Practical tips for virtual facilitation

Update 26.4.2021: a version of this blog post was published also in Reaktor’s (I work there!) blog: https://www.reaktor.com/blog/blog-better-virtual-meetings/ . Also, I’m now at 66 virtual trainings given.

I just counted that I have given 55 virtual trainings during last 12 months, starting March 2020. I estimate I have facilitated approximately as many virtual sessions for groups of different sizes. It seems that virtual facilitation is here to stay for a while, so I have tried to figure out how to improve it over just trying to replicate what I do in face-to-face facilitation. Based on my experiences so far, there are some very specific ways virtual meetings differ from face-to-face meetings. I have been able to put a name on at least four major challenges of virtual meetings. Those challenges are described below, with simple tips I use to reduce the impact of each challenge.

Challenges of virtual meetings

Strict start, strict finish

There’s often no time for general chit chat in the beginning or at the end of a virtual meeting. This means few things: 

  • I don’t know in what kind of state of mind everybody is coming in
  • Bonding part is cut short or not available
  • There’s no time to agree or discuss anything before or after the meeting, everyone just appears and vanishes.

Because of this, I explicitly spare time for connecting between people in the beginning, and I am very explicit about what happens after the meeting. For example, what actions need to happen, who does what, when we return to this topic, etc. There’s no “could you still stay for a few minutes, so we can check who does what”, once everybody’s gone.

Narrower bandwidth

I have learned to accept that we get less done in a virtual meeting in the same amount of time, compared to a face-to-face meeting. My experience is that it’s about 60-70% of the content compared to a face-to-face meeting of the same length. Instead of cramming everything in and cutting some corners in the way we cover all topics, I try to reduce topics to make room for proper handling of them.

Easier to lose focus

Ten minutes of following a big group conversation usually seems to be enough to get people distracted, especially if they are not actively participating at that moment. I try to split things to cover to smaller chunks, to activate people by asking opinions from everyone or asking by name, use activating exercises, have a break at least once per hour, etc. Also, discussions of 2-4 people are much more activating than larger ones, so I go to small groups as much as feasible.

More difficult to connect to others

If the meeting participants don’t at least see each other, it’s way more difficult to relate to other people. So I use videos as much as possible. (As a side note, there are also some science based tips on how to reduce video conferencing fatigue: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-02-fatigue-simple.html?fbclid=IwAR0qTL3DU-iIYRMV191vlHFhzdrF1zBHV8TWUNJQ55wc-KnkxczJZpRRyDs . )

I try to spare some time for connecting with some small talk around other topics besides the task at hand. I usually have people talking about their weekend, how they are doing in general, or something like that. I preferably do this in small groups, to have safer space to share and to use everybody’s time more effectively.

GRASS – Ingredients of successful meetings

As a general rule though, despite the challenges of virtual meetings all the same stuff applies to having a successful meeting as in a face-to-face setup. Everything just takes more dedication, preparation and time. Cornerstones for a successful meeting, whether it’s virtual or face-to-face, are spelled out by the GRASS model.

Goal

When everybody knows where the goal is, we can move towards it and know when we are ready. 

Room to think

When people have time to think, ideas and decisions will improve. 

Autonomy

People are motivated when they are in control and can decide for themselves.

Shared focus

Group work works best when everyone focuses on the same thing. 

Structure

Facilitator plans a structure which enables reaching the goal and takes care of it during a meeting.

More on GRASS model: https://coachjarkko.com/2020/05/13/how-to-organize-motivating-meetings-grass-model/

Summary

In my opinion, virtual meeting format makes good facilitation even more valuable than before. I feel it pays back to put more effort to take care of the basic meeting principles outlined in the GRASS model, as well as dedicating some work to handle the special attributes of virtual meetings. 

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