Seven things I’ve learned about facilitating virtual meetings

As a professional facilitator for over twenty years, virtual facilitation has been a growing part of my work for the last ten. At a time when people are asking ‘how do we have effective virtual meetings’ I started to look back on some of the milestones in developing my own understanding and practice of virtual facilitation.

In 2009 I was privileged to attend a training course in online facilitation run by facilitation heroes Dale Hunter and Stephen Thorpe. Anchored in New Zealand, we had participants from Australasia, Europe and Africa, and tried out different platforms and approaches. For me the main learning was that ‘it’s not about the technology’. Virtual meeting should be meetings like any other, enabling collaborative endeavour, human connection and purposeful work – anchored by an independent facilitator to look after the process. Or I should say facilitators, as Dale and Stephen modelled the ‘dynamic duo’ approach to virtual facilitation where one person keeps an eye on the technology and another handles the people dynamics. We’ve advocated this approach ever since.

New World of Virtual Facilitation in 2013 with our great US collaborators Bob Moir and Janet Danforth (now so sadly no longer with us) was our first venture into facilitating in 3D immersive environments with participants attending as avatars. For some it’s distancing, for others empowering as you can present as you wish. In a later 3D immersive session all the women participants presented as male avatars and our conversations in a virtual Zen garden had a quality quite different from the standard video / audio platform. 3D immersive and now VR first offer something different, but after a few sessions a sustained creative environment for exploration and discovery. I learned that it takes a few sessions for participants to get to know a new technology, and then they roll with it.

In 2013 I had a role as university lecturer in Leadership teaching students through a blended approach with virtual sessions, an online forum and face to face meetings. Having done my own MBA with the Open University I assumed that everyone would be hungry for the face to face sessions and view the rest as backup. In fact, I found that different participants valued different things. Some loved the ‘asynchronous’ forum where discussions built up over days, preferred online discussions where they felt less exposed, and of course some did prefer face to face. Never assume – people bring their own preferences and experiences and the facilitator’s job is to find the right mix of face to face and virtual as well as synchronous (‘at the same time’) and asynchronous (‘at different times’) activities.

2014 was the year of the ‘chocolate conversation’. Our company, Wilson Sherriff, working in collaboration with our partners Formapart, facilitated a series of learning events for a UN agency bringing together participants from around the word. We worked in three languages and created an interactive experience. The ‘chocolate conversation’ took place as we were welcoming participants to join the discussion using a virtual meeting platform. Suddenly the conversation among people from the Caribbean, eastern Europe, North America and Africa took off in a comparison of favourite types of chocolate. For a moment we forgot about the barriers of internet connections and session design and united around a simple human pleasure. From that I learned the value of warmth, hosting, making people feel valued and finding common connections to encourage involvement.

In 2016, the day before the UK voted for Brexit, I was in Paris having lunch with our Formapart colleagues. I confidently assured them that the British would not vote to leave the EU which goes down with a number of my other unreliable predictions. Our discussion that day was about working together to scope and design an approach to virtual facilitation and my fellow facilitator Jean Arifon and I spent three years making it happen, culminating in joint projects with clients in England and France. We spent a lot of time discussing the perfect technology, the perfect platform, and even thought about inventing our own. But just as people putting on face to face events want to use their own meeting rooms, so people want to use what’s familiar whether that’s Webex, Zoom, Teams, Adobe Connect or GoToMeeting. Every platform has its pros and cons, but working with what people know reduces the time and trouble taken to get to know something new.   It’s not about the platform – go where people are.

In 2018 we ran a virtual facilitation training session for participants from two not for profit organisations, one working with deprived people in the UK and one with children and families internationally. It was one of those moments where group members riff off each other and the conversation heads in new directions. This discussion showcased the tremendous potential for virtual working to include people who are often excluded – those with mobility problems, caring responsibilities, geographically isolated. Too often we are stuck in a deficit model of how difficult it is to work online and the barriers to participation (all of which can be true), but virtual also offers the possibility of becoming more inclusive. Facilitators can help this by considering the needs of different groups and making sure that virtual facilitation practice opens up opportunities for everyone to participate.

This year, 2020, of course, it’s coronavirus.   With great speed, worldwide people have started talking about remote working and online meetings. We’re linking up with clients and other facilitators to share our experience and repurpose meetings for the virtual environment. For years, we’d focused on the trio of benefits from virtual meetings – they save time, money and carbon. But whatever the reason, people want human connection virtually as much as face to face. The challenge remains to ensure that virtual meetings offer the best experience, and that’s the facilitator’s job.