The Complexity of Virtual Collaboration for Large Groups

Over the last month we have facilitated conferences for 40- 70 people that were planned as face to face event pre Covid19. In March 2020 we agreed with our clients that we would all take the risk and attempt to convert these planned events into virtual events. We were excited and a little nervous about taking this step but the option to postpone would mean that our clients would not be able to consult with their communities and this would hold up the planned strategy for 2020. We all agreed that it felt worth taking the risk and giving virtual events a go as “something would be better than nothing”.

Feedback Matters

It was a huge relief that the feedback from the events has been overwhelming postive. People have been surprised about how much was achieved and how engaging the virtual environment could be.

“You’ve set a new standard in terms of virtual workshops”

“It was an awesome interaction.  For me I benefited hugely and I look forward to future engagements”

“A really impressive event, I’m still thinking through many of the observations and learning points I took from it.”

Learning Insights

In March 2020 we were experienced at facilitating virtual meetings for small groups of people, usually for planning purposes, we had experimented with digital tools within face to face events and we had completed some training in virtual facilitation. Scaling up the process and finding ways of bringing to the virtual world the warmth, friendship and engagement that we generate in face to face collaborations would be a challenge, and we were excited (and a bit scared) about how to make this happen. Here are some learning insights we have picked up on the way that are helping us to raise the game for virtual collaboration, to make it both possible but also enjoyable.

  1. Keep it Simple

In our first event we were keen to capture data from people at every stage and we were guilty of overcomplicating things. We have learnt that initially having breakout groups with no more than about 5 people and providing a simple conversation structure is enough. Keeping it dialogue only allows people the chance to meet, to engage with each other, to get used to being together virtually, without the barrier of another technological tool to get used to.

2. Provide Support and Structure

The virtual space still feel awkward for many people and the usual cues that start and end conversations are not as evident. We have found that having a table host helps to smooth this process. The table host can help the group to focus on the question, can bring people into the conversation and keep an overall awareness of time.

The table hosts have been from our team of trained virtual facilitators or subject experts provided by the client. All table hosts need to be competent and confident in using the technology and so training and support for them in their role is critical. Time and resources for this has to be factored in.

3. Make Digital Tools feel Familiar

Our events have been collaborative consultations and our clients needed to capture information and share that information between people. We have been using Mural as our preferred interactive tool. The advantages of Mural is that the interface is relatively intuitive to use and people can view and edit without having to set up an account.

We have set up the Murals to look like a typical group flipchart space with piles of post it notes and arrows and some easy to follow instructions.

4. Sharing Feedback

In large scale events it is always a challenge to share information across groups. In our virtual space we have swapped groups around so that people can view and add to the flipchart Murals created by previous groups. We have provided space for groups to report back briefly verbally so that they can share their main highlights and we have used a shared polling tool like Mentimeter as a way of groups sharing insights across the groups.

5. Screen Breaks

The common complaint about virtual events is the concentration which feel more intense than in a face to face event. We have learnt to build in regular screen breaks and to give people permission to turn off their video whilst we take a reflective pause. The moderator will turn off their video to cement this permission giving and then will turn their video back on with 1 minute to go and gently ask people to turn their videos on again when they are ready.

We Need to Talk about Money

This is awkward for everyone at the moment, to be very honest most facilitators are glad of any work right now so it was great to be able to invoice something. The reality is that we are a business and going forward we need to make a living from facilitating events or our businesses simply will not exist. The cost issue also applies to internal facilitators and organizers

These large scale events were planned and contracted for before they went virtual. We agreed to deliver them for the same price as the face to face events. I think we all recognize that this is not sustainable as a business. The costs for these types of complex virtual events are DIFFERENT but not cheaper than a face to face event. These are not events where you simply have someone speaking at the group with a bit of text chat. These events involve complex participatory dialogue and are designed to develop collaborative communities.

There are huge savings from the hire of a venue, the food for the event, the travel expenses, the overnight accommodation and all the glossy event materials. Our team saved time by not needed to pack and travel to the venues. But any savings on physical costs will be spent on the preparation time for the organizing team. The planning has to be much more precise than in the face to face world, everything needs to be created and uploaded in advance. You cannot just whip out a flipchart and a few post-it notes. To make a process be really engaging you have to meticulously plan the process, test the process and ensure that everyone involves knows exactly what they are doing and when. You have to communicate more and engage participants before the event and post event.

As a rough estimate I reckon our team spent 4-5 times longer working on the design and planning of the virtual events as we would have spent in a face to face event. With experience, practice and the value of being able to use existing templates this time will reduce but it is probably higher than we and our clients initially expected and as a business this is something that we have to seriously consider and discuss with our clients when we are providing cost estimates for events.

Would we do it again?

We have loved the challenge of working virtually. It was great to find ways of making the virtual tools work for larger groups and to find ways of creating events that combine on line and “offline” contact and connection.

There are huge benefits to the virtual format. We are facing a global climate emergency, and we have to reduce the amount of travel and the waste that is generated at events – there was no wasted food or surplus plastic at these events!

We recognize that virtual events enable people to participate who cannot travel easily to events, particularly those people with disabilities, caring responsibilities or who live in remote places with inadequate transport links. This can create much more diverse, inclusive consultation processes.

Virtual events offer a way to collaborate in a more intimate close up manner than is possible in physical settings at the moment. Given the choice of a virtual event or a “living with COVID-19” face to face event… we believe that virtual events will make it easier to collaborate than sitting 2 metres apart, wearing face coverings and not sharing any materials.

The more we facilitate virtually the better we can make the process and this period of experimentation gives us the opportunity to really develop the work and to find a way of making virtual events a viable option beyond the current restrictions on social interaction.

Next Steps and More Learning

We are moving into the next phase of virtual experimentation with our next events being planned from the start as virtual events and supporting people to use theory of change in collaborations, to develop new networks and form collaborative teams.

If you would like to be part of this experiment in virtual collaboration then do get in touch to talk about ways in which you can continue to collaborate, consult and engage with others whilst living in the Covid reality.

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Things are Never Going to be the Same: Covid19 Facilitation

Covid 19 is changing our world. How many of us thought it possible that the whole economy of the World would go into shutdown and that many of us can only leave our homes for a ever descreasing number of reasons?

We might yearn for things to get back to normal but things are never going to be the same as they were, the impact on our economy and on us will be profound and long-lasting. Seeing friends stranded many miles away has made us question whether we really want to embark on long journeys for work in the future when we now realise how fragile life can be. Will we want to risk going to an international event and finding it almost impossible to get back home? Will we want to plan large scale events, knowing that the virus could re-emerge and the lockdown process be re-instated? Will we want to return to noisy open plan working environments away from our family when the “impossible” homeworking option has miraculously become possible? Will we be able to keep our calm in challenging situations when underneath there lurks this unresolved grief for those loved one we lost but could not mourn for in our normal ways?

Every industry has been impacted by this and as a team of facilitators we are experiencing huge changes to our work and our income. Facilitated events were cancelled very early on in this time of change and yet the need for people to get together, to connect, to generate new ideas is even more needed now than it ever has been. The shutdown has given us time to regroup and consider what is needed and now we are starting to plan a way forward.

That way forward is not about just responding to the current crisis by quickly putting together virtual rather than real gatherings. Our team see this is an important opportunity to create long term change. We  want to find ways of connecting people together that allows more people to participate and that does not require hours spent travelling to make that connection. It is something we all knew needed addressing but this situation has provided the chance to experiment in a period where there will be some forgiveness for the virtual connection being less smoothly professional.

There needs to be a deeper exploration of this change and what it will mean but for the moment our team is thinking more practically about HOW do we make participatory dialogue viable using an online format and how can we bring the same openness, trust and engagement as we do to face to face contact?

Learning Insights

Our team of facilitators have been facilitating virtual meetings and using virtual technology for many years and have able to quickly get our creative heads around something we all thought would not be possible and to make large scale participatory dialogue work on the virtual level. There have been 3 critical elements in our regrouping and reimaging our world of participatory facilitation.

Risk Free Practice: The Virtual Pub

On the day of the UK shut down we were up and running with our first virtual pub for my local bike club in Otley. Since then our team have been helping their families and communities with virtual pubs, parties, film nights, games nights, pilates and quiz nights. These community sessions have helped us to feel useful in these times of isolation and are great practice as many of the typical “user” is not familiar with the technology and we have learnt a lot from helping them get to grips with the technology

Stress Testing: Virtual PlayShop

Some of the different tools need testing in a more work like environment so we devised the Virtual PlayShop so that our team and some other colleagues could play with the technology together and experience it as participants as well as facilitators

The planning for the PlayShop helped us to identify the design challenges of creating a virtual event that flows and how much time the preparation takes (more than you might think!) The PlayShop time was a fun way to connect with colleagues and to share our learning with the different tools.

Transfering Learning to Action: Virtual Lessons Learned

As with any new process it is important to share the learning insights and to bring this knowledge together. We did this in a virtual lesson learned session and from this session generated some actions for things that we needed to investigate further and some protocols that are the beginning of our good practice guide. This helped us move from Play to Practice and create a plan that would move us forward

Moving Forward

Many people reading this want some quick fixes to make virtual meetings go well. There are lots of these available and we are very grateful for all the other people who have graciously shared their learning. We have four important messages from our learning insights to share and for the pragmatic people out there who want to just get started we have provided our practical guide on Runing a Virtual Pub!

Settle on the Right Platform for your needs and Pay For it

We have got experience of facilitating using Adobe Connect, Microsoft Team, Skype and Zoom. Our events are focused on building trust and collaboration so for us Zoom was the best platform. The stand out features for us was the very visual way that you can see everyone “in the room” at the same time and the ease of organising people into break out rooms.

Once you have settled then pay for the platform! We have all experienced being in meetings where you have to log back in because the free account limit has been reached. These technology providers are providing a service and if you like it then just deal with it and pay for it!

Know Your Audience

One common assumption is that everyone participating in an online event has access to a keyboard and superfast typing skills. We have found that whilst for some people using the chat function is easy to do for others it is impossible to use because they are joining from their mobile or their typing speed is painfully slow. If we want to encourage participation and engagement with the virtual format we need to make it as easy as possible. We are starting by using our team to support the process by doing the note taking to harvest all the rich dialogue. This helps to build all our expertise at using the tools and keeps us out of mischief..

Find Ways to Help People Talk Nicely!

We choose Zoom as our platform of choice because of the breakout rooms. You can set up break out rooms for small groups in the same way as you do for a face to face workshop and once people are over the feeling of being “teleported” into a virtual room of strangers they will quickly start to connect and make conversation.

In the large group setting the desire to talk is so strong that unless you are running a social event it is easiest to mute all the microphones and ask people to use the “raise hand” function to contribute. This helps calm the conversation down and stops people interrupting. As groups get more experienced then it is less important to mute all and this can be very positive because the person speaking can often appreciate having some verbal encouragement as well as the non verbal nods!

Keep it Simple

We are going to be using Zoom in events with people who probably are not working in the virtual world, including many community users who are attending consultation events. We knnow that many people, even seasoned professionals, may come to the events with trepidation.

We want to be able to use other tools in the events to reproduce how we might brainstorm with post it notes in a face to face event. There are lots of tools out there to help with this including Miro, Mural and Padlet but we have realised we need to keep it simple in this initial phase. It is easy to get excited and then overwhelmed by all the different tools so just go back to the basic facilitation question: “What is the purpose of this intervention?” and craft your questions and then start exploring the best way to achieve your purpose.

….and finally as promised…..

How Do you Run a Virtual Pub?

This is our most frequent query from clients who read about our very early experiment with a Virtual Pub for Otley Cycle Club! The first thing we learnt is that whilst you might be the landlord of the pub it is not like normal facilitation!

  1. Set expectations low – we warned people it could be “really awful or really fun.  Invite people to join early – “before the bar opens” so that they can get their sound and video sorted, this helps for the people new to Zoom.
  2. We set the time between 19.00 – 20.30. We found that 1.5 hours which feels the right amount of time
  3. Open the “virtual bar” at the official start time and keep all the microphones on and videos on and just let the chaos start. You might want to put in a general question to get things started but resist the need to structure the conversation. People will talk over each other, you will not hear everything but chill – it is a pub not a facilitated workshop!
  4. After about 10 mins greet everyone and explain the rules of your bar – we got people to change their name because some joined as “Ipad” and some couples just had one person’s name so the other person was nameless. This will help in the smaller group sessions when people will be talking more together. We also set a rule to turn the video off if you go off for a natural break (by virtual pub 2 we had all seen THAT You Tube video)
  5. Once you have set out the rules of the bar you can move people into Cosy Corners in the pub (Break Out Room function) When you are working out the groupings be conscious some people are joining as a couple so try and balance the numbers out – 3 people could be 6 people if they are all in couples! As host you just join which ever group you want to join.
  6. Before you go into the Breakout Rooms shut down the Waiting Room function otherwise late comers just get stuck in the lobby and will start texting you to get in! Once the waiting room is closed, they will join in a kind of pub limbo and you can allocate them to the small group you are in.
  7. Set the first break out group for a short period – about 7 mins seemed about right! The timer automatically reminds people when there is 60 seconds to go so they can close down their chat.After that 10 minutes felt about right.
  8. Alternate between the noisy main bar and the cosy corners, finishing with last orders at about 10 mins before your closing time. This is a chance to talk about the week ahead and to share views on the virtual pub.
  9. Be careful that just because it is a virtual pub this does not mean any alcohol consumed will give you a virtual hangover!!

Feedback has been positive with some people who are in high risk isolated groups saying it has become the highlight of their week. Our team have a pro subscription anyway for our work so it is great to see people using it for social events too – you need the pro account for the break out functions and without this the virtual pub would just be a very noisy mess and would only be open for 40 minutes!

If your team would like our help facilitaing Virtual PlayShops, Virtual Events or you want to have deeper conversations about the future of leadership and organisations in the future we will be facilitating some Virtual Action Learning Sets shortly….just get in touch

www.centreforfacilitation.co.uk