What we’ve learned in the shift to facilitating online

May 8, 2020

It’s been a huge few months. As the COVID-19 pandemic descended, businesses all over the world were thrown a collective curveball and forced to rapidly adapt to a very new way of working. At Skills of the Modern Age (like many other organisations) a large part of our core business was facilitating workshops and training in the real world, and we’ve had to quickly shift to bringing people together in virtual spaces instead.

Over the past 6 weeks, we’ve had over 500 participants through our online workshops, including more than 150 fellow facilitators, designers and learners keen to share their insights about facilitating learning online. In this post, we’ve gathered our key learning from these sessions, sharing our own top tips as well as the wisdom our community have shared with us.

Our learning and facilitation community joined us for a series of awesome sharing sessions.
Our learning and facilitation community joined us for a series of awesome sharing sessions.

Tip #1: Embrace the human side

Right now we’re living through a global pandemic, which came hot on the heels of a devastating bushfire season across the country. It’s been a stressful year! And whether we like it or not, people carry their emotional responses to these times with them into our online sessions. When we invite people to show up as their whole selves, rather than the censored workplace versions they think they need to present, everyone is much more likely to have an enjoyable and productive workshop.

This tip applies beyond times of crisis, too. In online spaces, social connection is filtered through a grid of different screens, an awkward dance of mute buttons, and an inevitable series of internet issues. If we’re not careful, our sessions can become stilted and impersonal — which is why we need to be more deliberate than ever about engaging and connecting our participants on a deeper human level.

How you can embrace the human side of facilitation:

  • Give people a chance to check in: invite them to think about how they’re going, and how that could affect the way they’re showing up.
  • Bring feelings into the room: acknowledge that these are weird and often stressful times. Talking about how you’ve been feeling helps to normalise it.
  • Use breakout rooms to create small groups early on in the session. This gives people a chance to connect without having to share with a big group.
  • Don’t forget that people have bodies! Have them stand up, invite them to move or stretch, encourage them to have a drink or make tea during breaks.
  • Music is a great way to help people relax and connect. Choose something fun, and play it as people first join or as they come back from breakout rooms.
  • Don’t forget to be your light, friendly, human self. Make jokes, ask questions you’re genuinely curious about, and try to have some fun!
Group of people standing up, chatting over coffee
Don’t forget to bring personal connections and a sense of fun with you into online sessions!

Broad tip #2: Engagement starts with empathy

Let’s face it: screen fatigue is real. We’re all spending a lot more time in video calls than ever before, and it can be exhausting. The good news is, remote sessions can be engaging, energising and even inspiring, as long as you’re willing to do the work of empathising with your participants.

Empathy is crucial to any design process, as it helps you to focus on the needs and desires of the people you’re designing for. Anytime you’re designing an online workshop (but especially at a time like this), you need to communicate a clear value proposition to gain people’s buy-in, and keep them on board with engaging and meaningful activities. If your attendees are clear on the objective and can see how your session will get them there, they’ll start to take responsibility for their own engagement.

How you can harness empathy to increase engagement:

  • Be clear in your communications about why you’re running a session, and the pain and gain points at stake for participants.
  • Establish a clear objective, plan, and timeline from the start. No-ones likes to be in a session with no agenda and no direction.
  • Have plenty of activities, and vary the activity type: individual/group; writing/talking/drawing/listening; divergent/convergent, and so on.
  • Use breakout rooms to create small groups: in a group of 3 or 4, people are more likely to feel a sense of responsibility to participate and contribute.

Around 90 minutes is usually a good length for a session — anything longer and you definitely need to include generous breaks.

A few of the facilitation tools we’ve been experimenting with — see the library linked below for more!
A few of the facilitation tools we’ve been experimenting with — see the library linked below for more!

Broad tip #3: Focus on process over tools.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few months about which tools people are using for remote facilitation — we’ve even curated our own library of tools and resources to help you adapt to working online. But the mistake we’re seeing is that facilitators start to focus too much on their tools, and not enough on designing powerful processes to guide participants through.

We believe process design is the most crucial part of facilitation — most of what determines your success happens well before a session gets started. Understanding the needs of your participants, crafting an overall narrative for your workshop, and deliberately choosing activities to bring that narrative to life are essential skills for facilitators, and too often forgotten in the online world.

How you can better balance tools with process:

📈 Take the time to craft the narrative of your session. What journey are you taking people on, and how will they have changed by the end?
🔗 Be sure to link each activity to the narrative of the session, so that participants can see how they’re progressing.
📌 Choose your tools deliberately to help you achieve your goals — and remember that sometimes a low-tech solution is the best solution.
🚩 Give people a heads up about what tools and technology you’ll be using with them, so they can get familiar ahead of time.
🔑 Send people logins and instructions ahead of time to make sure they have all the information they need.
👋 Demonstrate (using screen sharing) how to use any new tools or technology before you invite participants to do it.

These times have been tough for many people, but they’re also bringing out the best in us as we face up to the big challenges ahead. We’ve seen organisations turning around creative and collaborative solutions to tricky problems in no time — and we’ve seen our own learning and facilitation community come together to support each other and share what they know and what they’re experimenting with.

We hope this post will help you feel more confident in designing and facilitating your own sessions online. If you feel the need for more guidance, we’re offering our experience in online learning to help you with content design and facilitation — just get in touch and and we’d love to chat about what you need.

We’d also recommend checking out our online Facilitating Innovation bootcamp on Wed 9th September, and our other upcoming workshops, to help you boost your skills and confidence.

Onwards and upwards!

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