How to ACE Remote Facilitation

Facilitating remote workshops is tricky business. Even experienced facilitators can shy away from it - but there's actually way more perks to it than you might believe. We spoke to our facilitators, Jon, Amr and Tim here at AJ&Smart to ask all things remote facilitation and learn how to do it the RIGHT way.

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 it really isn’t as scary as it sounds - we promise. Remote workshops actually offer tons more perks and benefits than you might think. 

We chatted with facilitators Amr, Jon and Tim at AJ&Smart to find out what goes into making remote facilitation a breeze.

Read on for some helpful tips from these three fab facilitators in the industry:

The Workshopper Playbook is out now!

Hey guys! So let’s jump straight in, could you tell our readers a little about how remote workshops differ from in person workshops?

Jon: Of course, so one of the things that we weren't prepared for when we first started remote workshops was giving ourselves more time to plan individual exercises. A mistake that we made in the beginning, was that we created concepts by hand in real time – we were photographing them and putting them into a Miro board and we weren’t really paying attention to how this extra step of clear photography and good lighting would be essential for those on camera. Some couldn’t see the concepts via webcam and it added on about an extra two hours which was really annoying. Now we make sure to check all of our lighting on our end before we begin and have a plan for how to position everything so it’s clear for everyone involved. Sounds really simple - I know, but it really made all the difference. 

 Amr: Yeah that’s true and it also brings to mind this one example where two people on our client’s side were unable to join the call. It definitely created a lot of anxiety for us facilitating because it was like throwing a spanner into the works of our timestamp and we had no plan B. We were there just working as quickly as we could to resolve it. I mean technical difficulties are unavoidable, right? They happen no matter what you do, so it really just depends on how you react. As a facilitator, the most important thing is to always be projecting confidence. Even when things are going horribly wrong, just mentioning “It's OK. This happens all the time." Saying reassuring statements can really make so much difference. It’s so important to always ensure that no one feels pressured or like they're the cause of the issue. If the problem seems to be going on for a little while you could try giving the group some warm up exercises, so the time is productive, or suggest the team goes to get some coffee - that always seems to boost everyone’s spirits. Whatever you do, don’t freak out or get upset.  In the end it comes down to hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Also, it helps if you're not the only facilitator and have someone by your side who can assist you. 

Tim: There was this one time we ran a remote workshop with a client who we’d previously worked with in an in-person workshop, so we assumed things would go smoothly. We couldn’t have been more wrong! We had problems right from the start - some people were unable to get their mics and webcams working, while others had issues with audio feedback. Having to do impromptu tech support added a lot of stress for us, especially since the group was fairly large and a lot of people were waiting and getting impatient. These people started rummaging around the workspace, looking at things out of order and without context, and started discussions among themselves… which really wasn’t a great start to the workshop. We did, however, learn a lot from it.

To avoid this problem now, we check that each participant’s tech is set up correctly before the actual workshop, so we can ensure a smooth start. Also, an extra tip - try not to let participants run loose without guidance. Cover the parts that are not relevant yet, and label the individual parts of your workshop workspace clearly, so they always know where they are, and how to find their way back to the rest of the group if they are lost.

Could you share an example of a remote workshop that exceeded expectations? What factors do you think made it so successful?

Amr: So the smoothest workshop we've ever had was actually the last one we did and it was as a result of all of the lessons we've learned from previous workshops. What made it feel so smooth was that we optimized the board layout, we mastered the onboarding and basically had all our homework done. After all, how good or smooth any particular workshop feels will come down to your own attitude. When you’ve already anticipated all the things that can go wrong, you're able to maintain your confidence and carry that over without getting visibly stressed.  

Also, I'd add that having facilitated an in-person workshop first definitely helps because it lets you work out what constitutes a good workshop offline. You're then able to bring those elements into a remote setting, as well as appreciate the added complexities of a remote setting. 

 Jon: When we facilitate workshops in person it’s impossible to hide where everyone is putting their voting dots. However, with these online products, everyone can asynchronously vote overnight and no one is persuaded by the majority. I think for us, seeing how asynchronous anonymous voting works better in remote Design Sprints has been a super nice revelation. 

Another important component of Design Sprints are the Lightning Demos. Being able to use the Miro board in the video conference creates a nice sort of mood board of Lightning Demos. It was a pleasant surprise when we noticed how much cleaner the Miro board is than writing it all down on post it notes, like how we do in the in-person workshops. In real life we can’t just grab screenshots from the Internet and throw them all together which is a real limitation. On the Miro board we can make it look much more realistic which is cool.

What would you say is the biggest project you’ve worked on?

Jon: Our Design Sprint with Zero comes to mind because of the sheer amount of hours we spent working on it. Most of that project was done remotely as they are based in Montana.

What is the number one remote-facilitation advice you wish you knew sooner? 

Jon: Make sure that the technical aspects of the remote Sprint are correctly tested beforehand. That’s the golden rule. Ask a friend or colleague to go to a different space and check whether they can see and hear you properly. We’ve done two remote Sprints in the past where the client struggled to hear us and it really put a damper on the workshop.  Actually, the biggest piece of negative feedback we got from Zero, was that our audio and video weren’t up to scratch. We resolved this by purchasing these Yeti mics which are really great for sound. You just put them on the desk and everyone can hear you. Really nailing the technical aspect of things will get you much further ahead. 

Amr: Yes definitely - and also a good tip is to onboard participants to the tool before the workshop, so you don't overwhelm them during it. Also, don't assume what is difficult or simple for people. As a product designer, you might be used to constantly trying new tools and apps, you're probably used to clicking around and not needing a hand to hold. Try to remember that during these workshops many people just want to solve their business problems and they’re most likely not as interested in learning about the cool aspects of the tools they’re using.

The Workshopper Playbook is out now!

So how do you ensure solid outcomes in remote settings?

Jon: With a remote Sprint we schedule a final half-day handover. It’s a three hour call with the client, where we hand everything over and explain every single aspect of what we did. We recap the entire workshop in a PDF which we send across so they can see how much has been executed and we also give them access to the Miro board and to the Sigma file. It’s super important for us to end everything with a very clear handover so that our clients are never wondering ‘hey where's this and that’. 

Amr: Remote workshops are complex. Many more things can go wrong in a remote workshop than in an in-person workshop. Participants could find the tool difficult to use, you're not in the room to observe their energy and of course, there is more room for distraction.

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. Another thing to bear in mind is to check in frequently with those participating. We tend to do more check-ins when we’re working remotely as there is more space for confusion when you’re not in the room. So ask questions often just to see if everyone is following along. 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.

The human connection is often important for successful facilitation, how do you go about including this in remote settings?

Jon: I’m just going to be honest here and say that I don’t think you can replicate it. We always try to add in some human connection even if that means that one of the team members goes to meet the client on their own a few months prior to the workshop. From what we’ve seen, it’s always much better if you can have at least one face to face experience with the client - even if it’s only an hour or so.  

Sometimes this really isn’t possible, so we have run workshops without meeting the other party beforehand and they still went great. For example, we never met Kevin Rose in-person before working on Oak with him. However, we did try to replicate a personal meeting by having a casual two-hour call a few weeks before the Sprint, just to get to know each other a bit better.

Ryan: I'm a people person and so I really enjoy getting to know the people I work with. I think understanding where the strengths of your counterparts lie and playing on them is really important whether working with them in person or remotely. I’d say, figure out your client’s working style, and tailor your methods to that. It's an ongoing process, and most likely just one video call is not going to tell you everything you need to know. So make sure you stay connected, give each other status updates, shoot each other messages over slack, etc. 

Amr: I’d agree with all of that! When we make the effort to call the participants beforehand it really makes a world of difference. When they show up on the workshop day there's that familiar feeling, and it seems to take the edge off.

Do you have any miscellaneous tips for our readers?

Amr: Having an infinite canvas comes in handy for remote workshops because it allows for smoother exercise completion. So instead of having everyone working in the same shared frame just for the sake of simplicity, we created separate frames that are a little bit far apart so participants can be working on their own posts without having the feeling that everyone else sees what they're typing in real-time. It also ensures they don't get distracted by others' suggestions. 

Jon: Oh and get to the point fast. It's a lot easier for people to zone out on a presentation if they're not in the same room with the presenter. So we try to minimize the use of slides we use to explain the concepts. We also try to stay conscious of the time used and the friction of switching between different software or screens.

And last but not least, what is the best way to wrap up a remote workshop?

Amr: We try to remind everyone of how much they've accomplished. So in a remote workshop we would ask them to zoom out a little bit and summarize everything that they've done because it gives people a really nice feeling - especially with an intense workshop like a Design Sprint. 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.

So don't fret if you have to facilitate remotely - as you can see here there are some fantastic perks to remote facilitation and with the tips mentioned in this interview you can bring your A-game every single time to those zoom meetings! 


Content Creator for AJ&Smart