Facilitating Remotely: What I’ve Just Learned

The other night I spoke at an Agile coaches’ retreat in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But I didn’t have to travel 3,777 miles across the Atlantic – I connected via video conference.

Does that make me a hypocrite? Regular readers of this blog, and students of my courses such as Remote Meetings Masterclass, will know I’m not enthusiastic about this “hybrid” format, where most of the people are in one place and one is remote. “Avoid if possible!” is my standard advice.

In this case, “avoid” wasn’t an option: organisers Tom Meloche and Helene Gidley weren’t likely to fly me over for a one-hour slot, no matter how fascinated they are by Clean Language and its application in de-escalating disputes. I’m always enthusiastic to share that kind of knowledge with new groups, and to see what they do with it.

And, I was curious. I’ve done a lot of thinking, and writing, about hybrid meetings over recent months, including creating an online course on the topic. I wanted to keep my hand in. I wanted to see what was currently possible, given goodwill all around, and to find out more about the specific challenges of remote facilitation.

Officially I was a “speaker”, but my approach to “speaking” is always to involve the group as much as possible: closer to workshop facilitation. I reckon that what matters is not so much what I say, but what the group members take away.

So, could I facilitate a group while connected via Zoom videoconference, appearing on a big screen at one end of the room, with my voice broadcast via the TV speakers?

Here’s what I noticed:

  • As expected, the biggest challenge was being able to see and hear the participants. Tom and his co-organisers had done their best, with a camera and microphones, but it was nowhere near as good as being co-located with a group
  • Although there were only 16 people in the room, I couldn’t make out facial expressions. That meant I wasn’t getting real-time feedback on what I was saying. The effect on me was that I found myself talking much more than usual, repeating myself to try and make sure things were understood
  • I could hear most of what was said when only one person was speaking, but as soon as two spoke at once, or there was laughter, I lost the gist.
  • When a member of the group spoke, I often couldn’t tell who it was – not even where in the room the sound had come from. That led to all kinds of confusion and delays
  • That effect was compounded by the fact that I had had no “tuning in time” with the group – such as attending the end of the previous session, or joining for a coffee – and couldn’t read their name badges. So I couldn’t use anybody’s names
  • Obviously, I couldn’t really use my body position in relation to the group to encourage things to happen – for example, turning to a particular person to encourage them to speak
  • I was quite dependent on the in-the-room organisers to make sure that everyone was paired up for activities, had handouts etc
  • My session ran somewhat over time, and I think that was OK with the organisers. But again, the lack of clear visibility of facial expressions meant I wasn’t getting in-the-moment feedback. We hadn’t agreed a plan to shut me up: in the room together, a gentle hint would have been plenty. I do hope I didn’t cut into the next session too much!
  • Straining to see, hear and understand what was happening in the room left me feeling super-tired. And that was just an hour! That echoes a constant theme around hybrid meetings – remote attendees (and facilitators!) get the dirty end of the stick, while office-dwellers have minimal appreciation of the remote experience

An idea that worked well was a trick I came up with for displaying slides – for example, with activity instructions – behind me, rather than reducing myself to a “thumbnail” alongside a super-dominant slide. I got clever with positioning the text to one side of the slide, turned the slides into images, and used them as virtual backgrounds within Zoom. You read it here first 🙂

I think something like the Meeting Owl would have made a difference. And of course, meeting room technology is advancing quickly (though expensively). But we can’t wait for tech to fix this: millions of horrible hybrid meetings are happening right now, wasting enormous amounts of time and energy that could be better used.

Next time, one thing I’d do differently would be to get the group facilitating each other to ensure that only one person spoke at once, and that each speaker was introduced by name – for example, they could use a throwable “talking stick” and each speaker could say who they were throwing it to next. I might also ask for a list of the group’s names, or even a “map” of where in the room they were sitting.

7 thoughts on “Facilitating Remotely: What I’ve Just Learned”

  1. It was really fun to participate in this event locally and see your struggles in real time 🙂 It was also a great reminder of the truth of your core advice. STILL WE LOVE LOVE LOVE YOU for doing this for us!

    A Talking Stick is a great idea, as well as having participants briefly introduce themselves, “Hi Judy, this is Greg. I have a question…” The passing of the talking stick would also allow me to get the camera on the right person. A camera with Zoom Focus would have been nice as well, so you could see the face of the speaker. The camera also needs a screen so the operator can easily see what is being sent to you. SO MANY THINGS TO LEARN TO DO THIS BETTER.

  2. Paraphrasing an early 20th century US President: “Speak softly? Throw a talking stick!”

    I would agree that a good learning from the event was to have more effective crowd herding from the attendee end. That would help with people talking over each other and others not being heard. I also like the idee of a seating map to be made available to the presenter.

    The big screen and close-up of the presenter certainly added to a much friendlier and intimate experience than would otherwise have been the case.

  3. Scott MacLeod

    Hi Judy, Thanks for sharing your experiences, what you noticed. I have experienced self-identifying on audio-only teleconferences, and it works really well. I think most people have the skill from other contexts. It is true that the talking stick technique puts a damper on the all-at-once-ness, collective effervescence. But if you say the take away is the focus of intent, then optimizing for all participants includes the facilitator. If may well be best to include restrictions like, please say your name first, wait for the camera (remember the wait-for-the-mike, it’s-being-recorded?), a list of participants with a map of where they are sitting. This has really hit a cord in me, awakeing the possibilities of how to make it work better. Thanks again!

  4. Sharon Dale

    The meeting owl works well but my preference is still one person one computer, camera, headset

  5. Pingback: Hybrid Meetings: Beating The Bottleneck - Judy Rees

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