5 tips for remote facilitation: best practices for consultants
October 15, 2021
Client engagements are changing
Positive change — the kind that inspires and transforms — doesn’t happen by accident.
As a consultant, you know this better than anyone. You support your clients in transforming how they work every day. You facilitate workshops, solve hard problems, and adapt in the face of new challenges.
One of the most ubiquitous challenges right now is the shift to remote and hybrid work. For consultants, this means:
Building trust and relationships — often without ever meeting the clients in person
Planning and executing engaging remote workshops
Facilitating online discovery, alignment, and feedback sessions
Getting (and keeping) distributed teams aligned
You've found ways to make it work, but it's not always easy.
We spoke with Nevada Lane of Lane Change Consulting about her experience pivoting to remote consulting and digital facilitation when the COVID-19 pandemic made her usual way of working impossible. Read on to learn five ways she and her team have overcome common roadblocks, and get resources for adopting these practices with your clients.
"Facilitation is the skill of the future"
Facilitation is a fundamental skill, especially for anyone who works with clients. Every time you lead a client meeting or workshop — a discovery session, a retrospective, even a status update — you're practicing facilitation.
But the best facilitators don’t just lead; they co-create. They know how to ignite creativity and tease out a team’s best ideas, consistently and methodically. They establish psychological safety and create space for everyone to contribute, not just the loudest voices in the (virtual) room.
Nevada Lane put it this way:
“Facilitation is the skill that's going to get us to the next level of consciousness. We don't need more power over; we need more co-creation and power with. Facilitation skills are leadership skills that each of us has to have to create the world we want to create … Facilitation is the skill of the future if we're going to keep living on this planet.”
Pivoting to remote facilitation
Nevada's consulting work has always relied on visual thinking, which typically happens on whiteboards and flip charts. Over the years, she and her team have used visual methods to facilitate strategic workshops and coach business leaders for like Genentech, Target, and Google, as well as nonprofits and universities. When the pandemic brought in-person work to a sudden standstill, the in-person facilitation they relied on to do their jobs became impossible.
“I hadn’t seen an empty calendar in ten years,” Nevada explained. But abruptly and all at once, in-person meetings were canceled for the foreseeable future.
But Nevada is a problem solver by trade. She wasn’t going to let a global pandemic stop her from doing her job. So, she quickly jumped into action to find a way to facilitate client conversations online without losing any of the benefits of visual collaboration.
MURAL is a digital workspace for visual collaboration. It allows teams to work on a shared canvas in real time, no matter where they are in the world.
Prior to the pandemic, Nevada was facilitating every workshop face-to-face. Today, she coaches others on remote facilitation and is a Certified Virtual Facilitator, as designated by the International Institute for Facilitation. Let’s take a look at how she adapted so quickly and the lessons you can learn from her experience.
Five tips for remote facilitation
Use these tips to facilitate more engaging and productive remote meetings with your clients.
1. Don’t just replicate in-person work; elevate it
At the start of the pandemic, it was most teams’ instincts to simply run in-person meetings via Zoom and call it a day. But the most innovative organizations took a different approach. Not only did they adapt the best parts of in-person collaboration for the digital world, they also took the opportunity to fix some of the challenges with in-person meetings.
For example, in-person workshops can be limiting due to the size of the room and the whiteboard. When you facilitate workshops online, you can have more stakeholders working together at one time. With MURAL, you also have unlimited space to sketch, write, add sticky notes, create diagrams — without the need to take turns crowding around a whiteboard.
Sometimes, it makes sense to forego a meeting in favor of working asynchronously, especially when you're working with a globally distributed group of stakeholders.
"I'll frequently give a group some work to do in MURAL between sessions," said Nevada, "like plotting activities on a prioritization grid, which I would have waited for an in-person workshop to do previously."
2. Use frameworks and templates
Staring at a blank canvas can be intimidating at first, but you don’t need to start from scratch. Use a template to structure your next meeting or workshop.
MURAL has hundreds of free templates to get you started, including templates created by subject matter experts at organizations like LUMA, Facebook, and SAP. Topics and activities include:
Design thinking methodologies
Project planning and execution
Brainstorming and problem solving
Agile Scrum and SAFe ceremonies
Building trust and alignment
Storyboarding, diagramming, and mind mapping
You can also create your own branded templates to use again and again.
“Good facilitation is not about bells and whistles, but when people are experiencing serious Zoom fatigue, adding some visual fun can help,” Nevada said.
Turn mundane meetings fun by making them visual and interactive. Don't be afraid to give your client workshops a theme that you can weave throughout different activities and materials. After all, even the most buttoned-up executives appreciate a change of pace from their typical slide decks.
Not only will a visual theme give the participants permission to be creative, it also helps keep everyone engaged instead of zoning out or checking their emails when they should be participating.
💡 Pro tip: Outer space, sports, and food themes are always a hit.
4. Try new things, and don’t be afraid to look silly
Don’t be afraid to experiment and make client engagements fun. We're all just people, after all, and we do our best work when we're enjoying ourselves. You can do an icebreaker to get everyone loose, or play some music to liven up a brainstorming session.
Nevada is a pro at this. To keep everyone engaged during a longer workshop, she breaks it up with an energizer that gets people up and moving. Energizers are great for reloading energy, having fun, and getting people into their bodies. For example, Nevada will ask everyone to stand up and use their body language to express how they’re feeling that day. It might feel a little weird at first, but the stakes are low and the impact is tangible.
It's easy to feel disconnected when you're working remotely. The fact is, your peers are facing the same challenges you are when it comes to remote client work. We’re all in this together, and right now is the perfect time to connect with a community of consultants and facilitators who are invested in improving the way they work with clients.
Consultants are, by definition, driving change with the work they do every day. Now, in this ever-shifting business and social landscape, they have the opportunity to make a bigger impact than ever.
Facilitation is a skill that will change the world because it fosters creative co-creation, encouraging us all to look at the world from new perspectives and find novel solutions to tough problems. It allows us to envision — and ultimately, create — a better future.
As you build new relationships, processes, and skills, remember that you’re not alone in doing it all for the first time. Nevada put it this way:
“For anyone else out there who has hustled to change, tried new things that were awkward, rethought their business, felt silly, learned, had their Wi-Fi crap out at inopportune moments, created beauty from chaos, and otherwise made their way through, I celebrate your growth! Let’s keep learning and making work better.”
Shauna Ward is a senior content marketing manager at MURAL. As a former remote work skeptic, she enjoys creating resources that help hybrid and distributed teams make collaboration fun, easy, and effective.