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Here are the 3 key differences in facilitating virtually.

Written by Alain Rabeau

The pandemic has pushed everyone into isolation and forced many of us to work from home.  Virtual collaboration tools from Microsoft Teams to Zoom and everything in between have become the way in which we work with others and stay in touch with friends and family. No doubt many of you have experienced these Internet-Based Video Conferencing (IBVC) services with a mix of amazement and frustration. The amazement of being able to see friends and family as well as being able to work with esteemed colleagues is a true marvel. For me, this awe turns quickly to frustration when the audio becomes a jumble of noise and voices speaking over each other.  Truly – good facilitation is an essential ingredient for those of us using IBVCs.  

The team at the Intersol Group has over 12 years of experience in facilitating in a virtual or blended environment. Over that period, we have developed our own best practices but until now, had not assembled a definitive list.  We understood, early in the pandemic, the need to document and package these best practices intended to educate seasoned facilitators transitioning to a virtual environment. We struck a chord as our “Essentials of Facilitating Online Meetings” quickly sold out.  Now, our latest workshop is about best practices in facilitating virtual meetings. It is not a “how to use [insert IBVC name here]” workshop.  There is an abundance of resources, videos, blogs out there to support that.  

Preparation of this online workshop brought us to the fundamental question: “What’s truly different about facilitating virtually?” Well, in our view, it comes down to three important elements – two of which, that are typically NOT present in a face-to-face environment.     

Element 1 – Design. How a facilitator structures a meeting, typically through the creation of an agenda, is an important consideration to ANY meeting. At the Intersol Group, we use our Strategic Alignment Model© to design along three parameters:  Clarity of Purpose, roadmap for Process and ensuring the inclusion and diversity of People to take part in the meeting.  These three dimensions are important regardless of medium (virtual or physical), however, a virtual environment requires increased preparation – on the part of both the facilitator and participants mostly driven by the technology used. The reality is that technology at times fails or is sub-optimal – and the facilitator must be prepared for many contingencies that are not a concern in a face-to-face environment.  

Element 2 – Participation medium – the Internet-Based Video Conferencing service being used for the meeting. The fact that the facilitator must possess a high degree of proficiency in the IBVC service being used is a quantum difference. It represents a whole new skill set that must become as ubiquitous as building rapport with participants in a face-to-face environment.  Failure to flawlessly leverage Zoom, MS Teams, GoToMeetings, etc. will turn the facilitator as a meeting-enabler, into a meeting-disabler.  Clearly, this is a single point of failure that the facilitator must manage.   

Element 3 – Facilitation / Collaboration Software. Intersol Group Facilitation Principle #7 states:  Make information emerging from the group visible. Whether you are analyzing an issue, making a decision or planning actions, laying relevant information for all participants to see is essential. In a virtual environment, you need tools to do that.  The whiteboard function included in some IBVC is just not up to the task. Ideally, information produced throughout a facilitated session should be easily generated, sorted, and displayed to all those involved. This calls for the use of a second medium – a facilitation or collaboration software.  Fortunately, there are many choices.  The International Association of Facilitators has inventoried over 20. We, at the Intersol Group have been using one specific software for over 12 years and use several others based on the project.   

So, coming back to the original question:  what’s truly different about facilitating virtually?  The fact that facilitators need to leverage new tools – IBVCs and Facilitation / collaboration software – creates additional complexity for both facilitators and participants.  It also increases risks that a meeting can go “sideways”.   

The creation of the “Essentials of Facilitating Online Meetings” course has also encouraged us to rethink our Foundation Course in Group Facilitation.  We are pleased to announce that our flagship course is now ready for the online environment with the first offering in early June. The Virtual Edition of the Foundation Course in Group Facilitation will focus on developing the skills to facilitate a face-to-face setting as well as facilitate in a virtual environment.