Coronavirus Insights

Learning from COVID-19: Best Practices to Facilitate Virtual Collaboration

Article | January 7, 2021

A year ago, working at Resonance meant globe-trotting—cultivating local networks and traveling to wherever the work demanded. We’ve always valued in-person meetings to build the trust, buy-in, and consensus necessary for cross-sector partnerships and collaborative solutions.

Pre-COVID-19, our team regularly engaged in weeks-long, on-the-ground assessments, with face-to-face meetings with hundreds of companies and potential partners. We facilitated multi-day collaborative workshops to help diverse stakeholders co-design new solutions and partnerships. And we led participatory trainings around the world for USAID and private sector participants. According to Laurie Pickard, a Manager in Resonance’s Government Services practice, “there was such an emphasis on the value of in-person. Full stop.”

Then came COVID, and our work suddenly moved almost entirely online. Our team had to get creative and move quickly to meet the needs of our partners and clients remotely. For example, Pickard works on PIVOT—an organizational change management program that supports USAID staff to increase their engagement with the private sector—and the team had been ready to travel to Kenya to work with staff there. Flights were already purchased; the agenda was finalized. “We, on a dime, transitioned to fully virtual,” Pickard recalls, “We just said okay, let’s do this. Looking back, the experience of being thrown into that—it was actually a great experience. We saw how well virtual could work, and we saw its limitations. We can now say with confidence we can do something really valuable in a virtual environment.”

Across the board, our team navigated how to run effective workshops, sustain momentum, and build trust without meeting face-to-face. Nearly a year into our new virtual world, I’d like to share a few best practices and lessons learned from our staff on virtual facilitation and effective remote collaboration.

1. Focus on Essential Objectives to Keep Meetings Efficient

Zoom fatigue quickly became a common phrase as the world went virtual, and workshop designers must consider this. Emily Clayton, a Senior Manager on our Corporate Sustainability team, articulated the implication of being screen bound: “People’s attention span is lower when you’re not in the room with each other, and because of this it is essential to focus your objectives and only include material that helps you reach your ultimate goal.” For this, Clayton found the virtual transition helpful. While co-creating the agenda for a virtual workshop, she describes that “everyone intuitively understood that the agenda needed to be shortened and streamlined to keep attention and achieve the stated outcomes.” In this way, the transition to the virtual world provides opportunity for us to rethink and then focus. “For better or worse, we are living in a new professional world where we aim to do less, but better,” says Pickard.

But how should you go about whittling your workshop material down? Refer back to the “why”. Keep your ultimate, most essential objective in mind, and be sure to reiterate it to participants. When workshop designers keep the why in mind, they can cut out the fluff and craft meetings that “end with understanding, that end with consensus, that end with success,” says Pickard.

2. Communicate Strategically in Smaller Bursts

Says Scott Yetter, a Senior Advisor of Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) with the PIVOT program: “We used to have these intensive weeks, where we’d throw all of the participants together for a few days, and then they would all disappear. And there was very little contact in between. Now we can have it be more incremental.” A good workshop designer stays in touch with the realities of participants: “We are having to work ourselves into their rhythm as they negotiate what it’s like to work from home and to work with teams that are increasingly physically spread out,” reflects Pickard. These days, participants have less headspace to commit to a long, intensive workshop or meeting, so make the most of the new reality by hosting brief meetings more often. Overall, this iterative format creates a more active, continuous relationship with participants. This approach can help ensure that participants act on the workshop outcomes and get things done between and after key sessions. Formed and refined in the everyday, the outputs of iterative, virtual workshops can be more realistic and achievable.

3. Create Clear Structure, and Stay Grounded in the Process

In complex situations, we often tend to default to freeform brainstorming meetings. These do not translate well for the virtual world, as participants are more likely to disengage or miss the nonverbal cues central to more conceptual conversations. Clear structure is key to effective virtual facilitation. Resonance’s Director of Corporate Sustainability Katelin Kennedy reflects, “You can’t always say, ‘here is what the answer is,’ but you should say, ‘here, at least, is the path we are going to go on to find the answer, and here are the milestones along the way.’” And it’s important to keep participants constantly grounded in where they are along that path: “Start every single call with where you are in the process: ‘We discussed this last time, now here is where we are, here is where we will make that decision, here is what will happen after that.’ Once participants are grounded in the process, they can move mentally into the discussion or the decisions that need to be made.” You can also use surveys, prework, and other shared resources between meetings to help ensure participants are ready to make the most of a remote meeting session. Don’t expect every participant to engage with these materials. However, providing materials beforehand is inclusive of participants who process information differently, and even incomplete survey summaries can give participants a good sense of initial common ground.  

4. Use Virtual Tools Intentionally and Creatively

Our team has found success in exploring a range of virtual facilitation tools. While it’s important to do your homework, don’t be too intimated to get creative and try something new. “Don’t underestimate people’s adaptability when they’re given the support to take advantage of remote participation,” says Yetter. “You can’t throw people at it haphazardly—you have to be intentional about it—but it’s very manageable.” We have used a range of tools to enhance virtual facilitation, including shared documents, platforms such as Miro, instant survey, voting tools such as Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter, and Zoom Breakout Rooms to change group dynamics. Of course, not every participant will be equally comfortable using these tools, but, generally, within a virtual breakout group, there will be at least a couple participants ready and able to take the lead and facilitate the experience for others.

We’ve seen that virtual tools can help prevent meetings from getting derailed by allowing everyone to more quickly share their ideas and concerns, displaying these points in real-time for all participants to see, and then helping the group move toward consensus. Resonance’s Strategic Partnerships Manager Seth Olson says: “Exploring the use of virtual tools meant we could pull out insights in five minutes—while, before, in in-person meetings we had struggled to keep participants on track to finish on time.” Virtual tools can also help facilitators keep the attention of participants by providing an engaging framework that allows participants to interact with the information in ways best suited to their learning style.

5. Take Advantage of the Virtual Environment

What can you do in an online environment that you can’t do in a face-to-face session? Bring in more people! For remote sessions, teams aren’t limited by who can travel and who can cover a full week’s workshop costs plus travel. Further, the virtual environment may create more opportunities for a wider range of participants to truly participate, add their voice, and engage with the material. “Remember that a virtual meeting has opportunities as well as disadvantages,” says Pickard. “In some cases, you can actually open up space for everyone to contribute. For example, if you are working in a collaborative document and people are expected to add their voice to it, it’s really easy to facilitate that with something like Google docs.” The move to virtual has made it easier than ever to capture participant input quickly both during and after workshops.

As we look ahead to 2021 and the dissemination of the COVID-19 vaccine, our team is beyond eager to come back together and work face to face with our clients and partners worldwide. However, we will continue to hone our skills in virtual facilitation, to help diverse partners collaborate remotely to advance global good.

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If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.