The way in which we were thrown into the “new normal” and had to adapt to the virtual world was more brutal to some social activities than others. If we consider workshop facilitation, what to do when you cannot rely on the traditional flipcharts, sticky notes, and active listening strategies? How to go from workshop facilitation to [online] workshop facilitation? If you are facilitating online workshops and wonder about these questions this 2-minute sharing is for you.
What is online workshop facilitation?
Online facilitation takes place when an online facilitator guides a group of people to collaborate remotely within the same digital space, in real-time. It is different from in-person facilitation in many ways, including duration, setting, number of participants, and communication strategies. While the advantages and challenges of online facilitation have been widely discussed, actionable strategies for designing engaging online workshops are only now emerging. Below we have selected our five key strategies for designing and facilitating an engaging online workshop.
5 Strategies to Design and Facilitate an Engaging Online Workshop
1. Limit screen time.
When planning a workshop consider not only the maximum duration of the entire workshop but also the maximum duration of consecutive screen activity. Carefully planned day-long workshops, although exhausting, can work in physical settings where people can walk around and go for a break together, but they are unthinkable for an online setting. After 1 to 2 hours sitting in front of a screen, it becomes extremely hard to resist fatigue and maintain engagement. In any case, depending on how long you design the workshop to be, including a 10-minute break every 30-45 minutes can be extremely valuable to allow participants to stand up and activate themselves, grab a quick drink or bite, and network amongst each other (very important!).
2. Know the online collaboration space.
Test different tools and practice how you would use them for the workshop before the workshop takes place in order to guarantee that you have the most efficient and effective online toolset for the purposes of your online workshop. If participants should have some interaction with the online tools during the workshop, it might be useful to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the workshop to demonstrate the specific features that will be used and to prepare a simple get-to-know or ice-breaking exercise where workshop participants get the change to play with the features and gain confidence with the tools. If participants take a key role in the workshop through the online tools, it might be useful to share an instructional video, create a virtual “sandbox” to allow the opportunity for participants to play with the tools, and invite participants to join 15-30 minutes before the workshop in order to ask questions about the online tools and tackle any technical difficulties.
3. Guarantee alignment through a clear workshop end goal, agenda, and milestones.
Setting clear expectations regarding the end goal of the workshop and the milestones to achieve it through an organized agenda from the beginning is important; however, revisiting these expectations periodically is critical in order to guarantee workshop participants’ alignment and engagement.
In any case, the difficulty to read participants body language poses a significant challenge on agreeing or aligning on key decisions throughout the workshop. When you need to make a decision to move forwards, ensuring that no one is left behind, you might consider using a green-yellow-red status to debrief where each participant stands at each decision point.
- Green: “I am in agreement and comfortable moving forward.”
- Yellow: “I have some hesitations that I would like to discuss before moving forward.”
- Red: “I have serious concerns and I am not comfortable with moving forward right now.”
If more discussion is needed, this should provide an entry point to facilitate a productive conversation.
4. Plan the number of facilitators according to the number of participants.
Workshop facilitation is often compared to the art of improvisation – it’s all about being fluid and adapting to situations on the fly. This can be extremely harder and even disastrous on an online setting. Knowing the number of workshop participants will influence the duration of the workshop, activities planning, and the number of facilitators needed. It is a good idea to close workshop registrations with some time in advance and to mindful about the maximum number of virtual seats available.
5. Guarantee a safe and open environment for a productive and fast-paced conversation flow.
Online workshops are new territory, and everyone is learning together. It is important to acknowledge that different participants will experience different learning curves when using different online tools, but everyone will have a learning curve. Being open with workshop participants about this helps relieve potential pressure and anxiety from all parties. Furthermore, depending on the group-size, breakout sessions might be a useful way to guarantee that everyone has a good chance to contribute and to collect maximum inputs that can later be shared on the main session.
Online workshop facilitation should be approached as a user-centric experience. In a setting that is extremely hard to build trust and common ground, it is important to not only plan what happens before, during, and after the workshop, but how the participants will potentially experience and react to these activities. When designing a memorable online workshop experience that builds a digital community in an extraordinary time and setting, consider the following key questions.
- How will you communicate expectations, preparations, and generate excitement?
- How will you greet and break the ice with participants?
- What will the “joining” moment look like?
- Will you send or share digital or physical artifacts that participants can use moving forward?
- What will takeaways and follow-up look like?
Online workshop facilitation can come across as a nearly impossible and horrifying endeavor. With the right planning, methods, and tools, anyone can design valuable and engaging online workshop experiences.