The facilitator's guide to the remote world.

The three reasons remote workshops don't feel the same as in-person and nine tactics to overcome them.

We need rich social experiences that connect us — now more than ever.  With the new socially-distanced normal, however, these crucial moments of togetherness are being Zoomified. 

Throughout a day,  we may have several Zoom meetings and conference calls, and then after work attend a Zoom yoga class or dinner party. There's no denying the convenience of staying in your pyjamas all day; yet, we're beginning to fully appreciate how these remote gatherings lack the same electricity as their IRL versions.

Although we'll eventually get out of these "unprecedented" times, it looks like remote work is here to stay. Companies such as Shopify, Twitter, and Facebook have announced the move to a remote-first model, declaring the age of office centricity over!   

One thing is clear: individuals and organizations will need to become a lot better at facilitating compelling virtual experiences that leave us feeling energized rather than Zoom-fatigued. 

We'll never be able to completely replicate the interaction, camaraderie, and serendipity of an in-person meeting, but what can we do to narrow that gap? Let's explore the top three obstacles to creating dynamic remote experiences and how you can overcome them. 

Hurdle #1 - Video flattens communication 

You lose a lot when your meeting is hosted over video. There is no avoiding it. Small, subtle forms of communication like slight intonations, social cues, and body language don't translate well through the medium. The outcome is communication that feels boring, flat, and impersonal. 

This flattening of dialogue not only makes for less engaging experiences,; it also has negative  social impacts. Consider this: a German study showed that delays of 1.2 seconds on conferencing systems made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused. 

A major reason why we feel so tired after an hour-long call is because of this flattening effect. People seeking to understand one another have to dedicate an inordinate amount of effort to both expressing themselves and actively listening.

What are we to do with this significant obstacle? Here are our top five tactics. 

Tactics 

Overexaggerate your communication.
When speaking, pretend you're reading a book to an 8-year-old and differentiate your inflections and body gestures considerably. It may feel ridiculous at first, but it will make you much more engaging. 

Take advantage of the medium. 
One advantage of conferencing platforms is the ease with which we can share different content. Try elegantly incorporating different media types like slides, videos, and sound effects for a more varied experience. The variety will capture your group's attention and convey your message more effectively. 
Another way you can take advantage of the medium is by developing your own visual cues system. For example, raising one finger can mean “I agree”, two fingers indicate “I disagree”, and three fingers for “I don't know”. These visual language can be a very effective tool to conduct pulse checks and determine whether you’ve reached a consensus.

K.I.S.S. - Keep it short, stupid
Zoom fatigue is real. If we have to work twice as hard to communicate, a two-hour zoom call can feel comparable to a half-day in-person meeting. Whatever you're trying to do, try and keep your sessions as short as possible. When feasible, break up longer meetings into shorter ones. For instance, if you're a training consultant that delivers one-day retreats, consider breaking it up into four two-hour workshops held throughout the week. 

If the primary reason you're hopping onto a video call is to deliver information to a group of people, you might want to reconsider. There are far more efficient ways to do this that also respect your group's potential Zoom burnout. 
Consider sharing content asynchronously through a wiki, email, or video, and even scheduling a quick follow-up session to cover any items that require collaboration or clarification. This blended approach can drastically cut down on the amount of time needed together. 

Hurdle # 2 - Social Loafing

When people come together to work, a sneaky phenomenon called social loafing can emerge. Put in simple language, social loafing is the tendency of people in groups to put in less effort on a task than if they were individually responsible. This effect is only exacerbated in remote settings because when people feel like they aren't physically present, they can also mentally check-out.

We've all experienced this. Maybe you've been on a webinar and decided to turn off your camera, instead opting to play with your dog or get some dishes done. It’s easy to see how social loafing quickly turns meetings into passive, lacklustre affairs. 

If you're bringing people together for a shared experience like a training session or workshop, you need to make the most of your time together. One way to combat the passivity of social loafing is by creating an environment that demands active participation. In media studies, there is a distinction between “lean-back” and “lean-in” media, which helps us understand how we can amplify positive impacts. 

A model example of learn-back media is television You can turn on the T.V. and passively absorb whatever is on that night. On the other hand, a prime example of a lean-in media is multiplayer games. You have a role and responsibilities that require you to lean-in and be fully engaged. 

No one wants to host a remote session in which people feel like just another floating head-in-a-box. Unfortunately, without the appropriate planning and facilitation, remote workshops default to lean-back experiences.

Let's explore four ways you can create a lean-in remote experience that all but eliminates social loafing and forces your attendees to be fully engaged.

Tactics

Call on people by name
Just like back in high school, when your teacher called on people in the class to answer questions, you had no choice but to remain present, for fear of being called out and not knowing the right answer. Calling on people by name is a potent tactic to combat social loafing. 

Use Breakout groups When groups are larger, there is a higher likelihood that people will socially loaf. Strongly consider breaking up larger groups into smaller ones by using breakout rooms for discussions, teamwork, exercises, and the like. Then ask groups to share their insights and outcomes with the rest of the gathering. 

Assign roles and tasks 
A common characteristic of lean-in media is that they require active participation from all people involved. As the facilitator of a session, you can assign roles to attendees so they are partly responsible for the group's collective success. Some example tasks you can assign are timekeeping and note-taking. If you're feeling a bit more creative and want to foster more dynamic discussions, you can create roles like the devil's advocate and fact-finder! 

Lastly, the easiest way to ensure everyone is engaged is by giving hands-on activities. Bonus points if your activities require interactions between participants and require work to be shared with the rest of the group.

Hurdle # 3 - Collaboration requires structure and facilitation. 

It feels intuitive to facilitate activities in-person. For instance, take the basic exercise of breaking everyone off into pairs so they can fill out a worksheet together. As the duos are working in tandem, you walk around the room to see how people are progressing and whether anyone needs help. 

This simple worksheet exercise can become a technological juggling act when done virtually. You first need to break people off into breakout rooms, easy enough, but how do you give each pair a place where they can collaboratively work on that worksheet? We can try and set up a google doc, but this becomes a nightmare when you realize each breakout room needs a unique google doc. 

Furthermore, once everyone is off and working in their breakout room, what is the virtual analogue for walking around the room and checking-in on everyone? The host of a Zoom call can barge into any breakout room they please, but this requires you to act like the Kool-Aid Man smashing through a digital breakout room wall into your participant's conversation. There are no easy ways of knowing which group needs help, how far along people are, or when everyone is ready to move on. 

Beyond managing breakout rooms, facilitating group discussions poses its own set of challenges. During an in-person workshop, there are clear physical cues for when someone wants to speak. You can observe their body language, which will often instinctively inform the order of conversation. As this is largely absent from remote workshops, they can quickly become chaotic. Either people start speaking at the same time (sometimes also due to problems with connectivity and lag), or no one speaks at all. Facilitators need to help provide everyone with direction to allow for a more free-flowing conversation. 

Here are three strategies to help you better facilitate collaboration during a remote workshop. 

Tactics

Find and use the right tool for the job 
Every meeting should have a clearly defined objective, and  the technology you choose  should support that objective. For example, if you are delivering a presentation, interactive presentation tools like Mentimeter or Sli.do can help. These interactive presentation tools are straightforward to use and provide audiences with a way to submit feedback. 

Many people come together remotely to collaborate on a document. In this instance, collaborative documents or real-time whiteboards can be handy. They give the group a visual way to work together in a central place. 

The third and final type of technology is a facilitation platform like Benji that helps you run social activities such as icebreakers, role-playing, team worksheets, brainstorms, think-pair-shares, and more. These platforms make it a cinch to run a "learn-in" session that engages attendees with hands-on activities.  

Enlist a co-pilot
Every superstar needs a little help now and then: Jordan had Pippen, James Bond had Q, and Batman had Robin. When facilitating a remote workshop, it can be helpful, and borderline essential, to have a second set of hands to help manage the technology that you choose to implement. The main benefit of having someone else handle the technology is that it frees you up to focus on higher-order functions like supporting participants, presenting new ideas, and reading the room.  

Crystal clear instructions
When everyone is in the same room, it's easy to ask clarifying questions as you work through an exercise. When remote, especially in  breakout rooms, it can be complicated to seek guidance from the facilitator. The best way to navigate around this problem is to be abundantly clear in your instructions. Never assume a participant will be able to infer next steps or easily grasp new concepts. Ensure safety by always yielding on the side of clarity. 

For things to run smoothly, you need to make sure your instructions cover all of the essential questions. 

  • What: What are we about to do?
  • Why: How does this fit into the bigger picture?
  • How: The steps everyone should follow

Once you've nailed the art of giving great instructions, make sure to post the instructions in an easily accessible place for everyone to reference as they progress through the activity. 

Matt Parson

Over the past 6 years, Matt has been in the field of Higher Education getting his start at UBC then launching Canada's premier design and technology school, RED Academy. As an avid chef, you can find Matt either cooking and learning more about the future of education or eating and learning more about the future of education.
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