Top 5 remote facilitation FAILS — and how to fix them

Despite the amazing growth of tools over the past couple of years, most remote events pretty well suck because we keep making the same mistakes.

Video Transcript

Facilitating remote events, conversations, and meetings is very difficult. Despite the amazing growth of tools over the past couple of years, most remote events pretty well suck because we keep making the same mistakes.

So in this video, I’m going to talk about the five biggest mistakes people make when they facilitate meetings and events remotely — what I call the biggest remote facilitation FAILS — and how you can fix them.

What’s up, friends? My name is Josh David Miller, aka JDM, of the Right Box. We make videos on innovation and entrepreneurship here on YouTube. You can learn more about us But let’s get to it.

Here are the top 5 remote facilitation fails!

Number 5: Ignoring the role of energy

In a lot of ways, it seems like everything is harder online.

When we’re remote or virtual, distractions are easier. When you’re in the same room, you can easily see who is engaged and whose attention is drifting. You can see if people are on their phones or on their laptops — and you can even prohibit their use altogether. Not so when they are staring into the same screen that houses both their Zoom window and their email.

Similarly, it’s considerably more difficult to see where their attention is directed. Are they looking at me, the slides, or that poster on the wall? I facilitate with humour — are my jokes landing or falling flat?

But more insidious is this: the energy in a physical room of colocated people is palpable by default, whereas in a virtual setting it is completely absent by default. That energy not only tells us a lot and sets the tone for participation, but it’s also one of the best tools we have to increase engagement.

So how do we solve this? How do we combat the ease of distractions and the lack of energy? How do we take on the utter dullness of a virtual event?

I offer three tips, but the solutions to the other four mistakes will dramatically help here, too.

First, literally facilitate with more energy. It is so easy when facilitating remotely to fall into complacency and to just…read slides and convey information as if the performance doesn’t matter. Ugh! The performance matters a great deal! Be yourself, but put energy into it — more than you would in a physical space — and that will spread over the wire to your participants. Similarly, make use of background music or colour commentary during heads-down time. In a remote meeting, if everyone is working silently on their own, they’re probably not working silently on their own. Keep them engaged by giving them something on which to focus, like a sound.

Second, very similarly, carefully consider timing. Dead space kills attention. Dead air kills attention. Keep the pacing up, giving people only the time they need to work without much extra. On the flip side, make use of breaks. If you’re going more than 90 minutes without a break, it’s incredibly draining. In a lot of ways, virtual is MORE draining than in-person — particularly for certain kinds of people. So manage attention by keeping the pacing up to prevent minds from getting bored and distracted by emptiness, AND take breaks to prevent our minds getting distracted by burnout.

And the third way to combat dullness and apathy is to make use of video. Too often, we consider video optional when we’re in a virtual workshop or other event and this does two things. First, as participants, it signals that we view this as second to an in-person gathering. It’s not worth our video, or video’s optional because I’m kinda there, but I’m not letting you be here. Second, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because we know there are fewer, if any, consequences for our distraction. There’s no peer pressure to pay attention because our peers can’t see whether we are paying attention. So, encourage participants to make use of their camera.

Number 4: Not setting clear expectations

Okay, so, full transparency: this is not specific to remote facilitation, but it does have outsized effects because of some of the things we’ve already talked about, so it’s worth mentioning in detail here.

In the case of a workshop, expectation setting is pretty straightforward because you’re telling people — perhaps even before they registered — exactly what they can expect to get out of it. In this case, it’s more about setting expectations for participants for what is supposed to happen at each point in the process. If you’re spending time explaining a concept, explain why you’re taking that time. If you’re having them do a solo activity, set clear expectations around the parameters (such as the tools and the time available to complete the activity) but also on exactly what success looks like for that activity.

That’s not very interesting. We’re used to doing this when we facilitate workshops. It’s part of the program design. But what about team meetings, such as retrospectives or decisionmaking sessions, where there isn’t necessarily a workshop program? How do you set clear expectations there?

This is often where leaders commit the biggest mistake of any meeting: not knowing what the hell you want to get out of it in the first place! Any event is a journey for the participants or team: they have a starting point, there is some process, and they end up somewhere different than where they started. The key is figuring out where you want to go and then working backwards to where you are right now.

That’s what makes this facilitation. We are facilitating a process. So in a meeting, we have to make it clear to all present where we are, where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. We have to ensure everyone knows what role they are playing in this process, and then we have to employ all of the usual skills of facilitation to make that happen.

And this leads directly into the next big fail.

Number 3: Having an open discussion

It’s fairly common in almost any decision-making session or in a workshop to require conversation. We want to hear different people and we genuinely want to bring multiple perspectives to bear, and we want to ensure people feel heard. So we do what we’re told to do: we “create space” for people to talk.

But this is very often misunderstood to mean that we create an empty space and allow people to enter or fill that space with their perspectives and opinions. So we create a void by asking an open-ended question and waiting for someone to answer it: “what do you think?” we ask into the virtual room.

But, nature abhors a vacuum. So what happens, particularly online? Some people will speak — you know who they are. Others won’t. And even when they do, we don’t know toward what we’re working. We’re just talking into the void.

While so-called “open discussions” have their place and are occasionally useful, the key lesson is this: having no structure doesn't create space. Creating space is an intentional act that necessitates the definition of structure. What that structure looks like depends on what we are looking to accomplish. 

Since I mentioned retrospectives before, let’s use that as an example. These are common in agile software development, but I use them for all kinds of team projects. The goal is to understand what went well, where we can improve, and what the next steps are. At the conclusion of the project, we get everyone together and we go through a defined process, none of which is an open discussion. To facilitate surfacing thoughts, I ask four questions to which we collect using digital sticky notes. They’re called the Four Ls: what did you like, what did you learn, what did you lack, and what did you long for? Each of those are starting points for further structured conversation.

By asking specific questions and providing a specific tooling for their collection, we create well-defined space for participants to express themselves. So don’t throw your team or your participants into the void by having an “open discussion”.

Number 2: Going for equity in hybrid events

We often think, because we can do workshops successfully online and we can do workshops successfully in person, that we can successfully do a workshop that is BOTH online and in person — a so-called hybrid event. We think we can put on an event that is equally valuable for in-person and for remote participants. We can’t. It’s not possible. Now there’s a small asterisk there, so I’ll come back to that.

But most of us have probably been in a meeting before where we’re calling in remotely, and we’re on the screen, maybe with one or two other people, but we see into the room where the rest of the team is. We’re one of the few remote attendees. It sucks, doesn’t it? It can be difficult to be heard, difficult to get a word in, and we always miss certain things that are happening in the room. It’s just not the same as being there.

When we’re talking about facilitation, the problem is confounded because we have activities that have process behind them, and those activities look very different if done physically versus virtually. For example, we can put sticky notes on a business model canvas on a wall when we’re together in the same room. But put someone remote, and they have to communicate to the room what to write on where to place their sticky notes. It’s unequal, it’s unfair, and it’s less productive.

Similarly, if we’re sketching, we can write on our own paper or on a dry erase board, but the remote participants have to use a completely different tool, for which they were likely never given proper instructions, but they have to use the same timing as everyone else. Alternatively, they can still use pen and paper, but take photos and upload them to a shared venue. Either way, it takes away.

On the flip side, we can take time out of the session to incorporate all materials together in a digital format and then share that out virtually. But now the in-person participants are left holding the bag; they have to go through extra steps or wait awkwardly for that process to complete. Yuck.

And this is where the asterisk comes in. I said you cannot achieve parity between in-person and online participants, and that’s true. BUT. A common workaround is to have in-person participants also use digital technology, so that the playing field is even. This works okay in some circumstances, but does carry some caveats.

First, it does introduce awkwardness for the in-person participants. They are likely doing something in a less natural way because it’s digital. And that’s ok, I suppose, because at least there is equity to the online participants, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we have intentionally sacrificed a great experience for the in-person participants in order to have a “good” experience for everyone. It’s still a trade-off.

Second, and this is a much bigger deal, collaboration takes a major hit. Those who collaborate in person can just talk to those at their table. We can use the physical environment — from the stage to the 8-top round tables to the staff in the room — to help facilitate. Those are not present online, and we have to re-create them. But, as we know, we can’t mix in-person and online participants in a group because equity can’t exist. So we have to put online participants into teams digitally and in-person participants into teams physically, but now we’re running two events simultaneously. Announcements, communications, instructions, help from staff, all of it — it just becomes too much, and it’s probably not possible to create much in the way of equity anyway.

Think about even just Q&A. How do you handle hand-raising in a way that ensures fairness? Again, yuck.

So for all those reasons and many more, I stake my claim that hybrid events are not possible to be equitable! This is my hill to die on.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do hybrid events. It means that we have to make a choice: who gets the better experience: in-person or online? Put another way, whom are we intentionally going to shaft with a sub-par experience? If your event has an obvious answer to those questions, then you can do a hybrid event and do the best you can balancing all of those concerns.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking you can create parity. You can’t. That’s why this is the number 2 fail.

Which leaves…

Number 1: ignoring the technology

This is the biggest mistake you can make, and it comes in a few forms. Let’s break it down.

First, we have a tendency to take what works offline and just move it online. We just copy the format right on over. But you absolutely cannot just take an in-person event and copy it online. It just doesn’t work.

For example, you break down the parts: everyone sits at a table. One person is on stage, talking and facilitating. They give instructions, and the room listens. Then they break out into groups and talk. So we pick technology that allows us to do all of that. There’s a place with a stage, where someone can talk and everyone else can come in and sit down and listen, usually off camera. And it also has a place where participants can go to work in groups, and that’s probably on camera, so we’ll recreate the tables there.

It might sound reasonable on the surface, but this is actually one of the worst examples of this problem, and it’s the most common. What we’ve done here is turn our facilitated event into a webinar. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a webinar. They are fantastic for what they are: a means of disseminating information on a topic from a speaker to an audience, with the potential to have some Q&A, maybe. It’s a freaking YouTube video with primitive Q&A!

At its most reductive, it’s like saying watching a TED talk on YouTube is the same as watching one in person. But it’s worse than that because we’re not even trying to create a TED talk! We’re trying to facilitate an experience that brings an outcome — maybe even leads to a change in behaviour.

“Experience”. I’m going to come back to that word in a minute.

If we wanted to change a TED talk into a collaborative workshop, we’d use the room. We wouldn’t have the audience in rows of seating. We’d have them at 8-top tables, for example. We’d have materials present and sitting in front of them. We’d have staff walking around to help at strategic points to ensure momentum — and, importantly, momentum in the right direction!

Our impulse virtually is to just start solving those. We want people to work in groups, so let’s add breakout rooms. We want people to collaborate virtually, so let’s create a bunch of Miro boards or shared google docs or similar for the teams to use. And so forth, down the line. We create a checklist of all the things we have or do in person and we recreate those things virtually, one-for-one. This for that.

But that ignores the experience. We do things the way we do in person because it’s natural. It makes sense. It’s fluid. It’s easy. It makes for a good experience — and a productive one. When we just replace a physical thing with a virtual thing, we end up with a string of unrelated technologies and tools and processes that don’t really connect. They don’t actually make a whole experience.

Something as simple as sharing a sketch becomes a big challenge. In person, we take two seconds to draw a little something and then we just hold it up. Look at this! This is what I mean. Virtually, we can’t hold up paper and see very well, so we maybe we take pictures and then…upload them? Screenshare? It’s certainly not as easy as “look at this”! So then we replace that with a digital drawing tool. But how many of us can actually convey what we want to when we draw a picture with our mouse? It’s like the worst game of Pictionary ever.

AND it’s disjointed. The environment isn’t an environment. It’s a bunch of them we strung together, and it’s “fine”…at best.

We don’t want to replace physical things with digital things. We want to replace what those physical things bring to the experience with some brand new combination of tools and processes that, when combined together, create a comparable experience. You have to take it holistically.

It’s like martial arts. To the samurai, the sword is an extension of the body. To move the sword is to move the body. It becomes part of them. For us, our tools have to be an extension of the experience. They are part of it. It all becomes self-evident as a whole.

The whole of the experience is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not very good.

To sum this part up, you have to make the technology you’re using the atmosphere of the event — the technology IS the atmosphere — just like you would the room of a physical venue. The “room”, whatever it is, needs to be designed to facilitate the experience you want to create.

Published 8 months ago

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