More than ever, virtual teams are looking to us for effective ways to come together and sustain momentum on critical projects. As facilitators, we’re discovering that many principles of the collaborative design methodology we use to ensure successful in-person collaborative work sessions can be applied in virtual environments, with just a few adjustments.

Provide a Warm Welcome, Virtually
Effective teaming begins with clear objectives, a strong design, and a plan for how you’ll approach the work. This goes for all of our collaborative work sessions, whether virtual or in-person. Designing virtual sessions, however, involves an extra layer: a detailed understanding of how your agenda will translate virtually. When drafting the agenda, design for the experience you want this group to have.

First impressions can set the tone for the rest of the meeting, so it’s important to be intentional about the participants’ experience from the start. Will you ask participants to join the meeting via phone and video conferencing so they can see one another? Are people welcomed as they enter, and by whom? What is their visual landing page? Is there a virtual whiteboard, document, or presentation around which you would like them to immediately anchor their conversation?

Wear Your Fanciest Facilitation Pants
Facilitation is a discipline that enables bringing people together to accomplish a specific outcome in a set period of time. In virtual collaborative sessions, you are doing all of the same things you would be doing in person: clearly articulating the intent of the session, stewarding a process, listening for common ground, and enabling a group of people to reach a goal. But you are doing some new things, too, because it’s much easier to lose your participants in a virtual environment than it is in person.

Here are a few specific techniques that we apply when facilitating virtually:

  • When delivering instructions to a virtual group, your words need to land crisply, so consider writing instructions out and speaking them simultaneously, in real time.
  • If you are working on a digital whiteboard, allocate dedicated spaces for each group. You can even personalize these by including graphics or photos.
  • Keep tabs on silent participants, and be intentional about engaging and drawing them into the work.
  • Change up the cadence of the session by pausing mid-workstream and having teams cross-pollinate, or allow them to “steal” from each other to build alignment.
  • If sub-groups are reporting out, consider enlisting a few of your participants help document/take notes.

Stretch the Creative Canvas
Working virtually doesn’t have to mean sticking to a single approach or dialing down personalities. We develop unique, creative ways of working and change up the experience to keep meetings from being stale. Unleash creativity with a variety of tools to personalize the experience and approach. For example, allow the group to express their personalities as they work by including pictures, drawn characters, or funny annotations.

We think it’s important to be creative about the way your participants will spend their time, as well. Consider giving them time to work individually; allowing time for them to think through something on their own. This may seem counter to the whole notion of collaborative, group work, but we find that it helps different personality types feel empowered in a virtual environment and provides opportunities for folks who need to deconstruct and understand the end-to-end process in their own way.

Where it makes sense, dedicate parts of your agenda to virtual breakouts. That is, divide your group of, for example, 30 participants into five groups of six and go deeper together. Just as when working in person, smaller group sizes yield better conversations and engagement. So long as you have enough conference lines to dedicate one per group, and someone is providing timing updates, virtual breakout groups can be simple and effective.

Deadlines Matter
We know that timeboxing – the practice of focusing on one challenge, without distractions, for defined period of time – impacts how people work. In live sessions, we use timeboxing to ensure that teams focus on what matters most and they don’t get sidetracked. We also pay attention to nonverbal cues that tell us participants are ready to move on.

In virtual sessions, we use “micro-timeboxing” to ensure that participants aren’t tempted to pop over to another window they might have opened, since we don’t have the benefit in seeing them in person. Things move fast and bigger tasks are broken down into much smaller efforts. This requires heavier facilitation on our part but ensures that participants remain engaged throughout the session.

Embrace the “Iterative Relay”
Iterative design is a process that supports the creation of solutions incrementally. We build, we test, we rebuild – rinse and repeat. In a virtual environment, we have the luxury of being able to do iterative design together AND asynchronously. We use competing time zones to our advantage, orchestrating highly personalized “mini-missions” to keep the work moving in between real-time virtual sessions. Participants can work in smaller teams or individually, and pass their hard work to teammates in other time zones to move it forward while they are sleeping. Much like a relay race, smaller teams can be created and a healthy spirit of competition fostered to get the most out of every single person in the group.

Get the Technology Just Right
It’s exciting that technology is advancing at the speed it is, enabling virtual collaboration to take place more effectively than ever. Rather than taking the approach that you will design a virtual session that can be accommodated by this or that technology tool, we suggest that you first consider your objectives and your ideal collaborative process, and then work backwards to find the right tool for the job.

We at Collective Next are practitioners and champions of graphic facilitation. One way we leverage technology to bring that into virtual work sessions is with “SuperScribing.” But documenting your ideas with words and sketches is fairly simple; you don’t have to have a Super Scribe on your team! Open your favorite drawing app or use the whiteboard in your favorite virtual meeting software, and see if you can find a volunteer in your group to take sketchnotes throughout your session.

Speaking of favorite virtual meeting software, we have had great success facilitating virtual sessions using MURAL, a tool that enables teams to organize, share and develop ideas in real time. As facilitators, we love using MURAL’s huge virtal canvas to lay out vast amounts of information/knowledge objects, show the relationships between them, and constantly document our progress and output for all to see, throughout our work sessions. Our clients love MURAL’s easy and elegant user interface, and the ability it gives them to express their personalities (via drawing, photos, icons) in a virtual environment.

Albert Einstein said: “The human spirit must prevail over technology.” The more we test and iterate our technology and facilitation techniques, the better able we’ll be to fluidly use the virtual world to connect and collaborate with one another, and move forward together.