An Ode to Virtual Facilitation

My facilitation experience has been extensive to say the least, across all levels of organizations; there’s really not much that I haven’t been asked to perform, or have not experienced in formal presentation terms. Yet each and every one has strengthened my facilitation kit gearing me up to face any unexpected reality.

By writing these words, the floodgates on ‘memorable facilitation experiences’ has indeed opened.  Ahh, the impact from covering the 600-wide audience with a physical substitute for the ‘workplace glass ceiling’ (fabulous experience yet logistical nightmare!), uggh, the loss of voice throughout the global rollout, ahh, the thrill of witnessing my alternative learning design result in major aha’s, uugh, the moment the front row audience member had an epileptic fit, ahh, the excitement of converting a hardcore traditional audience into storytellers, uggh the client who monitored every word yet would not facilitate themselves and the list goes on; nothing can derail me as responding to challenges on the spot has become second nature to me.

Additionally, having co-created and co-managed a global online corporate academy involving asynchronous communication now enabling the internal corporate culture, I would classify myself as highly experienced with technologically-driven learning experiences in a Moodle environment. So why, oh why would someone of my capacity be put to the test through COVID- 19 when transitioning my global ‘certified master’ status with the time-tested global The Leadership Challenge Workshop to a Zoom-based, facilitator-led virtual learning experience?

There really are only a finite amount of responses for any unexpected situation that happens in workshops. Physical, socio-economic and emotional missteps may occur with participants and to be honest, while they tend to show up in different ways, many boil down to the commonality of a lack of integration or alignment on either a personal or professional level. Throughout my Zoom-based facilitation within the COVID-lockdowns, there were countless more variables to anticipate and handle, such as psychological, technological and contextual, with much less being within my sphere of influence or my locus of control.

  1. Psychological

The space a learner finds themselves in during a face-to-face workshop is somewhat visible, and the more time you mingle over breaks and lunch, the more is exposed. I needed to enter the space of the learner before the online interactions commenced, and understand it intimately. Was there a private area to work from or would there be a likelihood of children ‘bombing’ the class adding a layer of complexity or distraction to the learner. What was the ‘temperature’ of the environment from which the learner would be interacting eg hot due to loss of job or cold due to the level of COVID-based fear? Were there demands on the person regarding time competing for other responsibilities to name but a few.

To gain these insights, I set up a one on one personalized chat with each participant prior to the session with surprising results. Feedback indicated they felt comforted that I would know their reality and was willing to cater for their new realities. While from my side this took quite some time, it was an investment I would highly recommend, yet do so with full understanding that other psychological factors could show up at any time.

  • Technological

The virtues of technology are far-reaching, however not as far-reaching as the steps I felt I needed to take to be ‘ahead of it’. What exactly do I mean by that? To roll out the first highly-successful virtual The Leadership Challenge Workshop, a global team of Certified Masters were planning and plotting scenarios for over 8 weeks. The time spent on designing backup tactics, testing and re-testing, adapting exercises to the capability of the technology, ensuring everything would be within the constructs of one seamless platform while well-founded, was disproportionate to the preparation required for a standard iteration of the workshop.

The technology itself was being upgraded at the developer end (no surprizes there in a changing and competitive market) and we had to keep abreast of those regular changes. There was constant analysis for supporting technology: ‘do we invest in this, or go with the free one’, what’s the compatibility with our chosen platform with the aids to integrate, when to video and when to not video, how to discover new functionalities and align those to our objectives, how to ensure it displays across  all browsers in a similar way, to name just a few. For the ‘man off the street’ or the trainer in a classroom, that’s certainly a lot to work through.

Yet, so too is the task to gain the confidence of audiences to return to public workshops, eat in the restaurants and engage in group work yet again, all through the shroud of a mask.

  • Contextual

I needed to appreciate the context for each learner, such as the level of resourcing.  Were they working in a highly resourced area such as three monitors, the ability to print, the experience with the technology, the employer’s restrictions on some workplace restrictions etc? Were they already suffering from Zoom fatigue, having a not-so-welcoming outlook to technology for me to work around? Were they feeling overwhelmed at work with the amount of online meetings?

COVID has gifted us so many lessons in life. In this case, what has evolved for me from transitioning my facilitation into a live, tech-based environment would be the following:

  1. Never say never; nothing is impossible; take the first step while relinquishing control, entering a world that’s ready to help you
  2. While the transition will take much time and effort, simply consider this as a wise investment that will yield vast returns
  3. Whatever is invisible or intangible can have major impact; dig deep into every aspect in order to steer a customized response (relevant to individuals and technology)

So why do these findings excite me? I have a favorite saying: never forget your roots. Regardless of the large variety of experiences my career has given me, I periodically and consciously honor those roots of my original school teaching career, three career phases ago. There is nothing on that above COVID gift-list that wasn’t relevant to the success of my first career all those years ago. They may be ‘dressed differently today’ yet as strong foundational keys, they are what allow me to deliver so much value to and with my clients. I was true to those fundamentals then and I remain so today. Perhaps for me, the role of COVID was to reconnect me to my roots, stripping me back to my basics. How about you?

Debbie Nicol, MD of ‘business en motion’, a business consultancy and learning organization moves businesses and leaders ahead through change. Operating across the GCC for over 15 years, she achieves this through the services of training, coaching and solutions services, specializing in strategy, leadership and change.

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