Five tips for remote facilitation

This is a rerun of a blog post I wrote a year before I started running training workshops on online facilitation (with the PME Campus, for example). All of what I wrote then is still valid. Since I have promised I would move some posts from my old blog to this new one, here is the post:

Despite the risks and uncertainties associated with independent consulting, I have never felt as privileged as I do now, living in a country with a highly developed, accessible health system, working from my customary home office, and equipped with a decent internet connection and the hardware needed to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. The crisis has been an opportunity to develop my remote facilitation skills. Before, I facilitated the occasional „real-life“ workshop in a conference room with video equipment, with participants in other locations joining us via Skype or the like. I have shared that type of hybrid experience on the Gender and Evaluation community pages. Now I have gone one step further, facilitating fully remote workshops from my home office. I mean interactive workshops with some 5-20 people producing a plan, a strategic review or other joint piece of work together – not webinars or explanatory videos with hundreds of people huddling around a lecturer who dominates the session. To my delight, virtual facilitation has worked out beautifully in the workshops I have run so far. Good preparation is a key element – as in any workshop. I have distilled a few tips from my recent experience and from the participants‘ feedback.

  • Plan thoroughly and modestly. Three to four hours per workshop day is enough – and there is only so much you can do in half a day. Factor in breaks (at least one per hour), time for people to get into and out of virtual breakout rooms, and at least five minutes per workshop hour for any technical glitches.
  • Try to make sure all participants can see each other’s faces. Some videoconferencing platforms allow you to see dozens of participants on the same screen. If you use a platform that shows only a handful of speakers, try to rotate speakers so that everyone can catch a glimpse of every participant. Apparently, recent research shows that remote meetings are more effective if people see each other. Smile! Keep interacting with your webcam and watch participants‘ faces as carefully as you would if you were in a room with them.
  • Pick facilitation tools that match your participants‘ digital skills. I love software that allows everyone to post „virtual“ sticky notes and move them around on a shared whiteboard. But that’ll work only if all (or a critical mass of) participants like experimenting with web-based tools. If many participants are uncomfortable with collaborative web-based visualisation, then you can record key points on the virtual whiteboard (life or between sessions), or ask participants to send their text contributions to you or your co-facilitator to post them on their behalf. The best way to gauge participants‘ readiness is a technical rehearsal well before the workshop (ideally, at least a week earlier).
  • Share a written technical briefing before the workshop. That should include (i) the links and passwords to the conference and the tools, (ii) guidance as to how to maximise data transmission speed – for instance, by using a LAN cable or by switching off WIFI on all non-necessary devices, by temporarily disabling Windows updates, closing all other computer windows etc., (iii) guidance on troubleshooting in case of major technical problems (e.g. alternative dial-in numbers, persons to contact if a participant fails to get back on-line), and possibly (iv) links to a couple of very short (1-2 minute-) tutorials for any software you may use for web-based joint visualisation or other forms of co-creation.
  • Do your homework. And give homework. If the digital tools you’ll use are new to you, try them out with colleagues and friends before the actual workshop. There is a growing body of video tutorials on the sprawling world of virtual collaboration; check out these resources. I also like quick primer for running online events on Better Evaluation which contains plenty of useful links. Before and in-between workshops, invite participants to try out any tools that are new to them, and/or to continue working on the collaborative virtual whiteboard.

It is generally recommended to work as a tandem, with one facilitator running the workshop and the other one looking after the technical aspects. But if you facilitate only one to two three- to four-hour sessions a week and you type really fast, then you can manage on your own. Be prepared, though, to feel totally exhausted after each session!

Take time when preparing (for) evaluations

In 2012, I published a post with the title above on my former blog. And I still see major evaluations with budgets running into hundreds of thousands of euros that come with a four-week inception phase, or that are supposed to start basically the day after the evaluation firm or evaluator has been selected. That is wasteful, because an evaluation that is not tailored to its users‘ needs risks being… useless.

Ideally, one should start planning evaluations right when the project/programme that is supposed to be evaluated starts. Back in 2012, I recommended to start recruiting evaluation teams at least six months ahead of the field work – at that time, the evaluations I had on my mind were evaluations of individual projects run by civil society organisations (CSOs). With anything bigger or more complicated, I’d plea for much, much more time for finding the evaluation team, briefing it and developing a robust evaluation design with instruments that fit their purpose. But the gist of my 2012 blog is still valid – and I had promised to re-publish a few of my earlier posts. Here it is:

There has been an extraordinary flurry of calls for proposals for external evaluations. This is good news; it suggests that people find it important to evaluate their work. But, upon closer examination, you’ll notice that many calls envisage the evaluations to begin just a couple of weeks after the deadline for offers, and to end within a month or so. That is frustrating for experienced consultants, who tend to be fully booked several months ahead. Narrow time-frames may also make it difficult for those who commission the evaluation to identify sufficiently skilled and experienced candidates. If you take evaluation seriously, then surely you want it to be done in the best possible way with the available resources?

Over the years, I have come to appreciate time as a major element of evaluation quality. Most development organisations (not only CSOs) cannot and do not want to afford full-fledged scientific-quality research, which typically involves plenty of people with advanced academic degrees and several years of research. That is perfectly reasonable: if you need to make programme decisions on the basis of evaluations, you can’t afford to wait for years. (The programme would be over, the context would have changed, your organisation would have changed their priorities, to quote but a few likely problems.) But what one can afford – even on a shoestring budget – is to allow plenty of time for thinking and discussing during the preparatory phase of an evaluation. In that way, you can make sure (among other things):

  • the terms of reference (TOR) express exactly what you need
  • the participating organisations are well-prepared and welcoming (which they are more likely to be if the TOR have been worked out with them and take their wishes into account)
  • the evaluation team understands what they are supposed to evaluate
  • the evaluators can reflect on different options, discuss these with key evaluation stakeholders, and let their thoughts mature over a few weeks before deciding on the final design
  • there is enough time to sample sites & projects/components so as to achieve a maximum of representativeness or a good choice of cases – to avoid visiting only what a Chinese expression calls „fields by the road“
  • data collection tools can be pre-tested, adjusted, those collecting the data trained and so forth

Extra time for these activities does not necessarily mean more consulting-days – just spreading out the days budgeted for, and identifying and finding ways of making better use of existing data in the project, can make a big difference.