3 activities to strengthen virtual collaboration

Optimal remote team communication needs to be steered by strong structures and methods that capture room intelligence–the idea that many minds are far greater than one–to be most effective. Without equal participation across the board, you are not leveraging the collective intellect, i.e. you are failing to capture room intelligence, and therefore capping the potential for optimal productivity. How do you make sure that every team member is participating in a meaningful way, especially when you’re not in the same room? Incorporating Liberating Structures into remote team collaboration will optimize communication and improves attention management. Let’s dive into what Liberating Structures are and how to use them for your remote team.

What They Are

Liberating Structures is a framework for facilitation created by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. It consists of 33 microstructures designed to build trust and enhance cooperation and communication between teammates. Participation is the name of the game with Liberating Structures; this framework is built around improving coordination by including and unleashing all participants.

Each microstructure is easy to learn, so whether you’re a highly experienced leader in a long-standing executive role or a fresh-faced newbie at a grassroots organization, this framework can work for you (with a little practice).

How Liberating Structures Optimize Remote Teams Communication

Even in person, conventional facilitation structures can be creativity’s worst enemy. They frequently result in the exclusion of less out-spoken voices in the room, lack a solid method of organization, and discourage outside-the-box thinking. Who feels included and creatively encouraged during a 25-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by an unfacilitated brainstorm in which the two highest-positioned extroverts in the room do all the talking? (Probably the two highest-positioned extroverts doing all of the talking!)

The pitfalls of conventional facilitation structures only grow deeper when applied to remote meetings. Throwing old behaviors online without regard to the unique challenges of virtual facilitation and participation will lead to apathy and frustration for both you and your team. Remote participants face more distractions, technical difficulties, and slower communication than in-person participants. Even the best of us can find ourselves disengaging from virtual meetings or workshops. You’ll need to put extra thought into engagement and participation to make the most of remote communication.

This is why Liberating Structures is such a great framework for remote teams. The framework’s strengths–participation enhancement, creative empowerment, and cooperation improvement–directly combat the challenges of gathering remotely.

When everyone in the room is empowered to participate, your meetings will produce more and better-quality work. Your participants are invited because they have something of value to offer; it is therefore crucial to empower them to contribute. Cooperation between teammates will heighten individual creativity by allowing everyone to build off of and inspire each other. The room is smarter than any individual.

Liberating Structures can help you harness room intelligence by empowering participants to share and fostering cooperation between team members.

The framework’s focus on participation will make attention management–often a Herculean task in remote gatherings–significantly easier. Liberating Structures operates under the philosophy that every participant has a lot to contribute, which means that every participant is being asked to take an active role. Participants who are actively engaging are much less likely to check out or become distracted.

Examples of Liberating Structures

While we love all Liberating Structures activities, we understand that jumping headfirst into adapting 33 microstructures for remote work can be overwhelming. Here are a few activities that are easily applicable for remote meetings to get you started.

Troika Consulting

This activity allows an opportunity for two participants to become consultants for a third group member (the “client.”) The first client shares a question or challenge, then the consultant has 1-2 minutes to ask clarifying questions. When time is up or the consultants are finished asking questions, the client will mute their audio and allow the consultants to spend 4-5 minutes generating suggestions and advice. The consultants will then have 1-2 minutes to share their most valuable feedback to the client. Group members will then switch roles and repeat until every group member has had a chance to be the client.

We love this activity because it simultaneously gives participants a chance to share their respective strengths and domain of knowledge and builds participants’ confidence in asking for help. The Troika Consulting activity builds trust between teammates and helps participants better understand each other’s strengths and areas of expertise.

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Because this activity requires each participant to step into the role of the expert, it leaves little room for participants to take a backseat. This makes it a good activity for remote facilitations. Even if a participant becomes distracted during their client waiting period, it won’t be long before they’re asked to take on the role of consultant and work with their partner to assist the next group member.

Conversation Café

This is a longer activity that will both make group discussion more structured and train participants to strike an appropriate balance between talking and listening. Participants will break into small groups (5-7 participants); one participant from each group will act as The Host, whose responsibility (in addition to participating in the activity) is to step in when another participant isn’t following one of six agreements.

Liberating Structures‘ Conversation Cafe agreements and steps.

Within these groups, team members will move through four rounds of conversation. During the first round, each small group member will have one straight minute to share their thoughts or feelings regarding the given conversation topic. After everyone has shared, the second round will begin; small group members will each get another straight minute to share their thoughts and feelings after having listened to what others’ had to say. Traditionally a “talking object” is passed around to signify whose turn it is to speak. Since your team is remote, you will have to find another ritual for signifying who is the speaker. Perhaps everyone else mutes their microphones, or each participant is asked (ahead of time!) to bring a common household item to the meeting, such as a mug or a spatula, to hold up in place of one singular talking object.

The third round is an open conversation in which participants can speak when they wish rather than taking turns. You may choose to continue using your talking object substitutes or to leave them in round two. This is likely where The Host will need to step in the most; ask them to encourage quieter members to talk and over-sharers to leave space for them to do so. After the third round is over (20-40 minutes), the fourth and final round will give each member a moment to share their biggest takeaways from the previous three rounds of conversation (reintroduce the talking object in this round if you removed it for round 3).

This activity is great for remote teams because it requires listening and reflecting rather than just sharing.

Participants will be unable to succeed in rounds 2 or 4 if they check out or get distracted during rounds 1 or 3. It also helps the quieter or more camera-shy participants build confidence contributing during virtual conversation.

If your virtual meeting requires an open discussion section, using Conversation Café rather than jumping straight into an open discussion will produce better conversation. Because the activity moves through four different rounds with clearly defined prompts and expectations, participants’ attention spans will be more solid and better focused on the discussion at hand. The small groups make it harder for a participant to fade into the background and the use of The Hosts within the groups provides peer-to-peer accountability that will keep everyone engaged.

15% Solutions

The 15% Solutions activity gives participants freedom to chisel away at a problem bit-by-bit rather than attack a huge challenge all at once. This activity can help them find a starting point if you have a question or challenge to work through during your meeting that is so large that team members are feeling blocked or powerless.

Traditionally, participants are asked to break into groups of 2-4–however, remote teams can break into groups that are a little bit larger if they utilize a chat storm. Ask your group what their 15% solution is; what contribution can they make with the power and resources already available to them without the pressure of solving the entire problem at hand? Give participants about 5 minutes to think (maybe an extra minute or two for typing) and then have everyone press enter, sharing their 15% solutions at the same time. Once everyone has had time to read through each other’s responses, provide 5-7 minutes per small group member to ask each other questions and offer feedback.

We love this activity for remote facilitation because it captures the room intelligence in such a direct way. It harnesses the individual strength of each participant and then requires team members to contribute those strengths to the ideas of others to make them stronger, more well-rounded, and more complete. It’s easy for members of a remote team to feel alone when overwhelmed by a large challenge; this activity brings participants together to improve each other’s ideas and face challenges as a team.

If you’d like to learn more about Mastering Virtual Liberating Structures to assist with your remote team collaboration, join our workshop during Mural Imagine on August 19 + 20. 

Want to learn more about virtual facilitation? 

Voltage Control offers virtual services including Virtual Facilitation, Virtual Transitions, and Virtual Meeting Design. Please reach out at hello@voltagecontrol.com for a consultation.

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