At Resonance, 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.
Then came COVID-19. 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. Across the board, our team navigated how to run effective workshops, sustain momentum, and build trust without meeting face-to-face.
Over two years into our new virtual world, we'd like to share five best practices for facilitating effective virtual collaboration gleaned from our staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
5 Ways to Facilitate Effective Virtual Collaboration
Based on our work responding and adapting to COVID-19, here are five ways to facilitate effective virtual 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 an opportunity for us to rethink and then focus.
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 mutual understanding, consensus, and success.
2. Communicate Strategically in Smaller Bursts
Scott Yetter, a Senior Advisor of Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) with the PIVOT program states:
“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. They need to place themselves into their rhythm and schedules as they negotiate what it’s like to work from home and to work with teams that are increasingly physically spread out. 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. A 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.’”
It’s important to keep participants constantly grounded in where they are in the process. Workshop designers should start every virtual meeting by recapping previous discussions and outlining upcoming agendas. 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. 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 of participants ready and able to take the lead and facilitate the participatory experience for others.
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, with 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. We’ve seen virtual tools prevent meetings from getting derailed and help groups move toward consensus by allowing everyone to display and share their ideas more quickly in real-time.
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 voices, and engage with the material. The move to virtual has made it easier than ever to capture participant input quickly both during and after workshops.
Laurie Pickard, a Manager in Resonance’s Government Services practice, states:
“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.”
Engage in Effective Virtual Collaboration to Advance Global Good
As we look ahead to 2022, 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 companies, development agencies, foundations, and leading NGOs collaborate remotely to advance global good.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 7, 2021, and has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.