Reflections on virtual facilitation


How far can we move events and group conversations online, and what do we need to do differently when working virtually as facilitators? What is it possible to do via digital platforms like Zoom? How to we make these conversations collaborative, creative and inclusive – rather than the dull, technically-challenging sessions they can sometimes become? 

I’m a facilitator, trainer and coach based in N Yorkshire with clients all over the UK. Prior to CV19 I spent way too much of my time away from home in hotels and travelling by train – so I’ve been itching to work more online for a long time and one silver-lining of this current situation has been the opportunity to do this. I’ve previously done some virtual facilitation training, and I did a short webinar a few weeks ago specifically about Zoom (thanks to Happy for making this excellent free taster session available – details below). And I’ve been chairing virtual meetings and coaching 1-2-1 via phone/ video conferencing for years, but I’m still in the early days of my learning about online facilitation. So I’m still on steep learning curve with some of this myself, but I still thought it might be useful to share what I’ve discovered so far… And I’m hoping you can share your experiences and tips to add to mine, as it feels like an area many of us still learning about and comparing notes with others is definitely helping my learning.

Below I’ve captured what I’ve noticed are the main differences between face-to-face and virtual facilitation; some issues I’m struggling with and my top tips to date – as well as a list of resources on this topic that I’ve found most useful in my own research so far.

1.     The key differences I’ve found to date between face-to-face and virtual facilitation:

Issues using the hardware and software can REALLY get in the way – some participants have less experience/ skill in using the software, or they have poor broadband connections. These practical considerations can have a major impact on a group conversation as well as on individual participants’ ability to participate fully. It might seem basic housekeeping, but enabling people to make effective use of the hardware and software is probably one of the most impactful things you can do as a virtual facilitator.

We need to select different facilitation formats/ tools (e.g. paired discussion, a small group task, brainstorming, group decision-making tool) for virtual working than we would use when face-to-face. Some online platforms like Zoom have created virtual equivalents of common tools – like ‘Break Out Rooms’. Some familiar tools or exercises work just as well online as they do face-to-face; others are harder to adapt. Interestingly, some exercises can work better online as well – for example participants who hesitate to speak in large groups can find the anonymity of some interactive features like ‘Polls’ easier to use, or prefer typing responses into a Chat function than making their voice heard among louder ones in a room. In many online sessions I’m seeing more equal participation than I see in the ‘real world’.

Being clearer and more assertive – before and during the call. A facilitator works in service of the group, but the group vests in us the authority to organise the structure and process so that they can achieve their outcomes. Many groups are less confident and competent online than in real life meetings/ discussions so I’ve found it’s helpful to be clearer and offer more signposting about the process when online. I also find I’m more assertive and structured in making requests of the group and more vocal overall – for example, I’ll often use eye contact to encourage participation in a room, but over Zoom I’ll name and invite people to say something or select a format where participation is more structured. Before an online meeting I issue very clear instructions about how to best use the hardware, assuming no knowledge. I’m being less flexible/ responsive during sessions currently – but maybe that will change as groups (and facilitators) become more confident and competent online.

The context – we’re not facilitating online in a vacuum, we’re working together at a time of great disruption and uncertainty which is impacting on everyone, but making many existing inequalities worse. Those with a hearing impairment can really struggle with some of this technology or poor sound quality on a call; those with no childcare or school provision are probably frazzled, worried their kids might walk it any moment and how that might look to others; some of us very isolated right now; some of us might be struggling with poor mental or physical health, exacerbated by this social and economic situation; many are worried about their income, job security, families…  We ignore this context at our peril, we need to be mindful of the context in which we are facilitating both in terms of the practical and emotional implications which can sometimes be in conflict (people may have less time than usual; some may need social content more); many of us are feeling overwhelmed, scared, distracted and less able to concentrate.

2.     Some things about facilitating online which seem trickiest for me currently:

Building rapport – trust between the group is essential for people to participate fully. When we’re in a room with others it feels easier to understand one another; body language and tone is more evident and we can make eye contact and build rapport more readily. One to one interaction can happen in breaks, or during breakout exercises. Most of the groups I’ve worked with so far during Lock Down have known one another already, and we’ve worked together before – and this feels helpful when switching to online as the connections are already there. When I’m working with a new group I’m putting more emphasis on creating connections between the group at the outset than I might otherwise. The current context – and the blurring of professional/personal boundaries that is one feature of it –  makes this easier in some ways.

I’ve been using this exercise – ‘take a look around you, wherever you are sitting, and select one object that says something about your feelings about CV19 and the impact on your work. We’ll take it in turns to show our objects, say a few words as to why we’ve chosen it – and then ‘pass the mic’ by nominating someone else to go next. I’ll start….’

It serves several functions:

  • We get ‘all the voices in the room’ – everyone speaks which means they are more likely to speak later
  • It models equal participation – underlining we all have a contribution to make
  • We practice the ‘passing the mike’ technique and muting/ unmuting the hardware and taking turns so we don’t speak over one another
  • It creating opportunities to connect with one another and the topic at hand and by invoking ‘feelings’ it invites people to share their emotional state, acknowledging the challenging context.

Sharing visually what the group creates together

Sharing information or perspectives is fairly simple online. The rules that apply in real life apply even more online – keep it clear and short and allow for Q&A (and there are various ways to do that on Zoom). Early on in the pandemic I facilitated an event where sharing information was important and we cut down what had been 15 minute presentations to 5-6 minutes. The shorter the better, and if it can be shared in advance in writing instead – better still. You can share your screen and do Powerpoint to death online, but there are better ways to broadcast facts or opinions than a Zoom call.

But if you are problem-solving or generating ideas together then it becomes important to think about how to share visually what you are working on – and that’s little trickier. For example – you might want to brainstorm your ideas and see all the ideas before discussing the next steps. In a room we would use a flipchart or post-its, or draw together, but online it’s a bit clunkier.

A few things I’ve tried so far –

Sharing a Google Doc – for a brainstorming exercise where I wanted people to share their ideas generated individually or in pairs, I prepared a simple table in Google Docs and shared the link during the session (via the chat function – but I could have emailed it in advance). Participants spent 5-10 mins adding to this document – everyone able to add their ideas and see others in real time. Another benefit was that the ideas were captured after the session – no need to type up the Post Its or flipchart.

Sharing my screen – I use my screen as the group’s virtual flipchart. This week I ran a prioritisation exercise to help a group decide which ideas to pursue using the impact/ effort matrix. I created a simple table in Powerpoint into which I typed up the group’s responses in real time.

These both worked fine and were simple to do – which is important – but I’m sure there are other ways to share what groups create and would love to hear your experiences. Zoom has ‘whiteboards’ that groups can use during breakout sessions, but I’m wary of introducing these slightly more complicated tools to groups until they are more comfortable with the skills…

Plenary/ less structured group discussions

In face-to-face facilitation it’s easier to be flexible with structure and chair wider-ranging group discussions effectively. Issues with lag and sound quality, as well as the lack of eye contact, make unstructured online discussions harder to manage and often quite hard to listen to or participate in.

I’m finding I’m using a lot more structure in how I design sessions online – what might have been a 5 or 10 min open group discussion face-to-face works better online as each person typing 1 thing into the chat, ‘passing the mic’ etc. The Polls feature can be a good way to get some rapid feedback from everyone (or if you want to keep it simple just ask people to use hand signals – a scale 1-5 on fingers or thumbs up/down).

3. My top tips for virtual facilitation

1.     Be inclusive – not all of us can use all the tools equally well yet – set up for success by sending out clear instructions about how to use the technology in advance, including basic practicalities that make things easier for everyone – like using headphones/ microphone if possible, calling from a quiet, well-lit space. Be clear if you’re planning to use the camera – not everyone will be comfortable with this so best to flag it in advance.

2.     Keep meetings or sessions as short as possible – no longer than 90 mins at a time – if you need to do a half-day workshop then have a good break away from the camera for 15 mins. Use people’s time wisely and with care – many of us are not working to full capacity. Only meet together online if you really need to…

3.     Make time to connect at the start – combine practicing using with the software with a simple exercise that connects people, and acknowledges the context. This will throw up any technical issues (like sound) early on and give you chance to resolve them before you’re into the main business.

4.     Be sensitive to and acknowledge the current context – find a way to invite people to share the reality of their lives – even if that’s just where they are calling from.

5.     Have a co-pilot (if possible) – having someone who can provide technical back-up/ support enables you to focus on the facilitation.

6.     Keep the technology and tools as simple as possible – the less that can go wrong, or exclude people inadvertently, the better. It can be tempting to use the fancy new feature in Zoom but if you can do it more simply I would.

7.     Signpost clearly what the plan/ agenda is – have a clear a plan, share it in advance and try and stick to it. Verbally give people reminders about where we are on the agenda, what’s coming next etc.

8.     Build in interactivity throughout – create plenty of structured opportunities with simple tools like Break Outs (pairs or larger groups); Polls; Chat function; Passing the Mic (‘a round’) to enable participants to contribute in a more orchestrated way.

9.     Be clear in advance what you will do if something goes wrong – what’s the policy if someone hasn’t joined the call, do you start without them or wait? What is someone drops out due to technology or their child needs something? Be clear upfront with everyone how you want to handle these situations.For each exercise I tend to have a lower-tech option prepared/ in mind in case the technology lets us down.

10.  Debrief/ review after each session – ideally seek participant feedback, but if that’s not practical reflect independently – or in discussion with another facilitator (thanks to Sharon Dale who did this with me last week) about what worked/ what worked less well/what you might do differently.

Fundamentally – I’m learning it’s not that different to face-to-face facilitation. The skills and techniques we use daily as facilitators still apply – like agreeing how we work with the group, establishing a clear outcome, ‘active listening’, encouraging equal participation, designing an appropriate process – it’s just some of how we do this looks a bit different online.

I’m still learning myself about using techniques online and very interested to hear what’s working (and not) for you – so please get in touch!

Below I’ve included links to resources I’ve found useful – again I’m really keen to hear about others.

Resources I’ve found useful 


I’m really grateful to Henry Stewart for offering free tasters in making Zoom interactive and I would highly recommend their very reasonably prices courses – the next one runs 28 May. Some free taster sessions also still running and they have a great blog post too:

Making zoom fully interactive, a free session:


9 tips for interactive zoom:


Training course – Using Zoom for online learning

Judy Rees

Judy has been running online courses long before CV19 and she’s sharing great tips and resources for those involved in online training and facilitation via her twitter account @judyrees

International Association of Facilitators

Also on Twitter and a great source of articles on all aspects of facilitation including online is the International Association of Facilitators @IAF  I’ve found this twitter account really helpful and generous in the past with questions I had about adapting a session for people with learning disabilities, for example.

Liberating Structures

Another great source of information about facilitation, including online, are @Liberating Structures There are various international, national and regional groups sharing tips and offering opportunities to participate in and experience online facilitation. If you’ve not yet heard of LS or seen their website – then you’re in for a treat!