Making the Most of Virtual Facilitation: Using the Asynchronous Space

Pilar Orti and Simon Wilson

The sudden shift to remote work experienced in many organisations meant that facilitators had to adapt their practice to the online meeting space. With time, teams have matured in their approach to remote work, and have started to incorporate asynchronous interactions into their communication.

When working face to face, facilitators often use the shorthand ‘meeting facilitator’.  But if team processes and interactions are now spanning time, should facilitation be limited to meetings? If we want to guide a team through a process, shouldn’t we also engage in their asynchronous space?

Working virtually challenges the notion that facilitation only takes place in meetings. It challenges us to think of a ‘facilitated event’ as a series of sessions and activities, including both real-time and asynchronous interactions.

What are asynchronous interactions?

Asynchronous interactions include reviewing a document, sending or responding to an audio or video message, contributing to an online forum, responding to a poll, or adding ideas to an online document or whiteboard.

For most people asynchronous communication is part of everyday working life.  In the context of facilitation, asynchronous activities prepare the group or follow on from synchronous sessions. But sometimes, the whole process may be asynchronous.

When a facilitator works with a group they use two types of asynchronous interaction:

  • One-way – video, podcast, slide deck or other messages to be received by participants in their own time. These interactions focus on providing information, which may/many not result in discussion
  • Two-way – questions, surveys, polls or shared documents that individuals can engage with in their own time.

What do facilitators need to think about?

To get the most out of the online space, and to make an event more inclusive both for people who like to think on their feet and those who like to reflect over time, facilitators need to think how to design the whole ‘event’.

The plan should include synchronous and asynchronous activities and vary the pace within those activities.

The fundamentals of facilitation remain the same across synchronous and asynchronous interactions.  The facilitator still needs to design a good process, create and sustain a participatory environment, and guide the group to appropriate and useful outcomes.

Asynchronous facilitation is different because group members contribute to the process at a time to suit them.

Facilitators need to think about –

  • How to communicate with a group that may not be present at the same time. Written communication becomes more important:  the facilitator may be ‘dropping in’ questions to a discussion forum, although voice message and video can be part of the mix
  • Supporting group members to use the technology with confidence and trouble shooting problems
  • Making instructions and questions clear because the group cannot ask questions to clarify in the moment
  • How to manage time over a longer period than a meeting.  This involves setting deadlines, checking progress and if necessary prompting the group to respond
  • When and how to prompt or chase group members who have not contributed to asynchronous activities – making clear that these activities are not just ‘homework’ but the actual work
  • How to bring an asynchronous activity back on track if contributions head in an unexpected direction
  • How to handle conflict and disagreement expressed asynchronously
  • The transition from asynchronous to synchronous and vice versa – for instance taking survey results into a synchronous meeting, or inviting further contributions to a shared whiteboard after a meeting.

The facilitator needs to role model good asynchronous practice to show the group how it is done.

What would success look like?

Many organisations are thinking about how to do this. One example from the distributed organisation Parabol outlines a sequence for taking work forward using the Slack collaboration platform with a series of asynchronous discussion ‘rounds’:

  • Brief written proposals
  • Round of unlimited clarifying questions
  • Round of one reaction per person, offering changes, advice, feelings
  • Optional proposal revision
  • Round of objections

If there are objections, they then move to a synchronous discussion.

(You can of course use any other technology – a Google Doc would be a great alternative.)
https://www.parabol.co/blog/async-decision-making-slack

This is just one example, and facilitators will tailor the approach to the group and its context.  Like making the perfect smoothie, there is no universal recipe, just a variety of delicious options.

Many people prefer to get involved asynchronously and working in this way can build a community that works and learns together.

It’s tempting to wonder if we really need synchronous engagement at all… but some people thrive on the cut and thrust of real time discussion. In many cases it’s also easier to find clarity in real-time discussions, and some people thrive on using the spoken word.  Asynchronous communication still relies heavily on the written word.

Facilitating asynchronous activities needs to be taken as seriously as traditional meeting facilitation.  This is how many group members will make their strongest contributions so it is important that they are registered and valued.

We would love to have your asynchronous thoughts on how asynchronous facilitation is evolving and can evolve in future!

(Needless to say, we collaborated on this asynchronously!)

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Find out more about Pilar’s work at https://www.virtualnotdistant.com/

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