Your workshop just turned virtual. Now what?


Everyone is working from home, and you have an important working session coming up. You would normally spend half a day or more with the team in a conference room. That’s no longer possible. What’s your first step?

If you’re like many of us, you’re adept at videoconferencing, but facilitating a virtual working session has never been necessary. Having just spent the last four weeks successfully facilitating multi-day working sessions and a team retreat, I offer a few tips and learnings:

1.  Prepare!

While “winging it” may have been possible in person, preparation is critical for a virtual session.

  • Be crystal clear about the outcomes you want. What must occur for you to call the session a success? What tangible outputs or activities are required?
  • Identify the information participants need in advance to be effective. If the session includes setting strategy and making decisions, create a pre-read with the relevant data, or hold an orientation. Consider the audience—are these seasoned executives familiar with both process and context? Would they benefit from setting the stage ahead of time?
  • Know your participants. As always, you’ll want to understand their roles, mindsets, and perspectives going into the session. Without the opportunity to hear their latest thoughts at a dinner or pre-session breakfast, you may need a quick 1:1. Have a few open-ended questions ready, to elicit those perspectives.
  • Plan the session carefully. Most virtual sessions are of shorter duration than in person. What structure will you use to keep things lively and engaging? Be creative, try unique exercises. Map out your plan and timing, aiming for a high energy exercise right at the start, and allow for ample breaks throughout to stretch and refresh. 

2.  Session GO!

  • Video should be on for all participants, absent technical issues. Seeing ourselves can be distracting, but facial expressions and other nonverbal cues are vital if the session requires teamwork, collaboration, or challenging conversations.
  • Build your facilitation skills to engage the audience. Vary your tone, volume, cadence, use of questions, etc.—all the skills. Switch views from presentation, to video, to virtual whiteboard. Use breakout rooms for larger groups. Pause the audience on each key point or agreement, and ensure it lands before moving on. 
  • Practice your technical juggling. If you’re using a new technology, practice ahead of time. And when the technical glitch happens (because it will), don’t dwell on it or over-apologize. Move on to your back-up plan. Everyone understands, and if you stay calm, so will they. 
  • Periodically stop screensharing so participants can more easily see each other. That ability to have a “face to face” conversation is particularly important when making decisions or challenging behaviors in a team. You’ll also see clues to engagement, allowing you to smoothly adjust your approach, redirect any multi-taskers distracted by their phones, or time the next break. 
  • Manage the energy in the virtual room. As in person, use your own energy to manage the session. Discussion lagging? Infuse the conversation with a burst of high energy and a fast-paced exercise. Do participants need an unscheduled break? Give them a chance to chat with each other, grab a snack, check on things offline. Did brainstorming falter? Have them step away from the computer and walk for a few minutes. Is the team avoiding a challenging conversation about a difficult subject? Concerns and emotions may come up in different ways when a team meets virtually. Watch for them. Think about how you can use your voice, facial expressions, and energy to bring everyone to a safe place of calm thoughtfulness and personal accountability. 
  • Allow space for reflection. Make time for participants to reflect upon key moments—sharing their perspectives on what just happened, their observations, and key takeaways. Reflection is critical to turn the experience into learnings.

3.  Stick The Landing.

Embed the learnings and get traction on action items quickly, to make the experience meaningful and the results tangible. During the session, identify quick wins. Use project management techniques to ensure ownership of action items and next steps. And use visual cues (e.g. virtual whiteboard) to capture recognizable moments from the session, to send out with next steps.  

4.  Be Resilient.

There will be surprises. Unexpected conversations, unavoidable distractions, difficult interactions, unanticipated results. Your job as virtual facilitator is to stay calm, be thoughtful, and know that you can guide the team to a solution. They will look to you for guidance. Stay in the moment. Perhaps, based on your experience level and comfort with the team and content, you know exactly how to proceed. Great. If you don’t, take a breath and relax. It’s perfectly okay to crowdsource the next steps. Ask the team where they’d like to go next with this new information, this unexpected occurrence. This can be a fantastic opportunity to allow participants to engage on a deeper level. 

Remember, as a facilitator, you aren’t expected to have all the answers. And you may stumble here and there, as you get used to working the virtual room. That’s okay. The important part is what you do next. Acknowledge the stumble briefly and get participants back on track by reviewing your progress toward the session objectives. This refocuses the team on achieving its important goals and will build your confidence for future virtual sessions. 

This blog was written by Tracy Colahan, leader of Customer Engagements and Strategic Programs here at Action for Results.

Tracy brings over 28 years of expertise in life sciences, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, combination products, and in vitro diagnostics, and has worked for companies such as Allergan and Johnson & Johnson. Prior to consulting, Tracy held a number of senior management positions encompassing global project and portfolio management, R&D finance, business development and strategic planning.

You can connect with Tracy on Linkedin.

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Facilitating Virtually

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