What 2020 taught me about online facilitation.

As someone who thrives in a face to face environment, moving to 100% online was a shock to the system, I even said it wasn’t for me! Here’s what made it initially bearable and eventually rewarding for me personally.

When I joined DWP Digital way back in Feb 2020, I wasn’t to know that I would have FIVE WEEKS to experience my new working environment, before we were all thrown into a virtual Groundhog day, where everyone ate banana bread for breakfast and shouted “You’re on mute” at previously sane colleagues on lagging internet connections.

Now we work in digital, we know our way around, we know our mouse from our elbow. However many of us, myself included, operated in a world where collaborative breakout rooms filled with whiteboards and a mountain of post-it notes and markers were necessary for us to do our best work (or so we thought!).

Then suddenly without warning, POOF, they were GONE!

Now we had to find other ways to make it work. Try it, iterate, or move on.

Here are the 5 things 2020 taught me about online facilitation.

If you haven’t heard this phrase at least once in the last year, where have you BEEN!

You Are Not ‘Working From Home’
You’re at home, during a crisis, trying to work.

And it’s totally true. But as true as it is, it’s not exactly helpful.

In the first few weeks, I really missed the tangible things; whiteboards, post-it notes, my drawer full of sticky dots, and more importantly, my multi-coloured Sharpies. I knew already they weren’t what made me good at my job, I knew they had no real effect on the great ideas my teams came up with. But they were my comfort blanket, my safety net and now they were gone.

I worried that I wasn’t as helpful to my team, wasn’t available enough, wasn’t keeping a pace, but after a while, I learnt to let it go. If you can accept that things are different, and maybe a little harder to achieve sometimes, great, it doesn’t make you ineffective, I wish I had accepted that earlier.

A few “swaps” I found useful in the early days

  • “Whiteboards” swap for “online whiteboards” Now this one seems pretty obvious, but I’m not talking about the ones you used for workshops or retros. I’m talking about the ones that developed over time. The ones that maybe have team photos, some team metrics, and maybe just some doodles and embarrassing Christmas party pics. Either way, consider moving these virtually and share with the team. If you’ve never had a “miro party”, now is the time!
  • “water cooler conversations” swap for “Encourage time for social conversations”. You don’t have to have a “no work talk” rule if you don’t want to, sometimes some really valuable points come up in these conversations just by setting time aside for a conversation to develop naturally.

Even when I was in the office I was still using online tools, Jira, Slack, etc. But since WFH I’ve found myself turning to other tools such as Mural, Miro, Menti (and probably a few others beginning with M!). Either way, there’s always a new tool out there to try.

I learnt by doing, and failing, quite early on that just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you have to use it. I started lockdown by trying out lots of different tools to get people interacting and working effectively. But you know what? too many, and it has totally the opposite effect.

Interactions become faceless, communication and the sharing of ideas doesn’t happen organically anymore and people start to disengage with it.

Instead try and use tools sparingly where they add the most value, and where possible include face-to-face video calls into the mix so that people know you and the rest of the team and still there and can look you in the eye.

You wouldn’t facilitate a workshop in the dark room looking like a Crimestoppers silhouette in person, so why do it online?

Whether you’re working at your kitchen table, from the loft, or even from your study (you lucky sods you), I’m going to bet that the lighting isn’t as brilliant as the strobe lighting you loved to hate in your office, mine certainly isn’t. Natural light also can’t be relied upon 365 days of the year to make you visible.

Back in October when I knew I would be facilitating sessions for GovCamp North, I invested in a ring light. Once the domain of influencers and bloggers it seemed like an obvious choice. I realised early on that what I had originally considered a nice to have was essential, and not for the reasons I intended.

By having more light, I felt more awake. Having light meant I was more willing to turn my camera on in meetings. Doing this had an effect I hadn't considered, more people turned their camera’s on too.

In groups we naturally want to conform and fit in so for a few months I always put my camera on, and invariably so did many others. It changed the dynamic of meetings, we saw faces, expressions, and reactions. It wasn’t the same as being in the office, but that small smidgen of social interaction did wonders for all of us. It also made us subconsciously more engaged, people could see if we were bored or not paying attention, no one wants that, so we were more present, and it all started with a light for me.

I’ll be honest, I have let it slip, some days I want a PJ day, and on “Wellness Wednesday” I’m often wearing a facemask, and no one wants THAT facilitating a sprint review! But for the meetings that I can, I will.

Image for post
Image for post
Ready to go for GovCamp North!

Also, if like me you mourn the days you were ID for booze at the supermarket, today is your lucky day because these babies take YEARS off you!…. ok, so it’s a little bit vain…

In-person it’s a lot easier to tell if others are struggling, online it isn’t. There are some “tells” such as people no longer engaging in discussions, turning their cameras off, etc, but for many, you may not notice.

It totally depends on your team or course. But I’ve found that people are more likely to share how they are feeling if they feel safe to do so but also if you ask. In-person I didn’t often ask how people were doing, probably a mistake but we were a mature team, I felt I could tell if anything was a miss. Virtually I find being upfront and explicitly asking the question can often help.

Not everyone took to the digital tools in quite the same way. This was a big consideration we faced when looking at tools to host GovCamp North we wanted things to be as inclusive as possible and not alienate those less “tech-savvy” individuals”. Try and keep things simple to get the best out of everyone, not just those who know their way around the software. And when you can’t, offer up time before and away from others to try out and walk people through the software so they don’t feel like they are holding things up with silly questions on the day.

I firmly believe that an online meeting minute is twice as long as an actual minute, or at least that’s what it feels like. Where you used to be able to command a four-hour-long group workshop you are struggling to hold the attention of the team online for longer than an hour. It’s not you, it’s that pesky “virtual minute”. People aren’t as engaged, they can’t be, sat like you most likely, in the same 4 walls 24/7 with only the cat for company. Initially, I soldiered on, pushing us through long meetings to get stuff done, but ultimately, what was the point? people stopped participating, stopped listening and we didn’t make the best use of the time spent. Things changed when we acknowledged this and made some changes.

  • Split sessions into manageable chunks, accepting that we might only get a third done today, but we could pick it up again tomorrow.
  • Just because a meeting is set for an hour doesn’t mean it can’t stop. If things are lagging mid-meeting, suggest a 5-minute break to give people a chance to reset and re-engage
  • Try something different. It’s not always possible, but when you can, do. It could be anything from something that requires participation from individuals, an ice breaker intro or it could be a themed retro. The subject matter itself may be no different, but by throwing something new into the mix you are adding a splash of colour into what is probably a pretty “grey” meeting-filled day.
A screenshot from my “A Very Merry Christmas Retro”
A screenshot from my “A Very Merry Christmas Retro”
A screenshot from my “The Very Merry Christmas Retro”
  • Start late. I saw lots of suggestions to finish a meeting 5 minutes early to give people a chance to reflect. But honestly, that rarely happened, meetings overrun A LOT. Instead, I loved the suggestion of starting late. start a meeting 5 minutes late, then it always happens. An unexpected consequence of this was people turning up 5 minutes early and having a spontaneous chat, something that we wouldn’t have the calendar space for otherwise.

What about you? I’d love to hear how you are making online facilitation work for you.

Sharon has written some great things on facilitation, including how we found tools for GovCamp North.

https://www.mentimeter.com/ is a great tool for engaging with teams in a different way

Digital northern monkey by day, bookworm and Disney geek by night. Can be found championing #agiledelivery at #DWPdigital

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