Take it outside

Helene Jewell and Simon Wilson

When most of us were working at home things were at least clear. Now organisations and teams are having to make judgements about returning to work in the room.    Those of us who facilitate and chair can help them make these judgements.

There are four main options for meetings –

  • Virtual
  • Hybrid
  • Outdoors
  • Face-to-face

We’ve written other blogs about the first two: virtual and hybrid.  This blog gives some first thoughts on the outdoor option given that most of our clients are not ready to return to the room.

So is meeting outdoors a real option?

Although we are heading into the autumn and the weather is getting cooler, for many people being outdoors will always be an attractive option.

Some take a leaf out of the Forest School manual (pardon the pun) and share the view that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing (as the Scandinavians say). Others may take a more cautious approach.

We’ve also drawn on Meetup organised by the ever-creative International Association of Facilitators – take a look here.

So how can facilitation work outside?

A lot of it hinges around the type of space you choose. There are considerations when choosing your space such as:

  • Whether it is a public area like a park or common or a private space like a hotel garden. You might not want your confidential strategic plan to be overheard by dog walkers.
  • Outside doesn’t always have to be totally open to the elements – you can have a gazebo or similar structure for the best of both worlds.
  • Whether there are there toilet facilities nearby.
  • Physical accessibility. Not everyone is able to hike up a beautiful hill, but many natural spaces have good flat paths.
  • How you will space people and what they will sit on. Pay attention to things like the sun in people’s eyes and wind direction.
  • The kinds of general comforts people may need to enable them to be outside (and who will provide them) such as a warm drink or suncream.

What sort of sessions work outdoors?

The short answer is … anything.  We’ve facilitated strategy discussions, team building and decision making events outside.

Outdoors is a particularly good place for creative thinking and idea generation.  There is more opportunity to move around, walking and talking and general movement is good for stimulating thought. You can also turn your attentions to the elements around you – there will be different smells, sights and sounds to use to your advantage.

So this is a good time for activities involving metaphor.  Simon ran a great session in Kew Gardens in London where group members found plants that they felt represented the organisation:  was it a rare orchid needing constant care to be a thing of beauty, a robust bush with uncontrolled growth, or indeed an ecosystem?

Another session in a nature park had the group use space to represent past, present and future, moving along a timeline and exploring potential changes.

This type of discussion can help groups go deep, freed from the constraints of the everyday.

How do you adapt?

Think about how to adapt your activities, and consider carefully how you will record any outputs. Unless you have the outside wall of a building you probably won’t have walls to hang up your flipcharts. But this is your chance to think outside the box. Can you use clipboards or individual whiteboards to write on, photographing the information each time? Can you make better use of the floor, perhaps arranging your post its on some tarpaulin (with grabby sticks to get people stuck into rearranging them!)? What about hanging your pieces of paper on washing line? Some materials might need to be splashproof or heavier (so they don’t blow around in the wind). Using things in the natural environment such as sticks and stones and leaves or flowers may also add a dimension to your session that you have never thought about before. This is anl opportunity to embrace those tactile senses.

The other thing to bear in mind is the tech. Just because you are outside doesn’t mean you can’t include some activities that require technology as long as you have internet access. Some people may feel they are not fully engaging with nature, but for others this may be a link to their comfort zone.

As always, it’s about engaging the participants and at the end of the day the more comfortable you can make them the better chance you have of a successful session. Although you may enjoy a good hearty hike, you might have to scale back your ambitions to include the whole group. Being outdoors might not be for everyone, but don’t dismiss it until you have considered all the options.

Ways of working (contracting, ground rules)

Outdoors isn’t risk-free so think through how social distancing might work in these times where it is needed, and bear in mind requirements in terms of mask wearing etc.

In the run up to the meeting, and in the meeting itself, explicitly agree ways of working.

There is a strong responsibility on the facilitator to model ways of working and ensure they are observed, so make sure that your feel comfortable and safe.

We’d be interested to know your thoughts and experiences of facilitating in the woods or on the beach.