The COVID pandemic is rapidly forcing change in employment norms while many employees are dealing with large upheavals in other parts of their lives. According to 2018 analysis from Global Workplace Analytics, some 3.6% of US employees, or 5 million employees, were working from home at least half the time. That represents a 173% increase since 2005, but remained a small population nonetheless.
With the arrival of COVID-19, the remote workforce rapidly expanded. Gallup estimates that 62% of American workers have worked from home as some point during the COVID crisis. The transition hasn’t necessarily been an easy one, and 85% of employees want more help from their employers to ease the shift.
Overall, most workers don’t want to stop working remotely any time soon. Gallup research indicates that 59% of employees experiencing remote work during COIVD-19 want to continue telecommuting after restrictions are lifted. A recent Harris Poll Survey commissioned by Microsoft found that 71% of employees and managers expressed a desire to maintain at least some degree of remote work.
As new case numbers drop in major cities around the world, research seems to indicate that industries that can allow for remote work may stay remote, and 82% of managers predict more flexible remote work policies will continue after the pandemic has subsided.
Even for organizations anticipating a day when every single employee can return to the office, it will be important to know how to collaborate effectively in a workforce where virtual interaction is far more common. Our last article looked at ways to prepare for remote group facilitation sessions. This article will examine some of the ways leaders can make remote facilitation sessions more effective during the session itself.
Conducting an Effective Remote Facilitation Session
The pandemic turned lives upside down in countless ways, including having to work remotely. Now, as new case numbers drop in cities around the world and some organizations seem poised to return to business as usual, many of those are advocating for a continuation of remote work at least some of the time. Fortunately for them, management might be ready to listen.
According to a report from research firm Valoir, the abrupt shift to remote work only decreased productivity by 1%. At the same time, there appear to be significant advantages for employees and employers alike.
Among employees, communications agency FleishmanHillard found 85% reported improvements in work/life balance. For employers, Global Workplace Analytics estimates that for companies that can increase productivity slightly when working from home savings could be $11,000 per half-remote worker per year thanks to a reduced need for real estate, improved employee retention, and other factors.
Whether companies choose to realize these advantages in large part remains to be seen, but research from Gartner indicates that 74% of CFOs expect to make some formerly on-site employees remote. As a result, all organizations will need to embrace virtual collaboration techniques and improve their remote facilitation.
Investing in these processes now will pay off whether work returns to its former state or takes another shape entirely. As a facilitator, make each session an opportunity to improve by consistently following these steps.
1. Go over housekeeping items
Embarrassing stories abound from the initial shift to remote interactions. Pets and kids burst in and interrupted virtual meetings, microphones unmuted at inopportune times, and screensharing occasionally showed who was more interested in social media than the session agenda.
By now, most virtual interactions should be going off without a hitch, but it’s still worthwhile to address the basics. A Doodle survey found that 52% of employees were distracted by background noise, so participants should use headphones to avoid microphone feedback and mute when not speaking if the group is around 10 people or larger. As a facilitator you can also mute participants yourself if noise starts to become an issue.
If appropriate, keep cameras on to build connection with participants. Imagine holding a workshop in a windowless conference room and starting things off by turning out the lights!
2. Define a clear goal
Remote facilitation isn’t a webinar, where one person gives a presentation and the rest of the group passively listens. It’s an interactive engagement during which the group works toward a common goal.
Step one (after the housekeeping) is identifying that session goal and making sure the team is on the same page. Nothing is worse than a meeting that leads to yet another meeting, so pinpoint the purpose of the session and reiterate that purpose often to ensure it’s accomplished within the allotted time.
3. Review prework with participants
In our article on remote facilitation preparation, we talked about assigning prework to help participants prepare for a productive workshop.
Prework allows people to come up with ideas without the pressure of an audience and a ticking clock, and it’s a good idea to get a session started off on the right foot. Before diving into detailed responses, quickly review the ideas and context to ensure those who didn’t receive prework or didn’t complete it can still contribute to the session.
4. Allow for pauses and silence
Many facilitators feel the need to fill any silence with something, but your participants still need time to think. Especially in working sessions, if you ask a new question that participants aren’t expecting, they may not be ready to answer immediately.
When facilitators try to drag an answer out of people by providing additional examples or cold calling immediately, people can’t think of their own answer and it takes even longer to get a conversation started.
Time box how long people have to think individually about the question, say 30 seconds or a minute, and then open it up to group conversation.
5. Set a time to debrief the facilitation team and align on next steps
If you are running a workshop with co-facilitators, synthesizing the information from your session is key. With many teams still working remotely full-time, a typical day might involve virtual meetings scheduled one after the other.
If your session facilitators cannot debrief right after the session because of time commitments or because the session itself was pretty long, block out time in the next day for a dedicated debrief.
Dedicated time can keep you focused on the debrief instead of unconsciously shifting over to the next item on their agenda during an ad-hoc reflection. Focus on what went well, what needs improvement, and the biggest takeaways from the session.
These basics are the foundation of a productive remote facilitation session, but that session is just part of a larger project. For workshops, it’s important to supplement virtual facilitation with one-on-one observations and interviews, user-generated artifacts, and synthesis from the design team that’s validated and augmented by stakeholders.
Whether a remote session is an instant success or it misses the mark, take the elements that worked and tweak the ones that didn’t to ensure the next session is always better than the one before it. Mitigating the downsides of a remote session while leveraging the unique benefits will help turn remote facilitation into a useful tool that improves projects long after COVID-related restrictions have eased.