The pandemic didn’t create remote facilitation, but it did accelerate it from an emerging trend to a new necessity as offices closed, classrooms moved online, and in-person meetings were replaced with digital alternatives. The shift has occurred at breakneck speed across a huge array of industries, and while the organizations that already had remote policies and processes in place have weathered the storm, the ones that relied strictly on in-office employees have often struggled to make the switch. With significant uncertainty surrounding any possible conclusion to the pandemic, it’s prudent for teams to continue to hone virtual collaboration skills.
According to a survey of IT decision-makers by S&P Global, some 67% of respondents predict that “expanded or universal work from home policies” will continue for the long term or remain in place permanently. The coronavirus catalyst has already spurred technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter to cut back on office leases and implement more permanent remote work arrangements for many of their employees, and BCG’s Workplace of the Future survey indicates that companies foresee an overall workforce that’s 40% remote. To maintain collaboration with experts, end-users, and key stakeholders in this type of virtual environment, remote facilitation will remain essential—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a few obstacles and identify some of the most important steps to prepare for a productive remote facilitation session, whether it’s a board meeting, a community organizing session, a project planning kickoff, or a team brainstorming session.
These 5 Preliminary Steps Will Transform Your Remote Facilitation
As the pandemic continues to impact communities, a dichotomy is emerging between employees who want to return to the office as soon as possible and those who prefer the flexibility of remote work. The same is true for companies, with some maintaining that a virtual workforce is less productive and harder to manage while others seeing organizational benefits, including a 20% reduction in real estate and resource costs, a 10-15% reduction in turnover, and a 40% reduction in absenteeism.
Either way, the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 will continue to provide a strong incentive for companies to invest in improving remote capabilities. According to a survey from global recruiting firm Robert Walters, 52% of employees feel their employers’ existing technological solutions aren’t sufficient for remote work. Still, technology is only part of the picture, and research from Thrive Global revealed that 85% of American employees wanted more help from employers as they transition to a virtual workplace.
Help is necessary because, despite attempts by technology companies to imitate in-person experiences, virtual interactions don’t always come naturally. A lack of visual cues and feedback from the audience can make the issues with bad meetings even worse when conducted remotely. Webinars and video conferences turn into long monologues that are easily tuned out by a distracted audience, and poorly run virtual meetings often end up amplifying a few voices while ignoring the rest. Fortunately, these and other remote collaboration sessions can be improved, and an investment in remote facilitation will continue to provide value long after the pandemic subsides. In our next article, we’ll cover the key points that produce a standout remote facilitation session, but—because we firmly believe the separation is in the preparation—it’s important for moderators to prepare ahead of time by following these five steps.
1. Develop an agenda—then cut it in half
Virtual facilitation has some distinct advantages, but speed isn’t one of them. From explaining how to use a certain tool to ensuring that each participant’s voice is heard, everything takes a little longer that it would in an in-person session. Scientists at Microsoft have found that remote collaboration is also more difficult mentally, and fatigue will begin to affect participants just 30-40 minutes into a virtual meeting. Cutting the agenda in half sounds difficult, but look at it as a powerful means to ensure high quality results instead of an undesirable constraint.
2. Designate one individual to run the session and one to assist
It’s impossible to manage a group effectively while also juggling one-off technical questions and answering chat queries that pop up during the session. There’s nothing wrong with some silence during a remote facilitation session, but participants will lose interest if it’s clear the leader is struggling to keep the session going in the right direction. It is impossible to anticipate every complication, so mitigating them can be as simple as designating a co-facilitator to address questions and issues.
3. Develop pre-work and post-work materials for participants
Recognizing the slower pace of remote facilitation, it’s a good idea to send out some basic materials to participants ahead of time and after the fact. Pre-work materials might include a 10-minute tutorial on a tech tool that participants will use during the session or a worksheet with a few questions that can help jumpstart productive conversation. Send reminders a few days before the session and communicate the value of pre-work to gain buy-in from participants, but don’t count on 100% participation. If less than universal completion will sabotage the session, the activity should probably take place during the event itself.
4. Identify the tools needed for effective collaboration
Even when people were meeting in person, organizations were relying on communication tools such as Slack to keep teams on the same page. With personnel working remotely, video conferencing solutions like Zoom have soared in popularity, but other options offer additional capabilities specific to remote facilitation. MURAL includes a virtual whiteboards and session templates, a voting feature to allow teams to share opinions, and a time-keeping tool to prevent sessions from running over. If the goal of your session is ideation and brainstorming, Miro allows for collaborative mapping and diagramming to create user stories, mood boards, and other useful artifacts. Many tools exist, so do not be afraid to play around with some on your own to find the right platform(s) for your virtual sessions.
5. Do a dry run and test technology before the session
Have one or two colleagues join a video call using the remote facilitation platform and run through the same presentations or collaboration tools that participants will utilize. Open additional tabs and join the session in Private Browsing or Incognito windows to test how much an additional 10 or 20 participants will reduce platform performance. A certain amount of latency may be unavoidable but knowing about it ahead of time will make it easier to plan for a slowdown.
These steps are easy enough to follow—provided they’re happening before the remote facilitation session has begun. Wait until participants have started logging in and it will be almost impossible to recover and lead a productive session. Once these preliminaries are taken care of, it’s time to shift focus to the session itself. Look for our upcoming article offering advice on remote facilitation best practices that will make your virtual meetings, workshops, and gatherings as useful as possible.