Facilitating remote workshops with Zoom

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Facilitating workshops that are completely remote pose a new kind of challenge. There are some things I have learned in the last weeks that I want to share with you in the hope they might help you …

We are a distributed company and many of our projects are staffed from any number of our 16 locations. And we are used to working remotely, because none of us likes to travel. But there is a big difference between seeing each other at the beginning for some weeks, eating together, and after that we normally see each other every two weeks at the end of a sprint – and doing everything remotely. Especially any kind of workshop or meeting with more than, let’s say, 5 people.

I already wrote about using a shared whiteboard, but this is just one minor aspect compared to getting a medium sized group to effectively do a workshop together. And if you haven’t experienced it yet: Facilitating is getting much more demanding.

So I want to share some small tips & tricks for facilitating remote workshops with Zoom – you still have to do the real work, but reducing the cognitive load by memorizing these things really helped me:

Body language

The main thing that makes remote workshops so difficult for me: No body language. You just see the heads – if at all. So the first thing we really insist on: Please switch on your camera. It not only helps the poor facilitator (you) but everyone participating. Yes, sometimes your network is not good enough. But “bad hair day” is no excuse (okay, easy for me to say: I just shaved my head).

The next thing is really simple: I hope you already have discovered “Gallery View”? It allows to see everyone at the same time, not just the speaker in large and some tiny heads. Everyone’s head is the same size so you can somewhat better gauge their reactions (see below on the right):

switch on gallery view in Zoom to see the body language for better facilitation

See the reaction of all participants by using the gallery view

Speaker sequence

If you have a bunch of participants in a non-remote setting, it is difficult enough to keep track who has raised their hands first, but in Zoom even with the Gallery view: No chance – at least not if there are more than 7 or 8 people. So you might have to force a strict speaking order, where everyone speaks in turn. But for some questions there will be only a small number of people who want to speak and it gets very tedious going through the round: Everyone has to unmute and say “pass”. But with Zoom there is a better solution. Click on the “Participants” button in the “Meeting controls”:

Click on "Participants" in "Meeting Controls"

and now you should see the participants lists on the right (if you are in full screen mode it is a pop-up window, but I prefer the list to be on the side). And in the lower left corner the participants see a blue hand:

"Raise Hand" in Partcipants view

When they click on that hand, they are marked in the participants list for everyone to see. And for the “Host” the participants are sorted by the order in which they raised their hand. So you as the facilitator just have to call them up in the order presented.

partcipants are sorted in the order in which they raised their hands

You might want to explicitly “Lower their hand” because otherwise they will stay on top of the list if they forget to do it themselves.

When I want to make sure that everyone is heard I still use a speaking order.

Quick decisions

When doing a Lean Coffee or many other formats you sometimes need a quick poll: Shall we continue or not? Does anyone “veto” this decision? With a limited amount of people, you can just use a thumbs up/down/sideways in the gallery view. But with more than a dozen people that becomes quite slow (but still workable). Still you might want to try “Nonverbal Feedback”. You first have to switch it on before the meeting in your settings. Go to Settings->General and at the bottom click on “View more settings” which will take you to the Zoom settings in the web.

switch on "Nonverbal feedback" to simplify remote feedback in zoom workshops

You have to scroll a bit and switch on “Nonverbal Feedback” and that adds some more buttons in the participants view:

Additional buttons in participants view

You can now ask the participants a question and prompt them to click on either “yes” or “now”. And you even get a nice quick tally:

quick tally of all votes

Remote workshop preparation

This should be its own very long blog post, let me just share some of the more important learnings:

  • Reduce the duration. I cannot stand live workshops that are longer than 6 hours, but with remote workshops I would reduce that to 3-4 hours and throw in more and longer breaks for good measure.
  • You need more time to explain everything. In a live setting, if someone was distracted or your explanation was not completely clear, they can simply take a peek at their neighbors at what they are doing or just asking them … Not so in a remote setting. Be prepared to explain everything exactly 1,632 times – or more.
  • We are mostly using Miro as a shared workspace/whiteboard. But since it is not a real whiteboard, where you can quickly scribble something, we prepare everything: Each “Canvas”, Dot-Votes, “Post-Its”. They are all there to be copied, directly alongside the “Canvas”. This is much easier than to explain everyone, where to click to get the right element. Especially if you want to e.g. use “Post-Its” with different colors (Events, Highlights, Lowlights): We put a whole bunch on the side, so that everyone can just grab them.prepare canvas, sticky notes, and lock the the canvas background
  • We also just “lock” everything that should not be editable, otherwise many people just accidentally move stuff around.
  • Since everything needs to be prepared, it is so much more difficult to improvise. Our solution: More breaks, which you can use to prepare something new, and we often add a second facilitator who can prepare stuff, answer questions in the chat, and take over if you are depleted.

That’s it for this post. If you want more, have a look at the “Further reading” section below, comment below or tweet about this, so I know you are interested.


Further reading

Victor Volle

Victor is often impatient, but most of the times he can hide this quite well. He loves to write code, but nowadays talking with and listening to people takes most of his time (he is trying to get better at the latter). He simply wants to get the system “through the door” and he just cannot stand red tape.

Some things you can expect to hear from him: Why? And: What is the goal? And: How would you recognize that you have reached that goal? He can be quite annoying, if you try to deflect these questions …

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