Virtual facilitation

Video conference imageI recently found myself facilitating a two day meeting for a large campaigning organisation where the group were discussing strategies for a potential new campaign. Most of the participants were in the room, but three joined us by video from two different locations. I was a little apprehensive about this as I have never facilitated a meeting with virtual participants before!

One of my main concerns was how to ensure the three participants joining by video could effectively and confidently participate with the main group in the room. I didn’t want them to feel hesitant about contributing or shy about responding to others in the conversation (or at least no more so than they might have had they been present in person). The meeting was very much about creating an inclusive discussion, not about listening to expert presentations and asking questions, which I thought was a more straight forward task with video participants. On the other hand I was also concerned that the video participants might dominate the discussion too much, as the main group in the room were acutely aware of involving them.

Other challenges were three different time zones meaning that the video participants joined at different start/ end times to main group – how would they know where we were in the conversation and what had/ had not been covered? How could we best arrange the room so they could see others and be seen? How would they view key flipcharts? And finally the ever present worry about the technology breaking down, losing the video or audio or both.

A couple of actions before and during the workshop helped to alleviate these concerns. Key was preparation before the workshop – calling each of the video participants in advance and asking what would help them, confirming when they would be joining/ leaving each day and talking them through the agenda. Sending them a more detailed agenda and instructions for the discussion activities in advance was also important. During the session a couple of techniques helped to keep them up to date about where we were in the conversation, taking pictures of key flipcharts and emailing them over seemed to work well, as did lots of summarising and synthesising key discussion points.  Breaking into smaller groups was also helpful and the participants fed back that they found contributing easier and more engaging in these smaller groups of 3 or 4. As for technical hiccups, one of the more technically savvy participants took charge of this, which was really helpful! Plus we had a back-up plan to move to a conference call if the video link broke down. In the event it all worked fine and no major problems.

Next time I’d do a couple of things differently, particularly planning the agenda. I’d try to think more carefully about splitting the workshop into more discrete chunks, including more breaks and where possible allowing more time for each part. This seemed important as discussions seemed to take a bit longer with the video link, but breaks really necessary as it is tiring work listening and contributing remotely without the energy in the room carrying you along. I’ll also try to remember to look at the video participants and direct my contributions to them more – sometimes I found myself momentarily forgetting they were there, oops. Finally I’d work more on my summarising and synthesising to make it more clear and concise and helpful in moving the discussion along.

Not sure when will be asked to facilitate such a session again, but do feel this will become more common, at least in the internationally focused NGOs as they shift to increasing their presence in the global south. I’d be interested in others thoughts on lessons for facilitation and participative training – do share your experiences if you have also virtually facilitated!