Facilitation is fun but also hard. Being a facilitator requires me to be on top of the situation and manage the space, be that a design session, requirements gathering, training or a retrospective. It is my job to focus on the “how” so that all the participants can focus on the “what” and “why”.
Facilitation has always been something I prefer doing in a physical space, as it is easier to run a session when you can actually see how people talk and act, what is their body language and their energy levels.
The COVID-19 outbreak gave me an excellent opportunity to focus on my remote facilitation skills, as few weeks back I ended up having a single day to move a full day innovation workshop from a prepared design space to fully remote, which (like for the rest of people in this industry) has now been the de facto working location.
Since most likely I am not alone with getting accustomed to the full-blown remote lifestyle, I thought: why not share some of my experiences on remote workshopping?
Select your toolset and your backup set
Tools matter… as long as you control the tools and not the other way around.
At our company, we use MS Teams for most of our online communication. In addition, many of our clients use Teams, so it is our primary tool also for workshop communication.
Excel and PowerPoint can be fine in some situations and for communicating results, but as the base of an online workshop they are real interaction killers.
Find a tool that fosters creativity and interaction among the workshop participants. I have come to like Miro a lot. It is an interactive whiteboard tool with many nice features and an easy way to engage people. That being said, it is super important to prepare the workshop board in a way that getting hands dirty with work is fast.
If doing application design, I like to use Adobe XD as the medium to communicate UI and UX of the solution.
Finally, always have a backup toolset for communication in case there are problems with the primary one.
Preparation is king
Preparation is more important than ever. A poorly prepared remote workshop will in record time end up as a joint social media browsing session with no real results. In order to get the best of the session you need to:
- create a clear agenda with clear goals for every topic
- give clear preparation instructions
- give clear participation instructions
- send the invite with the agenda, the goals and the instructions well in advance
- ensure that you have air in your schedule for sudden “*cough cough* sorry, my kids…” distractions and plan enough breaks.
You need to set up the scene so that the workshop flows smoothly from start to finish. I do this by setting up a “frame” in Miro for each exercise with a selected template, instructions, times and possibly roles. The first “frame” is always the agenda and goals for the day, and the second one is a short introduction exercise.
If any files are needed during the workshop, then place them somewhere in the cloud where everyone can access then. Teams actually has this in place within the meeting chat functionality.
Ask someone to test your setup before the workshop!
Rules of engagement
When starting the workshop, I think it is super important to go through the ground rules of engagement so that everyone is on the same level regarding interaction, communication and how the tools are used.
The rules to use depends on you and the people participating, but I will share one that I think is a must. In the past, I have usually said that it would be nice if people use the camera, but nowadays at least for me it is a must rule. No matter how bad of a hair day you have, you need to put the camera on at least when talking.
This is simply from the point of view that being remote makes it easy to multitask and not really be present in the workshop. The camera helps to keep focus on the topic and helps the interaction, as facial expressions are also seen.
Time boxes help
Time boxing helps me a lot in planning workshops and in controlling the flow forward. I usually break the workshop to logical parts, where always in the beginning of the part I:
- go through the goal of that part
- tell the time box reserved for that part (have learned the hard way that should always reserve a slightly longer time box to cover surprises)
- go through what are the actions expected from the participants
- ensure that all is clear for everyone before we start
After each workshop part, it is good to have at least one short break, and depending on the length of the workshop, longer breaks should be planned as well.
In general, I think online can be more tiresome than face to face, so if possible e.g. instead of a one 4h workshop, I prefer having 2x2h workshops (with at least two 5-10min breaks).
Wrap it up
Depending on the workshop length, but at least 10 minutes should always be reserved for wrap up. For me, during the wrap up things to go through are usually:
- all workshop results
- what will be the expected deliverables after the workshop
- when will the deliverables be done
- any actions expected after the workshop (and when they are expected)
In the end, if you set up a 2-hour workshop slot, reserve 10 min to the start, 15 min for breaks and 10 min for wrap up, then you have 85 minutes left for actual workshop exercises. You can get a lot done during this time when planning and preparations is done well.