshop is often predicated on the skill of the person facilitating and the process they have designed. Online facilitation for a virtual meeting or remote workshop is no different.
Some situations where you might use remote facilitation:
- Distributed teams with remote workers spread over several locations
- Hybrid meetings where some people are in one location and several remote workers call in
- Ensuring workshops or meetings can go ahead even in difficult circumstances ie: with staff illness, travel bans or environmental concerns
- Delivering online coaching and mentoring
- Online webinars
- Online product demos or customer onboarding
As companies employ increasingly virtual teams or you find yourself suddenly working remotely, you may be asked to run meetings, workshops and much more of your traditional working practice online.
Here are just a few things you may have to facilitate online for your team as they work from home, co-working spaces or elsewhere.
Virtual meetings for remote teams are incredibly common and remote workers will likely attend many virtual meetings every week. These might include daily-stand-ups, all-hands meetings, discussions and more. Like all meetings, virtual meetings should have a clear reason for being run and a specific goal in mind.
Remember that meetings that include face-to-face communication can be hugely important for keeping distributed teams connected and engaged, and that any challenges of the remote setting can be overcome with thoughtful facilitation and well-designed sessions.
While virtual workshops employ many of the same techniques and methodologies as live workshops, online workshops have special considerations, challenges, and potential benefits.
A well designed online workshop can help remote teams align, generate ideas and solutions, build trust and relationships, and strengthen remote team culture. In these scenarios, online sessions are not only a bonus, but they’re a necessity for teams that wish to be productive while also being distributed.
Remember that choosing the right workshop methodology and process is as vital in an online space as in a live setting. You might consider employing a remote design sprint or open space style format. Design your workshop with your purpose, team and the restraints and benefits of remote working in mind for the best results.
Asynchronous communication and collaboration tools are key factors of any remote team, but there is enormous value in real-time workshops that are expertly facilitated.
Simply put, a webinar is an event that is delivered online. In a webinar, one or more speakers often deliver instructional material to their attendees and conduct discussions, polls, and participation over online software.
Webinars often differ in their approach to interactivity – some may be mainly presentational while others feature interactive elements where attendees may ask questions, respond to polls or engage with the speaker.
Choosing the right webinar software for your needs begins with design. An unstructured webinar is likely to be unproductive and waste time. Carefully design your webinar in line with your audience and purpose, choose the software that allows you to engage them in the right way, and then use your facilitation skills to deliver the best possible session.
Online courses or virtual training sessions benefit from the use of facilitation techniques and can help you add value to your offering in the online course marketplace. It’s a crowded market, so delivering carefully designed and well-facilitated sessions can really help you stand out!
Running courses or training for your remote team likely includes lots of asynchronous learning and the use of collaboration tools. Some online courses can be delivered entirely on-demand, with pre-recorded materials and training software. You know what is right for your audience and the training being delivered, but there is always value to unpacking concepts with a team in real-time or delivering follow-up sessions face-to-face.
It’s important that the live components of any training sessions you conduct are well facilitated and well designed – with a limited amount of face-to-face time, every opportunity to connect counts and can be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful training course.
Just as organizations are recognizing the value of remote teams and a distributed workforce, so too are they waking up to the benefits of online workshops and remote meetings. Well designed and expertly facilitated workshops can be one of your best organizational tools to solve complex problems, create innovation or drive growth.
Simply put: can you afford to miss out on the benefits of workshops just because your team or organisation is remotely distributed? Here are some of the main benefits of running an online workshop or virtual meeting.
Remote working has revolutionized the workplace for people in many roles and industries. Regardless of physical location, people can contribute to their team or organisation and have their voices heard. For people with young families, disabilities or who live in remote parts of the world, remote workshops enable access to things they might otherwise be excluded from,
In online workshops or remote meetings, people who would otherwise not be able to attend a physical event can get involved. This is also great when it comes to diversity and inclusivity: an in-person meet-up in the North of England will simply not be as diverse as an online event that encourages participants from all over the world.
A virtual meeting or remote workshop is not only more accessible than in-person meetings, they are often cheaper for all involved too. Travel, accommodation, workshop space, materials, and snacks all cost money and by running a workshop online, you can significantly reduce overheads and eliminate many of these costs for your participants.
For globally distributed organizations, the cost of bringing an entire team together for a workshop can become extremely expensive. While there is value in bringing remote teams together, consider each case on its merits. In-person meetings might be great for company culture building, but when it comes to delivering a workshop series, online might be the way to go.
Creating and running a large-scale workshop in-person can be challenging, particularly when it comes to logistics for distributed teams or large organizations.
While there are many considerations for running an online workshop and unique challenges to the format, a remote workshop or virtual meeting can generally be understood to be simpler to organize from a logistics perspective. Set-up might simply involve sharing a screen and asking participants to do tasks using their own materials at home. You will likely not have to organize a room or hire a space and getting people to the meeting usually involves a simple email.
Remember that a reduction in some organizational tasks does not mean they are removed entirely and do not deserve your attention. An online workshop requires considered planning to be effective and while some obstacles are removed, others also present themselves.
Team or company culture can be massively important to the effectiveness of not only a single workshop, but an entire organization. In fully remote teams, or organizations with many distributed employees, realtime meetings and workshops might be the only team employees directly work together.
Speaking with colleagues over video conferencing software and being able to see each other in real-time is a hallmark of successful remote teams. Remote workshops where staff can collaborate and connect, regardless of physical location, helps build connections and a company culture that persists outside of the workshop.
Working remotely on any project or task comes with its own challenges. Virtual teams all have a set of best practices they employ to make their working days more effective, whether that includes the use of collaborative tools or well-developed working processes.
Workshops are, by design, highly collaboratively and require the deployment of varied techniques and processes to make them effective. But how do these function in an online or remote space? Here, we’ll explore the challenges of running remote meetings or virtual workshops you should consider when planning and delivering your online workshop.
The reality of remote working and running an online workshop or virtual meeting is that sometimes, people will have connection issues or technical problems. Poor audio or video equipment, internet quality or loud workspaces can all contribute to lowering the quality of your digital workshop.
This is a challenge that cannot ever be 100% mitigated, though you can take steps to prevent or limit the impact of technical issues on your remote workshop. Give people clear advice on what they need for the meeting and plenty of notice so they can work from somewhere with good internet and have their equipment in order.
If you plan to run regular online meetings with your colleagues, advocate at your company to help provide the proper equipment for all remote colleagues. Improving audio quality and limiting external noise can help ensure the meeting continues without a hitch.
It’s also worth communicating any additional needs – software, meeting links or requirements – clearly and well in advance of the workshop or meeting. If people need to learn a tool to contribute to the meeting or create a log-in to a new video conferencing app, make sure this is done ahead of the workshop. Fifteen minutes spent at the start of a workshop to help everyone get connected and ruin your schedule or kill the momentum of your workshop.
One of the main purposes of any workshop is to align the participants around a common goal or purpose. Successful workshops help a team collect their thoughts and come to a consensus on how to move forward. The facilitator is the person in the room that makes alignment happen and depending on the purpose of the workshop, team alignment can be the major takeaway from the process.
The alignment process is more difficult in remote or virtual environments Open communication is more difficult to facilitate, with cross-talking or an unwillingness to speak up in a remote meeting often cropping up. These constraints can sometimes mean that individuals or teams have less time to make their case or discuss concerns that would otherwise enable them to align.
Effectively overcoming this challenge requires getting the workshop design right – ensuring that you have activities or exercises to facilitate alignment – and in thoughtfully facilitating the group.
If you are conducting a problem-solving workshop in an online setting, alignment is extremely important and as a remote facilitator, you should be attuned to helping the group achieve that.
Using whiteboards and flipcharts to illustrate key concepts and conclusions, using tons of post-it notes and helping a group create their own resources or prototypes on paper are all essential tools in live workshops. These resources are often kept up for the duration of the session, to be referred to again in later exercises or to be reflected upon.
The only limits on creating and displaying these in a live setting is wall space or resources – being able to walk around and move between grouped content is a massive bonus to the live meeting setting.
In an online setting, remote facilitators need to be much more conscious of how to utilize the available space and the number of artifacts or printouts they choose to supply. Asking a remote participant to watch a shared screen, consult a document and contribute to a shared whiteboard is unlikely to be productive.
There are many online tools you can use to create shared visual spaces for your online workshop or remote meeting, but bear in mind the effects of visual overload or the distractions using all these tools can bring.
In even the most well constructed online meeting or remote workshop, cross-talking or conversation flow can be a challenge.
Online chats lack the nonverbal cues we all give off and receive in real life that allow us to more accurately know when/how to reply on an ongoing conversation. Furthermore, technical issues, large groups or sound quality can also slow down the communication process inside a workshop.
This challenge is surmountable in remote workshops and online meetings. Restricting conversation during some segments, allowing everyone the chance to speak for limited periods or having people ask questions in text chat before the facilitator then selects which to address can be effective.
The size of the group, format of the workshop and the technical stability of everyone involved can really dictate which approach is the best when it comes to solving this issue.
At the design stage, try including methods which require less live chat and more individual brainstorming and small-group work, or use practical activities such as dot-voting to effectively timebox and minimize unrelated discussions.
Successful workshops live or die on the level of participant engagement. This is where a facilitator shines – designing engaging processes and delivering workshops using techniques that help engage everyone in the room.
In virtual meetings or remote workshops, engagement can be a challenge. If your workshop is haphazardly put together and features several hours of presentations without any activities or a well-designed process, people will quickly become bored or distracted.
Remote participants could be distracted by what’s going on in their other screen or by their physical environment, so it is important to agree on ground rules to keep participants focused, just like in a live meeting scenario.
The key to achieving engagement in a remote workshop is to design a process that is interactive, varied and tailored to your teams. Use tasks and techniques that exercise both creative and critical approaches, just as you would in a live workshop setting.
Workshop or meeting etiquette can be vital to its success, and facilitators often ensure that the expectations for behavior and etiquette are outlined before or at the beginning of a session.
Enforcing this in the remote workshop if people get this wrong can be problematic and take up precious time, so be sure to make this very clear to all participants. Furthermore, organizations with an undeveloped or non-existent online/video communication culture require special consideration.
Some basic tips for online etiquette include: learning to use the mute button when not speaking; locating to a quiet environment; ensure you are well lit so other attendees can see your face and that you are not backlit; paying attention to what’s going on in the room and not continuing to do other work or answer emails.
Just as all communication skills need to be developed and polished, so too does online or virtual communication. If you’re working in-house or with your own team, take some time to help your team communicate better online. If you’re freelancing, use the opportunity of the remote workshop to demonstrate best practices and distribute an etiquette or ruleset ahead of time.
Co-facilitating is a great way of splitting workload and bringing multiple skill sets to the table in a live or online workshop. That said, co-facilitating in an online setting certainly gets more complicated without the non-verbal cues one can have in a live setting. Passing the torch or linking sections between facilitators can be clumsy and face technological complications that come from having multiple people sharing screens, resources or collaborating in real-time.
If you are co-facilitating with another facilitator or with a client or manager, it can also be difficult to have a side conversation midway through the workshop. Being able to quickly chat and adjust the session in a live setting by stepping to one side becomes more difficult and will likely need to be done during breaks or in another chat room.
Remote facilitation often requires the spinning of multiple plates and while this is doable, every extra task or window you add to the equation creates the possibility of stress or mistakes. Remove as much stress as possible by carefully and thoughtfully planning your workshop and liaising with your co-facilitator or client ahead of time alongside having a system for side-discussion that works for you.
Some tools such as Zoom have the option for private chats in parallel with the main session. Using a Slack channel for facilitators to communicate while the meeting or workshop takes place in video conferencing software is also a viable solution.
A winning mindset for designing and running a remote workshop is to recreate the live workshop experience as much as possible. Think of the last full-day workshop or conference you attended. How much productive conversation happened in the breaks, between activities or while just getting a coffee? Were full group discussions as effective as more focused breakout groups?
All of these opportunities to communicate in groups of varying sizes is conducive to a successful workshop, particularly if it is lengthy and the group will benefit from variation. This is challenging to achieve in a remote workshop setting, though should be considered early in the workshop design process.
Remember that remote workshops do not allow for the same level of non-verbal communication as live meetings: reading body language, for example, is difficult to impossible to achieve online. Informal chats during break time or the ability to break off into smaller groups is also difficult to implement well.
The challenge here is how to create space in the agenda for those kinds of breakout sessions or small group discussions and how to implement them in practice.
Zoom, for example, supports breakout sessions, or an alternative would be to told multiple small meeting rooms on your video conferencing software. This can be cumbersome and there is the obvious issue of teams transitioning into small groups and then reconvening.
You may find that your workshop chooses to remote breakout sessions altogether and instead find other ways to create your desired outcomes. Remember that good facilitation is always conducted in the service of the group and the underlying purpose. Only use breakout sessions if they’re the right fit.
Planning and designing is an important part of the process, arguably even more so in a remote setting with added constraints and specific considerations for online audiences.
Whether you’re running an online workshop for the first time or have delivered heaps of virtual meetings, we’ve put together a guide to help you improve your design and planning work.
The first step in designing a remote workshop is to understand your audience and their needs. This is true for any facilitation scenario but is especially true in remote settings where personal cues and body language are more difficult to receive and the technological tools can present some boundaries in communication.
Circulating a preparatory survey or having some small meetings with stakeholders can help ensure you’re creating a workshop with your audience in mind. Remember that the best workshops are bespoke in nature and really take into account the needs and makeup of the group being facilitated.
It’s worth noting that knowing your audience and their set-up is imperative when beginning to design a session. Your exercises and methods must be tailored to whether you are working with entirely remote participants or a co-located team with a couple of virtual members calling in.
On a related note, it’s also vital that you take into account the timezone your participants are located in and find the right time to hold the remote workshop. Global teams might require multiple workshops in order to reach everyone that needs to be reached without making someone log-in at midnight.
One of the strengths of online workshops is that you can invite people regardless of geographic location or other limiting factors. It is also easy to get lots of people together without issue. That said, not every workshop or meeting needs everyone to be present and in fact, limiting the participants for certain workshops can increase their efficacy.
Depending on the design and purpose of your workshop, you may want to have a smaller, focused group in order to achieve your goals. If everyone in an organization should go through the workshop process, perhaps you need to run several separate workshops.
Think again about your goals and outcomes and choose your participants and number of workshops based on what you learn here. Often, holding a single primary workshop with major stakeholders who then feedback results to their teams is a good approach.
Every workshop should have some goals and outcomes in mind – these should be discussed and ideated upon with the challenges and benefits of remote collaboration in mind. An alignment meeting has different goals to a problem-solving workshop or design sprint, and while all these are achievable in a remote setting, achieving the desired outcomes may require different approaches or need to be adjusted
For example, a design sprint may require the use of more robust collaboration tools such as online whiteboards in order to be effective. Effective prototyping may not be doable in a remote workshop, and so your goals and expected outcome should reflect this.
That said, bear in mind the benefits and unique opportunities that a remote setting offers – moments of independent working, focus and a wide array of experiences, cultural
The benefits of having a remote team – diversity of thought, high talent pool – are also benefits you can lean into when designing your outcomes. Globally distributed teams can give globally distributed insight – use this!
The facilitation process often asks for the inclusion of several exercises or activities in order to lead teams through a process effectively and to get them thinking in innovative or creative ways. Exercises, games and methods are awesome though remember that what works in a live workshop may not work online. Large group games that require everyone to be in the same room and move around are obviously not applicable to a remote workshop, but some exercises are not so clear cut.
Exercises that require large group discussions can be unwieldy in an online setting and breakout sessions can be difficult to facilitate and move between as a facilitator. Solo work with short presentations and group feedback can be very effective. Though finding the right exercises for remote workshops can be tricky, they can still be vital for a successful workshop – they just need to be carefully chosen and adjusted for remote teams
Remember that tasks often take longer in an online workshop so plan accordingly. Delivering instructions can also be more difficult – try using remote activities and exercises that are simple in nature and easy to explain. If your exercise requires drawing or the use of pens and paper, be sure to communicate this ahead of the workshop.
So long as you take the time to intelligently plan and design your online workshop or virtual meeting, there’s no reason you can’t be creative and use fun exercises to keep your participants engaged!
Facilitating a remote workshop or online meeting requires that you use tools as part of the process. Just as you will choose the right exercises, format, and methodology for your group, you will also want to ensure you are using the right tools.
You will want to consider the online meeting/video conferencing software most suitable for your needs. Will you want to include breakout sessions, record the session, or have robust text chat features? Will your participants need access to shared files and materials, and how will those be distributed?
If you are leading a design sprint or developing a roadmap, would an online whiteboard be an effective way of helping people collaborate in real-time? How will you plan your remote workshop and create an agenda for both you and your team to follow?
It’s likely that your team or organization already uses certain tools for these challenges, and continuing to use tools you are familiar with can help remove potential learning curves or stumbling blocks. Remember that any tool should be used in service of the group and the requirements of the process you have designed – if the tool helps that process and the group achieve success, use it. If it gets in the way, reconsider.
Want some specifics? Check out our post on tools for online meetings and workshops for some examples of great tools you can use in your organization.
Online meetings are often tiring, sitting in front of a computer screen for hours at a time without a break can kill any enthusiasm for a workshop. Design a schedule with plenty of breaks and a mix of tasks that keep people fresh.
Try to include opportunities to step away from the computer and move around. Really consider what is most vital in your remote workshop agenda and keep it lean. In the opinions of many facilitators, online workshops should be shorter than live workshops by design, and as such, you may want to run a sequence of workshops or remote meetings in order to achieve your goals without mentally exhausting your participants.
Remember that if you’re running a workshop for a global team, timezones should be considered. It might be that you run multiple workshops for employees in different timezones. Few of us do our best work late at night or outside of our normal working schedule and it would be unreasonable to expect certain remote team members to stay late or start very early.
All workshops or meetings benefit from careful planning and design. Use workshop planning tools such as SessionLab to create a workshop agenda that is right for your purpose and participants.
The success of an online workshop or remote meeting is often predicated on effective design and a well-oiled process. Running a remote workshop without carefully designing the exercises, purpose or flow can mean that participants get lost or frustrated and that the effectiveness of the session is limited.
Our library of 700+ facilitation techniques can help you find the right exercises for your purpose and timeframe, and by using our planning tool, you can easily adjust the schedule and deliver a remote workshop that works for all of your participants. You can create PDFs of the agenda to share prior to the workshop and invite clients or co-facilitators to collaborate too!
Technical issues are likely to arise and though you shouldn’t allow your session to be dictated by these, it’s worth planning ahead for the occurrence of such issues.
Send the technical requirements of the workshop or meeting to your participants well in advance. Send reminders on the day of the meeting though still design your agenda with a few minutes overspill for late arrivals. Have back-ups for technically demanding exercises or find easier to implement alternatives.
If you’re doing a hybrid meeting and have many live groups in separate locations, consider having someone help you with the technical aspects so you can focus on facilitating. Check all of your equipment and software ahead of the workshop. Nothing more embarrassing than having your wireless mic run out of charge or needing to update your software mid-meeting. By factoring in the technical aspects into the design and planning stage, you can ensure you get this right and don’t run into issues later.
Most of what you would do in a traditional workshop becomes a little more difficult in a remote setting. Whether it’s facilitating a group discussion, engaging in exercises, games or ice breakers, or explaining a new product or tool.
Simplify your workshop where you can to help ensure people spend less time trying to understand tasks or process information and more time doing. Choose exercises that are easy to explain and facilitate and keep any explanations or presentations lean.
At the design stage, be certain to clarify the purpose and desired outcomes of the workshop so you can remove extraneous material and efficiently reach those goals. Remember that extraneous material does not mean removing breaks or ice breakers but instead, taking away those items that do not relate to helping a group move through an effective process or the purpose of the workshop.
Carefully planning and designing an online workshop is only half the battle. Running a remote workshop or virtual meeting presents many challenges – some of which are unique to remote facilitation scenarios.
Furthermore, all facilitators know that a process often needs to be adjusted on the fly and in remote workshops, choosing when and how to do so requires some consideration.
Here are our tips on running an online workshop or meeting:
Staring at a screen often takes more mental energy that a face-to-face meeting. When working online, it can also be easy to lose track of time and go for a long time without stepping away from the screen.
Design your agenda to feature breaks and do not be tempted to remove them. Giving your team a moment to recharge can help ensure the efficacy of the workshop. In-person workshops often have breaks every two to three hours. In a remote workshop, you may want to have breaks more frequently. Also, make it clear that its okay to take a comfort break if necessary!
It’s worth noting that using online energizer activities and a mix of group discussion and solo-work activities can also ease the fatigue that can set in during an online session.
Encourage your participants to step away from the computer during a break. Go outside, meditate or grab a snack – whatever it is, giving the brain a moment to rest is imperative for successful workshops and keeping everyone at the top of their game.
Effective communication is not just about words – body language, facial cues, and vocal reassurance all factor into making productive discussions.
Getting everyone on webcam so that you can all see each other is a great way to increase engagement in a remote workshop and help people feel connected.
Remember that in order to facilitate this, you will want to let the participants know this is expected of them and to prepare accordingly so they can feel comfortable doing so.
What this doesn’t mean is reprimanding people working from home for their kids or pets walking in, but advising them to take steps to help the workshop be productive.
Any working situation holds the possibility for curveballs to occur and in extraordinary circumstances or new working arrangements, it’s also important to be considerate and empathetic.
On that note, it’s worth mentioning that online workshops and remote working is new to many people. Working in traditional settings has its own ruleset and etiquette and making the transition to working from home and dialing into online meetings can be difficult to adjust.
Be kind, be considerate and be patient. It takes time to get your head around remote meetings and what online workshops entail. By giving people all the tools they need and outlining your expectations, you’re making a great start but remember to be empathetic.
Lead by example, acknowledge the difficulty or strangeness and move forward together. Once you and your organization have it down, remote working and online meetings can be effective for everyone – in the upskill and teething period, try and be kind and compassionate.
As much as possible, ensure that every participant has their own device. This means that they can contribute to the chat channel and ask questions, see necessary slides or material clearly and can mute themselves when necessary.
One device also means you can more clearly manage individual recipients and their visual profile when speaking will be more focused. If the design of your workshop requires individual work, this may be a necessity.
One device per person isn’t always achievable, particularly for hybrid teams or times when large numbers of people call in from one location. The key in those circumstances is having rules which allow everyone to contribute, maintain focus and mean you can manage recipients effectively.
Most online meeting tools allow the administrator to control the audio of individual recipients. While it’s worth asking your participants to self regulate, to mute their mics when not speaking, to be respectful and limit cross-talking, it’s also a good idea to have the tools to mute all and control the audio of the room.
Good facilitation is all about managing the group through a process and facilitating effective communication – being able to do so quickly and efficiently can help ensure the workshop is a success.
Online workshops can benefit from having an additional facilitator, particularly when working with clients as a freelancer or with external organizations. If you’re working with an external group, having a co-facilitator from that team can ensure those people have a voice they trust helping to guide them through the process.
Having a co-facilitator in the room during hybrid meetings can also be useful when it comes to managing the group and keeping everyone engaged. In those situations where you have some people collected together, having one facilitator looking after the remote participants and another looking after the live folks is a good strategy.
When you do co-facilitate, it’s still worth having a single leader or owner of the workshop helps to ensure that the process is effective and to be able to make changes if something isn’t working. Find what works for you and your team but remember that everything you do should be in service of helping the group engage with the process.
Workshops are collaborative processes and should be designed with the engagement and inclusion of all your participants in mind. It is almost a given that throughout the remote workshop, your participants will speak up and share things with the group, but think about how you would like them to do that.
Everyone talking at once is not an effective strategy so think about using text chat to filter questions and have a moderator pass the most prescient over for the group to discuss. When having live group discussions where everyone speaks, timebox the time they have to share and ensure you follow a structure.
Depending on the format and goal of your online workshop or remote meeting, you may want to invite individual participants to communicate something from their own areas of expertise or deliver information relating to an exercise or activity. Use the experience and wisdom of your team – just give them some advance warning if possible!
Exercises and activities are part of the bread and butter of many workshops and group processes. Including a mix of different activities when facilitating remotely can also help keep an online group engaged and energized.
All the exercises you run in an online setting should be clearly explained and clarified before you begin. You do not have the same opportunities to wander a room and course correct your participants in a remote setting so take the time to get everyone started on the right foot.
It’s worth remembering that this goes back to choosing the right games and activities for your remote workshop and ensuring they work in an online setting. Keep them simple and easy to explain and practice how you deliver the instructions.
Staying on time in a meeting is always a consideration, though discussions and activities often take longer in an online setting. Without due consideration of structure and facilitation style, there is the potential for unstructured conversations to go on and distract the whole group from moving forward.
Timebox your activities and open discussions to keep everyone on track and focused. Set ground rules about live discussions that means everyone can stay focused. Use text chat channels or methods such as one breath feedback to find the balance between letting everyone speak and keeping your workshop moving forward.
On the subject of text channels, having a place where participants can make notes and ask questions for the group or facilitator while keeping the meeting moving is a great approach.
Moderating that channel and answering those questions while also facilitating a workshop can be difficult and mean you are less effective in other areas.
If the needs of the workshop or size of the group calls for it, consider getting someone to moderate the text channel, respond to questions where appropriate and pass on questions or topics for group discussion if necessary. Finding a way to ensure everyone is heard and able to voice concerns while also keeping the process moving is good for everyone.
It’s likely that not everyone can make it to your remote workshop, particularly if your team is globally distributed and works across several time zones.
Record the workshop so people who can’t attend can also benefit or so you and your team can review important points and improve your process later on. You may also want to use transcription software for easy reference or so that teammates with hearing difficulties can engage with what’s been done.
All that said, bear in mind that a recorded workshop is not the same as participating in a live workshop, and depending on the needs of your group and the number of people who could not attend, you might be better to run multiple workshops. The process is often as important as the outcome and you will not want to deprive people of that experience unless necessary.
Using polls with your participants can be an effective way of getting the feedback you need quickly and efficiently. Remote facilitation often requires that you simplify and redesign parts of your in-person process to be more efficient in a live setting.
Some aspects of the online workshop will be exactly the same as the one you run in the flesh, whereas others simply take too long or require rethinking to be effective in an online setting.
The key here is to facilitate contributions and collaborations from your team without getting bogged down. Use online tools such as online polling to make the process more efficient and consider allowing anonymous voting if you’re having trouble getting people to speak up.
In a remote setting, having pre-recorded videos of walkthroughs, tutorials or product demonstrations can not only save time but reduce pressure in the session.
Many recipients really benefit from the inclusion of videos or images and varying the way in which information is delivered can help keep people engaged.
By preparing elements prior to the workshop, you can achieve this while also limiting the impact on your stress level. Remote facilitation is often a matter of juggling a lot of items at once. Easing the number of items you need to juggle on the day can really help you excel as a facilitator, particularly if you’re new to the field.
Creating a great workshop plan and brushing up on your facilitation skills is vital for creating an online process that works. In the days leading up to running the remote workshop or virtual meeting, there are a few things you want to do to prepare.
Here are the steps you should take to prepare for facilitating an online workshop or virtual meeting.
Distractions and technical issues can be frustrating in any facilitation environment. In virtual meetings or remote workshops, they can be completely derailing.
Ensure everyone attending the workshop or meeting has the necessary tools installed and has been given time to get up to speed. On a basic level, this means ensuring your participants have access to the online meeting software you’re using and have been instructed to install it.
If you’re using collaboration tools, online whiteboards or will be using resources in a shared Google Drive, ensure everyone has access before the meeting. Time wasted finding and sharing links in the meeting can be costly.
It’s also worth noting that you need to be familiar with the tools you are using and take the time to have them all updated. Having to update mid-meeting can throw you off your groove as a facilitator and is something worth preparing for.
Helping your participants prepare for the workshop should be part of your preparation process. This means sending out the schedule and some form of agenda beforehand, letting them know what you expect of them, and giving them clear instructions for joining the meeting.
A note on the agenda: depending on your needs and familiarity with the group you may not need a detailed agenda. If you have a very clear process in mind and do not want to open those items up for discussion, keep the agenda simple.
You know the needs of your team the best, so tailor this to their needs, though be sure to give your participants some idea of what the workshop will involve so they can prepare accordingly.
Be sure to communicate your needs and expectations clearly. If people need to prepare something before arriving, make this explicit. Include a section on etiquette, technological requirements and any other expectations you have. Including this here can save time later and ensure everyone is aligned.
Remember that getting people to the meeting or workshop is part of the preparation process. Be clear with this information and try to include local timezones for everyone. It’s very easy for someone to get mixed up on time and miss the start of the workshop.
Whether it’s your first time or you’re a pro, there is always value to testing the technology, tools, and set-ups of your online workshop ahead of running it. This means testing your sound and visual equipment, going through your slides and testing any online collaboration tools you will be using.
While getting this wrong with an in-house team can be a minor embarrassment or waste of time, with external paying clients these hiccups can be more problematic. Don’t let a simple issue derail your workshop – test everything!
Even when running a workshop online or virtual meeting, everyone will be logging in from somewhere. Running a remote workshop from a loud coffee shop isn’t a great idea, and so take the time to find the right location that has the environment, tools, and space you need to be effective when facilitating online. Remember that good quality, stable internet is part of this arrangement too!
This is also a consideration for hybrid teams where large groups of people might be logging in from a head office while others dial-in. Do you have a suitable room booked for those team members, how will they be able to raise questions effectively and communicate with your remote participants?
Knowing the answer to these questions goes back to the design and planning stage of your workshop. Once you have nailed down what you need to make your workshop a success, you can then find the right tools, locations and processes to do so.
Don’t be in a position where you invite those in-person participants to contribute questions or share files and do not have the equipment or space to facilitate that process effectively.
All of the skills you need to be an effective facilitator in a live setting still apply in a remote workshop. You still need to ask the right questions, effectively lead a team through a process and manage group dynamics. Our post on the essential skills a facilitator needs to be effective can be helpful as a refresher or learning tool.
Arguably, the restrictions and challenges of an online meeting or workshops ask that a remote facilitator pay even more attention and be proactive in handling issues before and when they arise than in a live setting.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of sitting in front of a computer and forgetting all of our facilitation techniques and expertise. Be present, maintain awareness and keep your facilitator hat on, even if you’re working from home in your pajamas.
First, take a deep breath and congratulate yourself! Remotely facilitating a workshop or meeting is hard work! Once you’ve recovered, there are some actions you will want to take to ensure the good work of the session is capitalized on and can continue outside of the workshop space. Here are some things you should do following a remote workshop or online meeting.
Every good workshop has a clear purpose and goal in mind. As a result of the session, the group should agree on follow-up actions and there will be some key takeaways from the session that should be reiterated.
All collaborative processes generate lots of data, insight, and outcomes, particularly if those sessions take a whole day or longer. It can be difficult to keep track of everything that was covered and begin to make the right next steps. Put together a round-up document or email and share it with the group.
You will also want to share the outcomes of the workshop not only with those people who couldn’t attend but will find the information useful. Stakeholders, executives or people who couldn’t attend should get looped into the conversation where applicable.
If you’ve recorded or transcribed the session, take this opportunity to share it too!
Remote facilitation is a relatively nascent field and there’s still lots to learn when it comes to making online workshops the best they can be. Encourage honest, critical feedback not only from the major stakeholders but the whole group.
It can also be advantageous getting feedback not only just after a session but also after some time has passed and some of the actions raised during a workshop have been implemented.
Everything your participants have to say about the workshop, your remote facilitation skills and their experience of the process is helpful when it comes to improving and delivering more effective remote workshops in the future.
The participants of a remote workshop might be old colleagues or may have never worked together before. Setting up a community or working group where the members of an online workshop can continue to discuss items, work together or share best practices can be invaluable in continuing the work started in the workshop.
Slack channels, collaborative spaces online or follow-up meetings can all be invaluable, particularly for teams who may not get direct contact very often. Remember that remote work can sometimes be isolating and by designing processes and follow-up actions that engender continued contact, you can help your team feel more connected.
A note for freelancers: creating, moderating and engaging an online group can be hard work and depending on the limits of your brief and working arrangement with your client, this may be something you pass on to someone in the group or facilitate on an ongoing basis.
The nature of virtual workshops asks that facilitators use online tools as a matter of course. Video conferencing software such as Zoom is likely to be the bare minimum of your needs, but there are many tools available to use when it comes to working collaboratively and communicating effectively in an online workshop.
Let’s take a look at some of the tools that can help when running a remote workshop!
Mural is a digital workspace that enables real-time visual collaboration for remote teams. Mural effectively emulates many real-life workshop process with an online whiteboard, sticky notes and the creation of lists, charts, diagrams and more. This kind of visual approach to facilitation can be very effective and helps engage participants in the process and can provide a single space for you to work in with your remote participants. Mural has a free 30-day trial and offers pricing plans based on the numbers of members.
Stormz is an application designed for professional facilitators and enables you to design and facilitate collective intelligence sessions to generate innovative ideas, choose the most promising ones, turn them into tangible solutions and make informed decisions. You can use Stormz to ask your participants to give their input on questions you generate in the app, generate ideas and make collective decisions directly from their laptop, tablet or mobile phone. Perfect for remote working! The free version allows 3 participants per workshop.
Mentimeter allows you to create questions (such as multiple-choice questions) in their web application and participants can answer them from their mobile devices. The great thing is that you can instantly visualize everyone’s opinion and display the results in real-time to the group. It helps your participants to feel engaged, which is especially important for larger remote teams. It works really well on mobile devices with a streamlined user experience and the free version allows you to create two polls and five quiz questions per presentation.
Miro is an online whiteboard tool designed for distributed teams. It features the uploading of images, creating notes and drawing in different colors and sizes in freehand mode and has everything you need to support a well-designed process in a virtual space. The app also offers a great template library to conveniently find the right structure you need for your whiteboard and offers a free version that offers up to 3 boards for your team. Miro is a great and easy way of creating an online workspace for your remote team.
SessionLab is designed for planning and designing workshops and meetings, and by using our tool to craft a great remote workshop with ease can really help make them a success. With a library of over 700 expert facilitation techniques and a collection of fully-featured templates, you can learn from the best and get started quickly – particularly useful if you’re suddenly having to work remotely.
Invite collaborators and co-facilitators to work on the workshop plan in real-time and share PDFs of your agenda with the participants. You can also adjust your workshop plan in real-time and see how going over in one section can affect the timings of the rest of the day. By keeping your notes, materials, links, and agenda all in one place, you can help ensure the smooth running of any online workshop or meeting,
As companies become more and more distributed, teams and organizations will spend more time in online workshops and remote meetings. Ensuring these are effective and well facilitated is imperative to helping remote teams feel connected, be productive and contribute to the success of the organization.
Remote facilitation isn’t just the future: it’s happening right now. Learn how to be a better remote facilitator and take advantage of the opportunities and inclusivity that the online workshop space enables. Your participants will thank you for it!
Have any thoughts on remote facilitation? Are there any techniques or tools you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!