If you’ve been working over the past 18 months, you’ve probably been in online meetings. Too many online meetings.
You may even find yourself turning into a ‘Zoom-bie’, from all the Zoom meetings you’ve attended over the months.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
You don’t have to find yourself looking at the clock, wondering when the online meeting will end.
You don’t have to switch between tasks whilst in the online meeting, to find the next shot of excitement that will wake you up from the low energy meeting you are sitting in.
You don’t have to stare at profile pictures and names, wondering who is behind the picture with the nicely coiffed hair.
I used to think,
If I was facilitating online meetings or workshops, it would never be like this!
Then reality hit home when I facilitated my first online workshop.
My first experience
I remember coming into the room as the facilitator, thinking that I had it all sorted. After all, I had great games in store and great content prepared. What could go wrong?
It started when I asked politely for everyone to switch on their video cameras. Out of the 55 in the room, a paltry 5 switched it on. 5, including the tech support and myself.
Then the tech went wrong. Over Zoom, my video feed ended up being 90 degrees rotated to the left. Participants had to look at me with their necks craned to the left for 10 minutes.
Despite growing up as a digital native, facilitating great online meetings didn’t come naturally. Presuming that I knew how to use online platforms, was no indication that I knew how to use them effectively.
How can we make things better?
If you’re a facilitator of online meetings today, you’ve a chance to change that. Because if you’re a process facilitator, it can be frustrating. I cannot fully understand the frustration you face, but I’ve been there.
Where you see the lights flicking across the participants’ faces… a sure sign they are flipping between tabs. They are there… but they are not here.
Where you’re trying every trick in the book to raise the energy in the room, but people are still closing their eyes.
Worse still, you hear crickets when you ask questions.
As a process facilitator, I’ve tended to assume that people know why we are gathered. After all, I’ve sent out the title of the meeting! And haven’t I also added an agenda?
But the purpose of the meeting, is something I’ve often skipped over. If I admit it to myself, it’s because it’s easier that way.
Sending out a title and an agenda is easy. Thinking about why I’m asking for 5 people to invest 1 hour in the same room, is difficult.
That’s why, as Priya Parker points out in her book, The Art Of Gathering,
But here is the great paradox of gathering: There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we are doing so.
You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.
As a budding process facilitator, I’ve learnt that my role isn’t to give people the answers. But it’s to shepherd them with carefully crafted questions to reach the answers they want. The process matters more than the goal.
To guide the process, purpose is the shepherd dog that rounds up the stray sheep, and keeps everyone focused.
Whether it’s virtual or physical, starting with clear intentions matter.
Two suggestions can keep the group on track. Firstly, as Janice and Prabu did, have regular check-ins. Every 3 hours, they built in a space for questions and to sense-check how people were feeling. It ensured that the group is still on course to reach their purpose.
Keeping the purpose in plain sight (virtually) can help. In this workshop, it was as simple as having the purpose at the bottom of each slide – ‘FNS Virtual Facilitation Workshop’. It reminded us that we were here to learn.
It’s easy to skip purpose.
For all the fancy tools and gadgets we can use online, thinking about why we are gathered, before thinking about how we will meet, makes meetings more effective.
Be purposeful in your process.
In today’s online world, there’s less friction to meeting. After all, all you need is a link and a click. You don’t even need to walk. Just move your fingers, and you’re in.
You may be tempted to invite more people to boost the numbers, and to look like you’ve managed to get many interested in what you’re conducting.
But as the process facilitator, you are the gatekeeper. You’re the gantry. You’re the ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) on the expressway (For those who don’t know, in Singapore, the ERP is a toll on busy expressways.).
Inviting everyone into the room isn’t going to be the most effective way to run your meeting.
Do you have the right people in the room?
Are the people aligned with the purpose of the meeting?
will help you to run more effective meetings.
There’s a limit to how big groups can be before the number of people severely hampers the quality of the output created. 4 to 5 is the ideal number.
Having worked in both the U.K. and Singapore, I’ve noticed the difference in meetings. In Singapore, everyone with a vague interest in the subject is often invited. That’s how in my previous organisation, there could be as many as 25 seated in a staff meeting, but only 5 people talking.
The head, the assistant head, and the supervisors.
It’s different in the U.K. My experience of meetings there have been of much smaller groups. Often, there are 8 in the room. And everyone talks. Everyone wants to talk. If you don’t talk, you’re seen as the oddball. People wonder why you’re there.
There’s a lesson there.
If you don’t have anything to say, you probably have no business being in that meeting.
As the facilitator, you don’t want to bring in people with little to contribute in the meeting, beyond their profile names and pictures in the online meeting. Be a strict gatekeeper. Ensure the right people are in the room, before you start.
I should have been ready for this. By now, having attended the face to face facilitation workshop, I should have known that Janice and Prabu loved real-life tests of a facilitator’s learning.
But I was ill-prepared for what came.
I thought I could wing it. After all, I had done it before! When the practice started, I started perspiring rapidly. I used ‘umm-s’ and ‘uh-s’, fillers I had not used for years.
It ended up being clunky, unstructured, and poorly executed.
Janice and Prabu made it look easy because they had done it for years.
In a virtual meeting, things will and do go wrong. Winging it is a recipe for disaster.
Practice comes in 3 simple ways.
- Ensuring that you’re familiar with the process of how things will run.
- Rehearsing the instructions you will give.
- Leaving nothing to chance, by doing the necessary tech checks.
In an online facilitation, how can you build rapport? Can you even do it?
Can an online connection ever replace an offline conversation?
Silly me, of course it will not. There’s something special about being together in the same physical space with someone else. There’s the serendipity. The nervousness of meeting someone new. The laughs that don’t go muted.
That’s why in an online space, it’s important to make the implicit explicit.
What do I mean?
1. Call out the things people take for granted – such as having webcams off.
Janice and Prabu were strict about having people switch on their cameras. When there’s already so little touch in an online world, small things like that add greater emotional touchpoints.
Seeing a face reminds people that they are talking to people, and not to screens.
2. Remind people publicly, “Be here now.”
It’s so easy to multitask. After all, switching tasks is a quick alt-tab away. If I look at the best meetings I’ve been at, the facilitators have always been clear about monotasking. They explicitly get the agreement of the group to be there for the next hour. Some even call for a public commitment by getting people to type in the chat ‘Why are you here today?’ Small things like that make commitment explicit.
Being clear about being present emotionally and physically, sounds small. But it’s significant in bringing people’s heads, hearts, and hands into the small space.
During a time like COVID, where we don’t know what the future will bring, process facilitators are a reminder that it’s not the endpoint that counts. It’s the journey that matters.
I want to close with an excerpt from a poem from Antonio Machado, entitled “Caminante no hay Camino” (Wayfarer, there is no path).
Caminante, son tus huellas (Wayfarer, the only way)
el camino y nada más; (Is your footprints and no other.)
Caminante, no hay camino, (Wayfarer, there is no way.)
se hace camino al andar. (Make your way by going farther.)
Whether virtual or physical, the principles for process facilitation have not changed. They are about recognising that the beauty lies in the process, and not the product. The beauty lies in the people, and not the platform.
The answers to where we go from here, lie in our willingness to question, and our courage to guide others on the quest.
Contributor: John Lim
John is excited about helping employers to work with millennials, so that millennials bring their fullest, passionate, and purposeful selves to work. He shares regularly at liveyoungandwell.com.
Do you desire to facilitate better virtually? If you do, please check out our Virtual Facilitation Workshop (VFW) on how you can pick up the micro skills that others have found useful in helping them become a better virtual facilitator. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.