The Ultimate Guide to Remote Facilitation (2021)

Remote facilitation doesn't have to be scary! Discover skills and tactics to make remote facilitation as smooth and enjoyable as in-person.

Facilitating remote workshops is no easy feat. There are about a million details a facilitator needs to keep in mind: maintaining strong organization skills, managing people remotely (how on earth do you do that?!?), keeping energy levels high, and ultimately – ensuring solid outcomes.

Even experienced facilitators seem to shy away from remote workshops but if you have the right skills and tactics in your toolkit, remote facilitation can offer a lot of advantages and benefits!

In this post, we wrapped up all the things you need to consider before, during, and after running a remote workshop, as well as what remote facilitation really is, why it’s useful, and how you can make the experience feel buttery smooth for your participants and you.

What is remote facilitation exactly?

A facilitator is the person who guides a team through a process, helping them unleash their potential, do their best work, and avoid the usual pitfalls of collaboration: groupthink, a lack of outcomes, and team politics.

Facilitation is all about helping the group do efficient, meaningful work, be it in an in-person or in a remote setting. As more organizations and teams adopt remote work as their modus operandi, the demand for skilled facilitators who can successfully lead a remote workshop is increasing.

But what exactly do you need to take into account to make remote facilitation successful and lead the team to their best outcomes?

That's exactly what we'll be covering in this article.

Let's dive in!


Advantages of remote facilitation

Believe it or not, remote facilitation is actually not at all that bad! In fact, it brings about a host of benefits and advantages over in-person facilitation, such as...

  • Team location and availability are not an issue. Not everyone can travel or block an entire day for an in-person workshop, but shorter, remote workshop sessions allow for a lot more flexibility. This can be a huge help when trying to find a time frame that suits the entire team. 
  • No workshop space? No problem. Let’s face it: Having access to a perfect workshop space is a rare treat. You have to work with what you get and often you will have to accept constraints like cramped, dark rooms, and tiny whiteboards. But in a remote workshop, you don’t need to worry about that! 
  • It is efficient! At the end of an in-person workshop, the walls are covered with sticky notes, sketches and paper. You'll need a lot of time after the workshop is over to digitise the results and then you throw most of it into the garbage bin. In a remote workshop, everything is already fully digital and can be easily documented, recorded and shared.
  • It gives facilitators more tools to help others. During an in-person workshop, it can be hard to switch from managing the group to helping individuals. When working remotely, monitoring the progress of each participant is a lot easier and allows you to do discreet, individual coaching when you see someone is struggling. 

The challenges of remote facilitation

On the flip side, remote facilitation can be hard work, and comes with a set of unique challenges. But not worry, if you can name them - you can work on them!

  • Working across different time zones. Remote workshopping makes it possible to include people who couldn’t travel or weren’t able to free up their calendar to join in. However, this also means you have to deal with time zone differences and time slots which work for everyone. 
  • Lower engagement and lack of interpersonal dynamics. Working together in the same location makes it easier to keep everyone highly engaged and accountable. When you have a distributed team, you have to work harder to keep them focused on the task at hand instead of the million little distractions the Internet has to offer.
  • Technical issues. Small tech issues can compound quickly and lead to a lot of frustration. Remote workshops depend on all tech parts running together smoothly, and even one person having tech difficulties can derail the entire session.  
  • Remote collaboration. Working in the same location and covering it with sticky notes, sketches and drawings on whiteboards makes collaboration feel real to people quickly. Working remotely can feel abstract at first, so using the right tools to collaborate in real-time is very important.
  • Conversation flow is slower. Remote communication is slower than in-person one, and you need to factor that into your workshop planning. That’s because remote setting removes a lot of nonverbal cues that we rely on in in-person communication, and technical issues can make it harder to get the point across.  
  • It’s harder to get the group in the right headspace. It’s easier to disconnect in an in-person workshop, because the participants often go off-site, or change their familiar environment. They also put their devices away and can concentrate fully on what’s going on in the workshop itself. All this allows them to get in the right headspace quickly. In a remote workshop, however, the participants will spend hours on end in front of their screen. You can’t control whether they’ll be checking their emails, doing other tasks in parallel, or chatting to their colleagues in Slack or Teams. Remote participants could be distracted by what’s going on in their other screen or by their physical environment, so it is important to agree on ground rules to keep participants focused, just like in a live meeting scenario.


Before the remote workshop

Preparation is important for any workshop, but even more so when it is run remotely! You would never start an in-person workshop without all the necessary materials and properly setting up the room. Similarly, during the run-up of your remote workshop don’t forget to set up your workspace, test your tools and make sure people can get started with as little friction or dead air as possible. 

Learn to confidently facilitate any meeting or workshop

Proper onboarding will help the participants feel more at ease from the get-go, and will set up the stage for the entire collaboration. Remember: Just because YOU know the rules of a remote workshop and how the software works, doesn’t mean that every single participant knows it too.

Here is the list of things we like to do in the preparation and onboarding phase of a remote workshop to make the kick-off as smooth as possible.


Send an onboarding email

This step sounds simple, but we urge you not to skip it! It might be tempting to buffer in a bit more time at the start of the workshop to quickly fly over the remote collaboration tool’s features and functions, but we find this to be much more disruptive to the flow of the session. Plus, you have to factor in that all people need different time to get accustomed to the tool. Make sure to send out an onboarding email to your participants a few days in advance, explain the tools that are going to be used and prompt the participants to set them up.

Talk to the Decider 

Every (good) workshop should have an appointed Decider to ensure the outcomes of the session actually get executed on. A Decider is usually a project owner or the main stakeholder in the project. As you prepare for the upcoming workshop, jump on a call with the Decider and use this opportunity to get as much information and insights as possible about the problem space and the challenge (tip: ask for permission to record these calls for reference!). You can also run them through a quick overview of the workshop process and give them the opportunity to ask questions.

Build the connection with the team 

Building mutual trust between the facilitator and the participants is essential for the smooth flow of the workshop, and while it’s harder to build that  relationship in a remote setting, it’s not impossible. Always try to add in some human connection: schedule a casual call with the participants beforehand, or include more icebreakers at the start of the workshop. Another important thing to remember: It is likely that the majority of participants haven’t been in a lot of workshops (if any!) This is normal and you should consider this the perfect opportunity to give them an overview of the process , the outcomes they can expect, and what the underlying principles are (e.g. “together alone”), as well as get them excited! The workshop won’t be another tedious conference call or remote meeting. It is going to be fun, collaborative, creative, challenging – and most of all, satisfying.

Test, test, test

Whether it’s your first time or you’re a pro, there is always value to testing the technology, tools, and set-ups of your online workshop ahead of running it. This means testing your sound and visual equipment, going through your slides and testing any online collaboration tools you will be using. While getting this wrong with an in-house team can be a minor embarrassment or waste of time, with external paying clients these hiccups can be more problematic. Don’t let a simple issue derail your workshop – test everything!

Have a Plan B for every tool 

There is no shortage of fantastic tools to collaborate and communicate, but not all of them are appropriate for every situation. Depending on who you work with and their location, there might be restrictions on what tools they can access and use. Make sure to take this into consideration when you are planning the workshop and always have alternatives to fall back on.

Hone your facilitation skills

Your skills and your confidence as the facilitator can really make or break a workshop, so make sure to be prepared the best you can. Review the facilitation techniques, tools, and best practices beforehand! And if you’re looking for a manual that you can reference before every workshop you run, our free Facilitation Guidebook is perfect for that! You can download it for free here.

Set up your workspace

As a facilitator, it really helps to have two screens: one for the digital whiteboard (e.g. Miro, Mural), and another one for the video call (Zoom, Hangouts, etc.). This way, you can see all participants and check if someone looks confused or distracted, or if they have technical problems

Prepare the whiteboard

The entire workshop will rely on your digital whiteboard, so take your time to properly prepare the workspace. We recommend that you avoid jumping back and forth between a workshop deck and the digital whiteboard, as it tends to confuse participants and breaks up the flow of the workshop. Miro allows you to embed slides on the digital whiteboard directly (along with a bunch of other handy functions that help you keep the workshop flow as smooth as possible)

Learn how to design your own custom workshops

The way you set up your digital whiteboard space can also influence how overwhelmed or engaged your participants will be. If you don’t have your whiteboard set up just yet, we highly recommend you check out our existing Miro templates, we’ve been improving and tweaking them to ensure the best, smoothest remote experience:

Remote Lightning Decision Jam template

Remote Design Sprint template


During the Workshop

It’s showtime! The time has come to kick off your remote session. One by one, participants join the meeting and you can see their cursors move over the digital whiteboard. Today you are going to be busy facilitating, but if you have done the necessary prep and onboarding work, everything should go smoothly and you should be able to focus 100% on facilitation.

Remote facilitation has a lot to offer if you know how to do it correctly. Sure, the first few tries might be a bit bumpy (and we sure wish we learned a few remote facilitation tricks sooner ourselves), but once you get the hang of it, you’ll notice that it’s not at all that bad. In fact, some workshoppers even prefer remote facilitation over in-person one!

Here are a few tips that will  make your remote facilitation smooth and effective.

Bring in the energy

Energy is a KEY component in facilitation generally, but is actually even more important in  remote facilitation, because you won’t have the ‘buzz’ that’s generated from people working in the same space.

If you’re not mindful of this fact, you might automatically slip into a remote conference call mode and leave your participants disengaged and bored!  So bring WAY more energy than you would in an in-person workshop, and don’t be afraid to really exaggerate it. It will feel extremely weird at first, seeing that you probably will be the only person in the room talking to a screen of muted participants. But while it might feel weird on your side, it will feel super energizing for your participants. 

Always start with an icebreaker

Just like with an in-person workshop, don’t plunge straight into ‘exercise mode’, and leave time for a warm-up and icebreaker activity. It’s especially important in a remote workshop to leave time for participants to get into the right headspace. 

Create a collaborative atmosphere

Put on some workshoppy music to create a nicer atmosphere. Because remote workshops often mean the participants are not in the same room physically, having some background music can help make the workshop experience feel less lonely and awkward. If you use remote conferencing software you can often share the music that you have playing. If you’re not sure which music would fit best, give our Spotify playlist a try.

Keep remote workshop shorter

In general, we recommend keeping remote workshops shorter than their in-person counterparts. Sitting in front of a screen is surprisingly exhausting and after a while, it gets very hard to stay focused. We always limit them to a maximum duration of 4 hours – this includes breaks and an overtime buffer, so realistically you should be able to finish earlier. There are a couple of natural breaking points in the workshop structure when it makes sense to end the session and continue the morning next day.

We’d  also recommend you build in WAY more breaks than you would in a normal workshop to keep the energy and momentum going. 

Encourage video conferencing

Encourage participants to switch on their webcams and share their video! This will help you see if engagement is low or if any of the participants seem confused. It will also encourage the participants to work from a quiet place instead of just dialling in and muting while driving for example. An added bonus is that you will have more fun when you see each other. Zoom, for example, offers virtual backgrounds and the AJ&Smart team often uses them to lighten up the mood at the start of a remote workshop!


Get a co-facilitator

If possible, have a technical facilitator support you during a workshop. This is the person who can take care of the tech setup (the timers, the music, the online whiteboard) and they’re the person to turn to if any tech difficulties come up. While you as the facilitator can take on this role, the quality of your workshop will really skyrocket if you’re able to have someone help you out.

Sort out the tech

Have a plan B for EVERY single tool you’re using, because it’s not a question of if something will break, but a question of when. To avoid disruptions and the momentum fading, prepare for the worst-case scenario and have several backups ready.

Buffer in more time for discussions

In an in-person session, you can usually move people along the exercises a bit faster. For the remote setting, it's better if you give the group more time to catch up with you and ask the group for permission to move to the next section. 

Hey everyone, is it ok if we move on to the next exercise? Follow me on the board.

Keep in mind that remote discussions take more time, so factor that in your workshop planning. You can still cut in if circular discussions spark up, but do allow a bit more time for people to get their point across.


After the workshop

Congratulations, you are almost there! All that is left to do now is to document and summarise the results of the session, and make sure the participants leave your workshop with a nice feeling of accomplishment. 

Summarize the workshop

One of the gold rules of workshopping is to start strong...and end even stronger!
Don’t wrap up the workshop without showing the team how much they’ve accomplished. 

Ask everyone to zoom out a little bit and summarize everything that they've done. This gives people a really nice feeling, and ensures the workshop ends on a high note. 

We also ask the participants how the workshop felt and what their main takeaways were. We find that the reflection time is a really nice way to wrap up and it gives closure to the whole workshop.

Handover the outcomes

It’s crucial to end the workshop with a very clear handover. Schedule a final handover call, and make sure to go through all the outcomes, decisions made, the rationale behind them, and recap the entire workshop in a handover document.  You can also use this call to answer any last questions the team might have.


Conclusion

At AJ&Smart we are firm believers in setting yourself up for success. Your preparation is key and is as important as the skills you apply in the actual workshop. We’re convinced that if you follow all of the steps in this guide, your workshops will feel a lot smoother both for you and your participants. 

To sum it up, ensure solid outcomes by trying to control the variables which you can control and don't stress about the ones you can't. Good luck with your remote workshopping and let us know how you get on!