What facilitators are saying about the challenges and opportunities of the virtual business climate

In this time of social distancing, how might we embrace the power of facilitation to unlock true human connection in virtual environments? We’ve been hosting weekly Virtual Workshops to explore this and similar questions. Over the past few weeks, participants raised many concerns, ranging from the ability to connect and drive meaningful outcomes online, understand how to adapt to these new environments, support those who have less means to connect online, and concerns over the loss of true intimacy we derive from in-person connections. This fear of permanently losing in-person connections struck me deeply. As I pondered this notion, I wondered if we will want or desire in-person experiences if we become extremely skilled at connecting digitally? The more I thought about it, the thing I kept asking myself was, “Will the virtual natives care?” 

I am hoping to use less text in my work because it fails to set the context. Audio/Video is better and I will continue to learn new tools to do a better job at communicating. Loom is a great example of that.  

After spending WAY too much time pondering all of this, I decided to connect with some of my favorite facilitators and ask them how they are feeling about all these changes and the importance of connection in their work. Here’s what they had to say.

Facilitator Feedback

We are collectively in a moment of change that is making it possible to experiment and learn together in a spirit of generosity that is quite profound. More than anything, I hope we can move into the future together with that sensibility in the facilitative work we do, whether we find ourselves doing that in virtual or in-person spaces.

Anna Jackson, Founder @ Alpinista Consultin

With a sudden ban on traditional offices, people are honoring their own unique way of working instead of being forced into subscribing to a uniform way in traditional offices. So I think a huge wave of people are going to question the need for traditional offices because they find that the environment kept them away from doing their best work. 

John Fitch, Chief Product Officer & Master Facilitator @ Voltage Control

In this virtual environment, it’s important to understand that your content is competing with your participants’ family, dog, and grocery deliveries. Practice brevity and focus. Provide multiple ways your participants can contribute to the discussion (chats, virtual whiteboards, and open discussions).

Vaishali Jadhav, Senior Facilitator @ Procore Technologies

We’ve had 40,000 years as modern humans, speaking and collaborating together in the “real world”…and we still often mess it up. I think we need to be patient with ourselves. It will take time for us to feel that this digital space we can meet in is “natural”.

Daniel Stillman, Founder @ The Conversation Factory

Facilitating online meetings has evolved the way I bring people together and design meetings. It’s my role to make a comfortable space to gather so people have a space to build connections from anywhere.

Hailey Temple, Services Lead @ MURAL

Connections are not dependent on face-to-face or Zoom or audio or tactile. Connections are based on the awareness of the other person. Therefore, there is no reason to resent or resist on-line facilitation or training, as long as we keep our consciousness focused outwardly on servant leadership, on being of service to others.

Terrence Metz, Managing Director @ MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching. 

It’s going to be awkward for a while, but I think since we’re all in the same boat — we all feel this sense of newness to try to adapt our practices to this new ‘normal.’  On the bright side, there’s also a sense that we’re all in this together — we’re all experimenting and learning stuff that will change how we hold meetings and workshops when we come out the other side.

Deb Aoki, Sr. Experience Designer @ Adobe

Now is the time to lean-in and offer more services to current clients. That means not waiting for them to ask, but letting them know what I can do to help. 

Craig Carr, Founder @ The Ascendant Business Programs

I’m prototyping several improv games and warm-ups that I use in my in-person sprints and workshops. Explicit and implicit turn-taking is more challenging in a virtual space so I’m developing new methods and instructions.

Dana Mitroff Silvers, Principal + Founder @ Designing Insights LLC

The tools and techniques of online facilitation are pretty new to me, so I’m actively absorbing what I can. My current focus is working on the balance of synchronous and asynchronous work for online groups.

Tim Nations, Executive Director @ Leadership Network

I’m now particularly mindful of paying attention to everyone’s participation. Sometimes this requires slowing the group down to allow one participant to tend to a kiddo or connecting with them privately via chat to see if they are able to engage in the activity of the moment.

Pixie Renna, Master Facilitator @ Voltage Control

I am considering the physical spaces around our clients (i.e. their houses) and how to use them—scavenger hunts for common objects or asking participants to describe the scene outside their window. I am hopeful that the increased empathy as well as the varied settings, diverse attendees, and new locations will become a lasting impact.

Troy Thompson, Design Director @ EMPATIA.studio

My day-to-day business activities have stayed mostly the same. The real change for me has been family dynamics and creating new routines and structures to handle things like homeschooling, naps, meetings, fixing food and getting ready for the evening. 

Robert Skrobe, Founder @ Dallas Design Sprints

Previously we hosted educational, informational events and now we’re moving towards sessions that are designed for our members to speak freely and for others to listen. I’m also scheduling events like movie watch parties that are easy for people to drop in are not going to take a lot of effort or brain energy right now. 

Sarah Ortiz Shield, Executive Director @ Austin Tech Alliance

I’m hoping that as we collectively reemerge from this moment, it’s with a new clarity about the affordances and constraints of each space. Both virtual and F2F can support deep conversation and connection. And each space has tremendous potential if we’re deliberate about designing them. 

Erik Skogsberg, Associate Director @ MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

I have had to adapt every single meeting, both internally and client-facing. I’ve created virtual meeting spreadsheets and whimsical digital boards. I’ve even scheduled virtual hang time with my teams. This experience will make me a better project manager. I have had to dial up my empathy and get extremely clear on communication. 

Samantha Schak, Sr. Project Manager @ Handsome

Physical separation has increased our need for emotional connection. We are creating a new culture where the fear of sharing our vulnerabilities is being replaced with the emotional rewards of genuine relationships.

Bruce A. Hayes, Change Catalyst

I am setting up my work as usual designing for online engagement. The softened point is letting go of expectations mostly around time and people getting back to me, but still believing in high possibility. I recently allowed myself extra time to embellish a client video and enjoyed the connection it created for me and my client. 

Nora Scully, Engagement Designer @ Scully Spark

Many studies show that up to 80% of the workforce is not engaged. Any company who can engage their people at a higher rate will have a strategic advantage. This is an opportunity for us to learn how to help companies do just that.

Will Simpson, Executive Consultant @ Ten Eleven Twelve

Shelter in place has reminded me that the world is a small place and I can reach many more people and communities with digital facilitation. Instead of thinking Silicon Valley > California > USA, now I think across time zones and how many I can accommodate.

Rachel Ben Hamou, Culture Focused Facilitator @ PeopleStorming

All of these quotes spoke to me, yet I chose to end with Rachel’s because I found it so touching that these times of isolation have created an opportunity to see beyond boundaries that previously existed. 

A big thank you to my friends for sharing their thoughts and wisdom. In all of this uncertainty and devastation, it is lovely to see them all working together and sharing insights as we carve out the identities we will all persist going forward. This conversation interests me greatly and touches me deeply. If you would like to talk further about this, send me an email or join me at one of our free weekly virtual workshops where we are bringing together the facilitation community to explore and answer these types of questions.