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Transitioning to Virtual Facilitation: Five Key Considerations

By Lilac Kordansky and Janet Szumal, PhD

As the world transitions in and out of what some call the “World’s Largest Work-from-Home Experiment”, many of our Global Change Circle (GCC) practitioners are exploring how to put their best virtual foot forward; reflecting on key lessons learned, planning for the future, and pivoting onward. A common theme expressed across consultants and coaches, and one that our organization has experienced first-hand, involves how to transfer the interactivity, connection and engagement of a face-to-face learning environment to a digital platform with shared screens and “gallery views” of participants. Neither of us is an expert in remote facilitation, so we leaned into our curiosity and gathered key learnings, insights, and tips to share with you.

virtual facilitation

We interviewed three colleagues who have been directly involved with transitioning Human Synergistics’ in-person workshops (around, for example, the Life Styles Inventory and Leadership/Impact® 360-feedback assessments) to synchronous, online events—where instructors and participants attend at the same time but from different locations utilizing digital or computer-mediated technology. We also interviewed an external learning specialist with expertise in designing virtual, live, and blended professional development programs and an adjunct professor who has taught online courses for the past several years. In addition, we searched online for suggestions offered by specialists in eLearning and virtual learning. We discovered that the key issues identified by these experts were surprisingly consistent and, in many cases, reminiscent of in-person facilitation best practices.

The tips that our interviewees offered focused on five key areas that addressed both the people and task sides of virtual learning.

Five Key Areas

People

Task

• Managing Yourself

• Transitioning Your Program Design

• Preparing Your Participants

• Managing Unexpected Events

• Engaging Participants

 

 

The suggestions offered are not meant to constitute a comprehensive list nor are these five key areas the only factors to consider when transitioning from in-person facilitation to a virtual environment. Given that programs, audiences, and circumstance differ, you may find certain tips more relevant than others. Our objectives in sharing these are to bring attention to common issues and challenges, to provide some ideas for approaching them, and to stimulate further conversation and exchange on this topic.

Managing Yourself

First, it quickly became clear from everyone we interviewed that if there were ever a time to develop a Constructive mindset, this is it! From program design onward, the value of maintaining positive attitudes and engaging in Constructive behaviors is paramount. Specific suggestions and the Constructive thinking behavioral styles they reflect (in parentheses), include:

  • Maximize collaboration (Affiliative). Workshop facilitator Mary Kay Hughes emphasizes the importance of teamwork to successful programs. Importantly, this underscores the value of having a teaching partner or a “producer.” They can provide invaluable support by, for example: a) helping participants as well as the facilitator with technological issues, b) monitoring in-meeting chat messages, c) assisting with unexpected events, d) co-facilitating , and e) sharing ideas in planning, designing, and improving the program.
  • Be adaptable, flexible, understanding, and patient (Achievement, Self-Actualizing, and Humanistic-Encouraging). Technological issues along with other kinds of unexpected interruptions will inevitably come up, particularly when participants are working from home.In addition, some participants may find certain aspects of the program—such as features of the technology, the use of video, and the material being covered—to be new or challenging. Be prepared to help them adapt and adjust, and to be patient in doing so. In addition, have a plan for how to bring up to speed any participants who miss certain segments due to technological issues or interruptions.
  • Use your offline time to rejuvenate and rest (Self-Actualizing). Roxanne Ray, who facilitates and designs Human Synergistics’ online workshops, says that remote teaching can be even more demanding than F2F (face-to-face), partly because instructors must constantly use their senses and remain attentive to every nuance. She suggests keeping your energy high via physical exercise rather than relying on caffeine, so as not to set yourself up for a “crash and burn.” When possible, take breaks outside so you can get some fresh air, a fresh perspective, and reset and recharge your brain. This is especially important given the marked increase in online learning programs running 7+ hours since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Manage personal styles and habits (Achievement and Affiliative). Specific tips from our interviewees include speaking with precision and making room for natural pauses. Keep the camera at eye level and look at it, to convey that you are looking at participants. Similarly, avoid getting too close to the camera and watch any tendencies to squint or look down. If you tend to use filler words (“so,” “like,” and “um”), try some techniques offered by consultant Deborah Grayson Riegel to break the habit.
  • Connect with people the same as you would if they were in person (Affiliative). Learning specialist, Jennifer Kern, notes that in a F2F setting you would likely welcome participants by name, would let them speak, and would use humor. All the things you do in F2F setting are just as important to connect with participants and make them feel welcome and comfortable in a virtual setting.

Preparing Your Participants

Communication is key in ensuring that participants have what they need and can do what they need to in order to have a successful learning experience. Examples of tips for preparing participants include:

  • Send information for accessing workshop sessions, videos, and online materials prior to the session. As Dr. Cheryl Boglarsky, who teaches online graduate and undergraduate classes, noted, facilitators should make things as easy as possible for participants. Ideally, “nothing should be more than two clicks.”
  • Communicate the technology requirements in advance. Include instructions for how to use backgrounds for those who wish to maintain privacy when using the video.
  • Send any physical workshop materials in advance. Then, during the presentation, be sure participants can see what it is you want them to refer to or find by holding it up or putting a picture of it on a slide.
  • Communicate expectations prior to the session, at the start of the session, or both. The slide below shows an example of what our facilitators use at the beginning of workshops.

virtual workshop tips

  • Foster an “Out-of-Office mindset” by encouraging participants to turn off email notifications and to use breaks to step away from their screens and to go outside.
  • Recognize that being on camera can be uncomfortable for some people. Thus, if you plan to use video, let people know in advance and highlight the value of video conferencing for non-verbal cues and connection. Remain forgiving if technological challenges arise or if individuals opt to remain off camera.

Engaging Participants

“People learn more when they pay attention and when they can blend their own ideas with new ideas,” says Kern. “The more they can interact, the more engaged they will be, and the more they will retain from the session.” Below are the tips and key learnings from our interviewees regarding increasing and maintaining engagement.

  • Encourage using video, either at certain points in time or throughout to help people to connect with one another, bond, and stay present. Another way this helps with maintaining engagement is that it allows facilitators to see and respond to non-verbal cues. For instance, in a recent remote workshop that our colleague, Mary McCullock, was facilitating, a participant crossed her arms and pulled back in her chair in disagreement with an answer that McCullock gave to a question. Had McCullock not seen the reaction, she probably would have just moved on, inadvertently leaving the participant behind. However, because McCullock could see the reaction, she was able to respond to and address the concern—which kept the participant engaged and fully a part of the discussion. On the other hand, video requires more bandwidth as well as a camera—and therefore there may be times when the video is not an option for people. Thus, flexibility, adaptability, and contingency planning remain important.
  • Use an ice breaker at the beginning of your session to get the group actively engaged and to establish rapport and psychological safety. For instance, you can start with a question about an experience that participants have had related to the session topic. An example is a recent workshop which opened with “What have you learned during Covid-19 around personal adaptability?” Another approach is to use a team-building exercise, such as the newly released digital version of the Subarctic Survival Situation, which can be used to establish unity in new or intact groups, teach participants about synergy and effective group problem solving, and promote Constructive behaviors (see video). The important thing is to choose something relevant that will allow participants to interact with one another and will set the right tone for your session.
  • Use a variety of interaction activities and tools. For example, you can use polls, chats, group exercises and breakouts, discussion questions, and screen mark-up or annotation tools. The more you can vary the activities and tools you use—and incorporate or build on participants’ responses—the more interesting and engaging your session.
  • Provide breaks away from the computer. Breaks are especially important when sessions are longer than 2 hours. Honor scheduled breaks and strongly encourage everyone (including facilitators) to get away from their computers, walk around, and move. In addition, be prepared to add breaks if requested by participants or when visual cues are obvious.
  • Encourage participants to ask questions live, just like they would in a F2F session, rather than use chat which can become a distraction when its used for side conversations.

Transitioning Your Program Design

  • Start with the learning objectives. A clear statement of what participants should understand, know, or be able to do as a result of the program will guide you in determining the best approach for achieving each of the desired outcomes, notes virtual learning author and consultant Cindy Huggett. For example, for content-rich components you might have participants read an article or watch a video or webinar on their own. If collaboration is important to achieving the outcome, you might bring participants together for a large group discussion or break them into small groups for a problem-solving activity. Developmental outcomes that requires personalization via coaching and mentoring could be done one-on-one online, on the phone, or, when feasible, in person.
  • Consider cutting the length of the session. Kern points out that it’s difficult for most people to sit and interact via a computer monitor beyond 60- to 90-minutes and still stay engaged. Thus, consider breaking longer sessions into smaller parts, switching the format of certain portions, or adding pre-work. Kern also suggests exploring the “flipped classroom” approach, a learner-centered instruction model in which participants essentially do the bulk of the learning asynchronously. That is, they read certain materials, watch videos or webinars, or complete other activities on their own (at different times and from different locations) and then come together for the interaction, social learning, peer engagement, and discussion of how to apply what they learned.
  • Determine right size for your program. Although webinars and webcasts can effectively accommodate large numbers of people, interactive instructor-led virtual sessions should be the same size or smaller than your F2F sessions, particularly if you want to maintain high levels of participant engagement. Some experts suggest 20 to 25 participants, though the limits can vary depending on the level of learning and the complexity of thinking required.Nevertheless, when groups are too large, there is a tendency for some people to dominate while others hide or stop participating. If the group is too small, it can become more like a one-on-one session. Thus, rather than starting with a higher cap than that for your F2F workshops, synchronous training author and president of InSync Training, Jennifer Hofmann recommends setting your initial limit at the same or lower level and modify from there based on what you learn.

online virtual learning

  • Get comfortable with your platform’s interaction tools. Different platforms incorporate different tools, so take time to familiarize yourself with what’s available on your chosen platform, practice using the tools, and incorporate those that are appropriate for your learning objectives and content. Most platforms offer free videos, articles, or other support materials, so visit their websites to learn about the tools that are available.
  • Determine how you will introduce and fill lag time during chats or polls.For example, you can start with “In just a few moments I will be asking you to share your thoughts on XYZ using the chat, so take a moment to find and turn on the chat feature.” This gives people the heads up on what you are going to have them do and, if you specify where to look on the screen, helps novices to prepare. You can then say, “Go ahead and type in your thoughts on XYZ in the chat box now.” Some participants will take longer than others. Thus, after a pause, you might elect to say “While you are entering your thoughts, I will read a few of the comments that have already come in.” Your producer or co-facilitator can let you know when comments are available or, alternatively, he or she can read the comments as they come in or show them on the screen (if that functionality is available). This process and the timing become more comfortable and less intrusive after some practice, which leads to the next tip.
  • Do a dry run of your session using the platform you’ve selected. Rather than trying to “wing it,” Kern recommends running through your session with your producer or co-facilitator to work through the nuts and bolts of delivering it. This includes having your co-facilitator type in chats or vote on polls after you launch them to spot lag times, figure out what to say, and practice filling them.
  • Make reflection and improvement part of your plan. “Remote learning is part planning and part improvement,” says Ray. Her colleagues agree and suggest planning a debrief and reflection with your team at the end of each day of your program. In addition, review the feedback from participants with your team and use the insights you gain to make improvements.

Managing Unexpected Events

As mentioned earlier, unexpected events can happen with even greater frequency in remote settings than when everyone is in a classroom or conference room. Many of the tips for managing yourself, transitioning your program design, and preparing participants will help to minimize the frequency of unexpected events and the severity of their impact on your workshop. Particularly important with respect to managing unexpected events are:

  • Have a teaching partner, co-facilitator, or producer who can step in and help when unexpected events happen.
  • Practice with the platform that you will be using so that you are comfortable with it.
  • Do a dry run of your program with your partner, which will help you to identify and work out potential problems and points of confusion.
  • Consider having a backup internet connection, such as a mobile hotspot or mobile phone with tethering option.
  • Have a contingency plan for missed content and how to catch up if someone is late or has a technological or other kind of issue. Record your session when possible.
  • Prepare participants by communicating with them in advance and providing them with all the information they need to successfully participate and learn.
  • Manage yourself, making space for adaptability and forgiveness. Remain patient with technology and set a welcoming tone for those that may get kicked off (you will want the same acceptance if you get kicked off)!

Although virtual facilitation may pose certain challenges, a digital structure also offers many advantages. As we collectively gain more experience with such workshops and events, we will no doubt discover many more ways to foster connection, engagement, and learning in a virtual environment. Our hope is that the insights shared here will provide you with ideas for designing and delivering engaging learning programs even when you and your participants are geographically dispersed.

We extend our thanks to our interviewees:

Dr. Cheryl Boglarsky, adjunct professor at Capella University (which delivers most of its education online) and University of Detroit (which had to transition its classes to online when shelter-in-place orders were issued and COVID-19 interaction restrictions went into effect).

Mary Kay Hughes, Human Synergistics’ workshop facilitator who recently transitioned from conducting live to virtual workshops when COVID-19 travel and interaction restrictions went into effect.

Jennifer Kern, program design manager at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management with expertise in designing virtual, live, and blended professional learning and development programs.

Mary McCullock, Human Synergistics’ workshop facilitator who recently transitioned from conducting live to virtual workshops when COVID-19 travel and interaction restrictions went into effect.

Roxanne Ray, Human Synergistics’ Director of Professional Services and facilitator, who adapted a live training session to a remote session after getting trapped in NJ during a snowstorm. This brief experience set her up to pivot quickly when first a larger in-person workshop was threatened due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, and then again as shelter-in-place orders made it necessary to move other Human Synergistics workshops to a remote model.

 

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