A real life workshop with a virtual facilitator

A few weeks ago I ended up as the virtual facilitator in a workshop that everybody else attended in ‚real life‘, at a pleasant venue in the countryside – and it worked out nicely! Here is how we went about it. Spoiler: Sunshine and plenty of greenery have played an important part.

The planned workshop was supposed to happen at a lovely place in the countryside, on a sunny late summer day. I was looking forward to enjoying being there, and working with a group of people who had hired me as an external facilitator. Then, two days before the workshop, COVID-19 arrived at my household. I was fine, testing negative, but my client felt it was safer I’d stay away from workshop venue. We had to regroup and reorganise, both on the human and the technical front:

On the human side, I needed a pair of eyes and ears in the room. We appointed a participant who would be my connection to „the room“ (that is how facilitators sometimes call the group they work with). That turned out to be essential, not only because ‚the room‘ was outdoors and all over the place. We agreed that the co-facilitator would devote most of her attention to her co-faciliating role, which involved not only eyes and ears, but also hands-on management of the participants‘ verbal contributions.

At the physical venue, there was something they called a ‚tower‘ – basically, a webcam and a multidirectional microphone on top of a set of speakers. When people took turns speaking, it worked well enough, but I could not see more than a fifth or a quarter of the actual participants. There was also a projector that initally beamed my face onto a videoconference screen – I quickly added an online whiteboard where I summarised key points on virtual post-its (instead of posters in the room).

Most importantly, there was the wonderful countryside outside. It had been my plan to organise plenty of small group work, anyway – so, for most of the day, I invited the participants to wander off in random or purposefully composed duos and trios and quartets to work in the vast outdoor space. During small group work, the co-facilitator would walk around, listen in here and there, and ring me up with information as to how the groups were doing and what subsequent steps would make sense. After each small group session (varying from 15 minutes to an hour or so), the participants came back to the conference room to share key conclusions, which I recorded on the virtual whiteboard, before sending them off again with new small group assignments (in varying groups).

Near the end of the day, there was a strong feeling that one issue needed plenary discussion – again, I decided to relinquish control and make use of the outdoor space. I provided only simple rules for the discussion that would allow every participant to speak up in a calm atmosphere, and asked the co-facilitator to remind participants of the rules if needed. (Hint: I use rules inspired by Nancy Kline’s Time to Think.) After an hour, everybody came back to the webcam, seemingly refreshed – which is extremely unusual for a long workshop day! – and equipped with important insights.

Would I do it again? With a co-facilitator, OK equipment and a pleasant space for the participants, absolutely!