Virtual facilitation: A few gems

Over the last few weeks, virtual facilitation has become a fairly important string to have in your professional bow. Not just for those working in consulting or learning roles, but for any leader needing to engage groups of people over video conferencing.

Most people have led or participated in virtual sessions in the past, but usually there was some level of choice behind it. Can the outcomes be achieved virtually? What will be lost or gained through virtual delivery? How much participation is required? Does the topic or content lend itself to a webinar or virtual workshop? For the time being, virtual facilitation is no longer an option but a necessity.

Those stepping into the role of ‘virtual facilitator’ are needing to rethink how they engage teams and audiences, deliver their message, generate interaction and deliver outcomes through virtual tools.

Werkling recently brought together a group of exceptional facilitators for a short, sharp Peer Learning Session. Challenges around participation, participant experience and participant interaction were flagged, and a heap of practical tips were shared.

Here are a few gems you might find useful.

Move it: Create moments where participants can exercise their mind and body. This might involve some exercises to stretch out our poor hunched over necks, a couple of yoga poses or some breathing exercises.

Chat room: Use your video conferencing tool’s chat function to provide alternate pathways for participation. Constant use of the chat function can start to mimic the interaction that you would otherwise have in a face-to-face environment. It is also perfect for those who are not as comfortable speaking up in a virtual setting.

Add a bit of fun: A random name generator can be a good way to mix it up and call on different participants. This works well for smaller groups and we quite like Be kind and give people a pass option if you are firing a tricky question at them!

Set the tone: Icebreakers can get a little cringey at the best of times but do get people chatting and in the right headspace. If you have time, and the group isn’t too big, whip around for introductions or do a fun activity at the start of the session. You might ask participants to select and share something within arms reach that makes them smile. Alternatively, pose a light question like ‘if you had to live off one food for the rest of this isolation period, what would it be?” or do something random like invite them to each provide a peak at their shoes (or, let’s be honest, slippers).

Brainstormin’ normin’: Brainstorming was often one of those things that fell into the “better in person” category. There are heaps of different tools out there to help run a super interactive ideation session. We used in the session but the gang shared that and (which has a plug-in to Microsoft Team) are also good tools.

Juggle screens: Roping in a co-facilitator is ideal but not always viable from a resourcing and cost perspective. Where co-facilitation is an option, get them on ‘chat duty’ and ask your buddy to drive the conversation. If you are using a couple of ‘off platform’ tools, ask them to take the lead, sharing their screen for those moments. A different voice and a different face can also help break it up. If you don’t have a co-facilitator, preparation is key. Close all applications and windows that you don’t need during the session.

Tech fails: When the tech is letting you down or you have got yourself into a pickle, give yourself permission to call a mini-break. Invite people to hop up, stretch their legs, do a lap of the house and fill their water bottles while you sort your s*** out. It happens.

Video etiquette: It is cool to ask everyone to turn their videos on? Our take is that if it’s normally a face-to-face session in the “real world”, it’s ok to politely ask that everyone has their video on. ‘Video on, mute on’ is a pretty good ground rule. If it’s a less interactive session like a training session or webinar, you can give people more of a choice. On when a participant navigates away from the video call, their picture disappears… a sure fire (and highly visible) sign that you’ve lost someone to their emails.

Break it out: Most of the popular video conferencing platforms have a breakout room feature. They are the best! It is the one element of virtual facilitation that is easier than in-person facilitation. Consider how you can get templates in the hands of breakout groups and how they can share with the broader group when they come back together. Google docs can work or a pre-distributed template that groups can complete and share on their screen is another option.

Live polling: Tools like and work so well in physical workshops and just as well virtually. Sprinkling a few live polls throughout your session can help to mix it up, start a discussion or have a bit of fun.

Extend the session: Slack is a great channel to connect people after a session and extend the experience. This might involve creating a gratitude channel, a channel for sharing reflections or commitments, or channel for people to coordinate smaller follow-up sessions.

Acknowledge the mayhem: While we are in the depths of COVID-19, understand that some participants are likely to have kids at home with them. A question like ‘How much space do you have to participate? can work really well. Make it ok for kids (and animals!) to pop in and out of the screen, and show your understanding that levels of participation might vary at times.

So there you go! A few hot tips from Werkling.

Thanks to Claire Gray, Wendy Hanrahan, Alice Westmore (South East Water), Sean McGinn, Adrian Medhurst, Viren Thakrar, Robyn Lambropoulos (MYOB) and Toni Jones for your input.

Got some tips to add to the list? Pop them in the comments below.