Tips for remote facilitation

Let’s talk about ‘remote’ participants. You know the situation. You need to run a workshop, and you can’t get everyone face-to-face. You now have two groups to consider. You have local participants that are in the room with the Facilitation Team. You also have the remote participants that are connecting via some form of technology.

If you are a ‘remote’ participant, you are familiar with the challenges and frustrations:

  • You’re often struggling to hear the conversation
  • You’re being talked over
  • You’re being forgotten
  • People are referring to whiteboards you can’t read
  • You are sitting in the same seat for hours
  • …and the list goes on.

Here are some thoughts about how to improve the experience for ‘remote’ participants.

Test (and re-test) everything

I’ve learned the hard way (unfortunately, more than once) the value of testing the technology and then testing again. Then maybe testing it again right before you need it.

The obvious case for testing is you will discover what’s stopped working. No technology is perfect and, eventually, it will need to be ‘fixed’ in some way. Don’t underestimate the power of ’turning it off then back on’ (aka power cycling). This fixes a surprising number of glitches and minor issues.

You need to be confident that your technology is stable. If your re-testing reveals ongoing issues, start thinking about alternatives.

Testing will also reveal the difference between your expectations of how the technology works, and how it really works.

The first time I used Microsoft Surface Hubs, I expected to share a virtual whiteboard between my device and another device. I imagined two people, on two different devices, could draw on a ‘virtual whiteboard’ from two different locations. Although the device had a ‘virtual whiteboard’, in the early versions of the software only one person could draw on the ‘virtual whiteboard’ and the remote participants could only see the whiteboard, but not make their own marks on it.

Every technology has quirks and nuances about the details of how it works. Every technology is designed with a set of assumptions about how it might be used. Those assumptions may, or may not, match your situation. You won’t discover how the technology really works, and whether it works for you until you give it a proper test.

Optimise your Video Conferencing

Technologies like zoom, BlueJeans, WebEx etc. make it easy enough to join a workshop. All you need is a laptop (or laptops) with a camera and a good internet connection. It’s a lot better than the ‘bad old days’ of custom video conferencing solutions that required special rooms.

However, there are still limitations.

Network Bandwidth is the obvious one. A poor connection will mean a miserable experience for everyone involved. Get the best connection you can afford.

Sound is another problem. The microphones on most video conferencing systems are designed to work for small meetings in small rooms. Most of these systems aim to equalise the volume of sounds, so people who are sitting further away from the speaker sounds similar to people who are sitting closer (this is called compression).

Compression also means thing like room noise (e.g. people moving chairs or dropping pens) and side conversations are all amplified. This makes it very hard for the remote participant to hear what’s going on as all the sounds get muddled together. It’s even worse when ‘local’ participants speak over each other.

The best solution is to get a custom in-room audio solution. You’ll want to sit down before hearing the price though. Even without a custom solution, I highly recommend getting an external ‘conference room’ microphone. Don’t rely on the built-in device microphone.

Give some thought to the video and camera set-up. The field-of-view of cameras is incredibly narrow compared to our vision. There is no peripheral vision. It’s a little like looking at a workshop down a long tube. If you zoom out and try to get every local participant in the frame, then it’s hard to see detail. If you zoom in you lose what else is going on in the room.

If you are breaking the group into teams during your workshop (and you should be), multiple devices might be required. You can have a device per remote participant and move them around. You can also have a dedicated device per area and have the remote participant connect to each device as required. I’ve found the second option offers the best experience.

Use a shared virtual workspace

Remote participants can’t contribute (and probably can’t read) a local whiteboard. Tools like RealtimeBoard, Mural, Microsoft OneNote are 'virtual' whiteboards that allow multiple people to view and edit content from remote locations.

Be careful having some folks work on physical whiteboards and some working in a virtual workspace. Connecting those thoughts is tough. Having everybody work in the virtual workspace is better. This is even better if you have access to something like a Microsoft Surface Hub.

The other big challenge with virtual workspaces is that people type far faster than they write. At first, this seems like a good thing as the time between thought-in-head and thought-on-‘paper’ is shorter. What happens is that all those half-thoughts and bad ideas that would usually be filtered out by having to hand-write them don’t get filtered.

Even with all those caveats, virtual workspaces are still worth trying. The technology is still in its early days, but there is a lot of energy around these tools, and they will continue to develop and get better.

Use a proxy

Sometimes using a virtual workspace is too much of a challenge for a group. A (slightly) lower tech solution is to use a proxy in the room.

A proxy is a person who acts as the local ‘hands and feet’ of the remote participant. The remote participant can still hear and see the conversation, but the proxy does all the writing and moving.

This approach works well when you have a willing proxy. It also helps if the proxy has an ongoing working relationship with the remote participant.

Run parallel sessions

If you have approximately equal numbers in all the locations and can afford to have the people there, you can also run parallel sessions that connect at different times.

This approach requires careful design. It’s harder to get the ‘unified’ voice of the group, and it’s easy for ‘factions’ to form. Usually, this is the exact situation you’re trying to avoid or overcome.

That said, it doesn’t have to be ‘all-or-nothing’ with this approach. You could run part of the sessions locally, and then use the techniques above to make sure the work connects and integrates across the locations.

Have everybody connect remotely

One technique I like (and is also under-used) is to take out the local-remote dynamic altogether and have every participant connect ‘remotely’ (even those who could do a local workshop). That is, every participant and facilitator connects via the video conferencing tool of choice.

This approach means every participant gets the same experience and works particularly well with a virtual workspace. If you have a video conferencing tool that supports ‘breakouts’ (like zoom), then you can deliver a very productive session without any need for a physical space.

Where to from here?

In the early days of 2019, having remote participants in your session is a compromise. As I said above technology has, and will continue to, improve. But it still isn’t anywhere near the same as having the people in the room.

It’s easier to engage people in the room, and the conversations will flow better. Higher engagement and better conversations are essential factors in ensuring a successful workshop.

What does this mean for you as a facilitator and a workshop designer? The first thing is to acknowledge that it isn’t the same as having people physically together. You can’t design your session as if it doesn’t matter that people are remote. You have to consider what implications it has for your session.

Use the thoughts above to get you started, and pay careful attention to how your activities will (or won’t) work. If you have activities that the remote people can’t participate in, then you need to re-think those activities. Either find a way to make it work for the remote people or find new activities.

With all that in mind, every time you have an event with remote participants is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to explore new ways of engaging those people. You can look at remote participants as a constraint, or you can look at it as a growth opportunity.

Through exploring how to make the remote experience as engaging and as seamless as possible, you will find and discover new ways of doing things. My ask is don’t keep these to yourself. Share them in the comments below and other places.

It’s through this exploration and discovery that we’ll all find the ways to do this better.

Designing Workshops: Working in parallel

Designing Workshops: How NOT to design a workshop