Virtual OD Facilitation

Part 1 – My journey into Virtual OD Facilitation 

I have a long history of facilitating others in their work – over 25 years.  My skills and competence were initially developed through informal learning – observing other leaders and consultants.  Between 2000–2007 I began to formally develop my facilitation skills and started my Organization Development learning on the Roffey Park OD Practitioner Programme (2008), the NTL OD Certificate Programme (2009), and MSc in Consulting + Change at Hult Ashridge (formerly Ashridge Business School) in 2013.

Like many, I was suddenly immersed into the world of virtual facilitation and virtual OD, early in 2020, at the start of the global pandemic. During that year I led a piece of OD consultancy work which was highly participative in nature.  This project involved over 600 people across seven different businesses, using co-creation and participatory approaches, and was entirely designed and delivered virtually.

For this project to be successful I needed to quickly learn how to design and facilitate virtual workshops and meetings.  I learned in four key ways:

  1. Self-taught experimentation with colleagues and my client
  2. Online workshops run by other facilitators
  3. Social media posts/blogs
  4. Conversations and shared experiences with my professional OD network

Part 2 –  What is Virtual OD Facilitation?

A standard definition of facilitation describes the facilitator as a person who makes a group process or task easier. The facilitator guides the group through a process that helps them work towards desired outcomes in a structured manner.  They design this process by using a range of facilitation techniques and methods that enable the participation and collaboration of everyone present.  A typical facilitated workshop or meeting might explore a topic or situation through dialogue-based techniques to develop shared understanding, engage in discussion around complex questions, generate a range of options, make decisions, and move to action to achieve useful outcomes.

Virtual OD Facilitation is a relatively new specialism that has fully emerged during 2020.  Facilitators have predominantly worked in live face-to-face settings, although prior to 2020 more organizations and teams were becoming remotely distributed with a resulting growth in remote meetings and online training programmes. The seismic shift in working patterns and the necessity to work from home caused a rapid growth of virtual OD facilitators around the globe. 

The definition of facilitation and a facilitator, outlined above, still remains valid, although the means by which it is brought to life and delivered is different in virtual facilitation.

Virtual OD Facilitation is the ability to design and implement constructive group conversations entirely online through a virtual or digital platform. These group conversations might be in the form of a workshop, a meeting, an ideation session, an event, or any other name given to the container that gets created and the facilitation of the group conversation that takes place.   There are some specific competencies and unique considerations in successful Virtual OD Facilitation.  These are outlined in Part III below.

Part 3 –   What are Virtual OD Facilitation competences?

In my book, From Physical Place to Virtual Space: How to Design and Host Transformative Spaces Online (2021), I share the Transformative Spaces Online framework.  This is based on key learning about virtual facilitation from my consulting project in 2020.

The framework captures the elements of ‘Preparing The Virtual Space’ and ‘Mastering Virtual Consulting’.  Below are the six core requirements taken from the framework that are needed in order to demonstrate a good standard of competence in Virtual OD Facilitation.

These competencies are a high-level summary of the content from my book.  Greater detail and examples of how these can be used in OD projects can be found in the book, which is available here:

Element Key considerations Signs/signals of competence
Preparing the Virtual Space
Designing Virtual Spaces Creating the high-level architecture for a virtual OD program of work

  • We rarely run a single workshop or intervention and frequently need to consider the sequencing and pacing of multiple workshops and events, and how they connect with other organisational activity

  • Adjusting the sequencing and pacing of virtual workshops can accelerate or slow down momentum, and help to manage the psychological impacts of virtual working on individuals

  • There are four design principles that help to shape a high-level virtual OD program: Context, Business Outcomes, Human Experience, Relational Dynamics

  • Adjusting the ‘frame of participation’
  • Considering what can be done before the workshop or event takes place, thus enabling participants to arrive at a virtual workshop focused and ready for ‘active participation’

  • There are many different ways to do this through briefing videos, asynchronous digital platforms, and preparatory activities

  • Design Options for virtual workshops
  • Virtual workshops have an optimum time window to maintain high levels of participation and engagement. This is between 45-120 minutes, and also requires breaks away from the screen.

  • There are 4 different design options that can support the desired pacing and sequencing for your OD program. Each of these fulfils a different purpose:

    • Focus – a single topic
    • Deepen – multiple topics or deeper exploration
    • Soak – inviting a gap between workshops for personal reflection and inquiry
    • Network – creating a gap between workshops to reach out across stakeholders or teams to gain additional input or feedback on progress
  • Each design option generates a different rhythm and pace which enables a wide range of stakeholders to contribute and be consulted
  • Stepping back and creating an appropriate flow and series of virtual workshops, using different pacing and sequencing to support or disrupt current patterns in the organisation

  • Considering the wider organisational and system considerations when creating the high-level virtual program

  • Incorporating a range of preparatory activities into the design to accelerate progress during the virtual workshop
  • Incorporating asynchronous approaches into your working style
  • Comfort with creating digital content

  • Using a variety of design options that support a program of virtual workshops
  • Varying the length and style of workshop to achieve the outcomes
  • Selects appropriate design options to actively generate wider participation across stakeholder groups
  • Mastering Technology Mastering your chosen digital delivery platform

  • Technology advances all the time and being digitally literate for your chosen virtual delivery platform is an essential for virtual facilitation. You may also need a working knowledge of other platforms if clients are restricted with the platform they can use
  • Knowing how to use all the features your delivery platform offers and how it can integrate with other platforms and apps will enhance the virtual workshop experience for participants
  • Incorporate a range of apps/platforms to enable active participation, capture outputs from generative discussions, share slides and documents, foster collaboration and co-creation, and working asynchronously Experimenting with different aspects of technology and new applications in a safe group of peers is a great way to build skills and confidence

    Working with others

  • Working with a ‘technical producer’ will enable you to focus on the participant group and let the producer focus on the technology during a workshop/event
  • Working with a co-facilitator allows you to swap between facilitation, and ‘reading the room’. If you both are confident you can also undertake the producer role too.
  • Depending on the complexity of your design you may need additional facilitator or technical support roles
  • Holding a full technical rehearsal before a workshop allows for everyone to be clear about their role and creates smooth transitions between different technical elements of the design

    Digital collaboration tools

  • There are many different digital collaboration tools available that enable active participation, enhance co-creation, and build engagement
  • Developing confidence and skills in using a number of these will allow you to select an appropriate way for your participants to get involved
  • Using digital collaboration tools can accelerate individual and group meaning making, and create visual images to share with wider stakeholders
  • Tech-savvy: Confident and competent to run workshops using the main meeting platforms and collaborative platforms
  • Explore and become proficient in using new and emerging technology that supports virtual facilitation
  • Open attitude to experimenting
  • Self-awareness to know when to seek support from others
  • Learn from and support more experienced online facilitators to grow skills
  • Collaborate and embrace co-creative approaches
  • Mastering Virtual Consulting
    Virtual Presence + Impact Getting yourself ready
  • Our virtual presence and impact are very different from our physical presence in a room. How you are seen and heard online will make a huge difference to the impact you can have.
  • Pay attention to your ‘Zoom Zone’

    • what can be seen behind you – keep it simple and uncluttered, use a virtual background/green screen, or set up a blurred background
    • how much of the screen you fill – aim to have your head in the top half of the online window, and slightly looking upwards into the camera
    • having a light source onto your face prevents being hidden in the shadows – don’t have a window directly behind you. A halo lamp or well positioned desk lamp are good solutions.
  • A good quality HD camera, one that is either embedded within your computer or via an add on camera with app, give a high-resolution image on the screen.
  • The microphone and speakers in your computer may not provide the best sound quality or confidential space unless you are in a private office. Using a headset with built in-microphone, or having a separate desk microphone and earphones will create better sound quality and provide privacy.
  • The choice to sit or stand when facilitating a virtual workshop will create different energy for participants. Consider where you feel most comfortable for the kind of workshop you are running. Introduce variety for different types of workshops and your personal energy levels
  • Mentally prepare yourself before a virtual workshop, sitting quietly to centre your energy, focus, and get grounded will enable you to work with your whole-body senses rather than just your mental cognition.

    Facilitating and hosting a virtual workshop
  • Creating psychological safety for your online participants will help them contribute and participate without fear of being exposed, excluded, or marginalised. You want to create an online environment where people feel safe to be themselves and voice their opinions in the group or team.
  • Creating online psychological safety can be started in the preparation stages by connecting those who don’t know each other, being explicit about confidentiality and how contributions during the workshop will be shared afterwards, asking them to contribute to building a shared digital document/page about the environment that is needed to feel safe and build trust.
  • During the virtual workshop psychological safety can be built by:
    • Welcoming everyone by name when they arrive
    • Encouraging everyone to speak at the start of the workshop, either by responding to a simple introductory question, or deeper check-in question (Where are you joining us from and what can you see out of your window? What are you most curious about? What three words describe you how are feeling right now?)
    • Confirming confidentiality and ‘Chatham House’ rules
    • Agreeing ground rules for interaction, asking questions, having camera’s on etc….
    • Remaining curious as a facilitator to explore what might be behind a contribution someone makes
    • Using breakout rooms to create small, more intimate groups for deeper conversation Allow space for everyone to speak if they wish to

    Encouraging Active Participation
    Our role as virtual facilitators is to create an environment where attendees are able to fully participate in the conversation and the process to achieve their outcomes.

  • Generating interaction, participation and engagement during a virtual workshop can be done through effective use of:

    • Chat – for participants to ask questions, to share their reflections, to do paired work (private conversation with another person)
    • Reactions – an instant way to gauge feedback on how people are feeling
    • Polls – great to gather data instantly, vote on options, share feedback, capture personal commitments/action
    • Breakout Rooms – a powerful space for small group work to take place that results in deeper exploration, conversation, and idea generation. Combine with using digital collaboration tools to capture the conversation outputs. Vary the mix of people you bring together, and allow participants to self-select their conversations by naming each breakout room by topic.
  • Conversation flows are different when everyone is online and at times they can feel clunky until a group get used to talking and working together. As a facilitator we can ease the way by inviting people by:

    • Being clear in referring to people by their name to invite them to speak, or by lining people up so they know when they will be able to respond or contribute eg: I’ll come to Bob first, then Alisia, then Paolo.
    • Creating a ‘round order’ into Chat, listing everyone so they can see when their turn will be in a conversation where you want to hear from everyone. Anyone on the list can start, and then people follow on from there.
    • As the group works together more, you can encourage them to respond more to the spaces that are created by the group and let a more intuitive conversation flow occur.
  • Use suitable equipment to be clearly seen and heard
  • Establish relationship and credibility within the group
  • Create a safe and inclusive online environment
  • Focus on self-care and self-awareness
  • Remain grounded and in tune with self to access rational, emotional, intuitive, and embodied
  • Working knowledge of adult learning styles
  • Flex the flow of the workshop in response to what is happening with participants
  • Virtual Group Process One of our roles as OD practitioners is to notice what is happening while a group is working on their ‘task’, to follow (track) the group’s process/ways of working and share with them what we’ve noticed (intervene). We share what is helping and what may be hindering the progress of the work they are doing (task) with the intent of improving their effectiveness.

    This group process work is equally relevant when we are working online, what changes is the range of data sources we draw from to notice, track and intervene.
  • To notice and track in during virtual workshops you need to amplify your attention through deep listening, tune into more subtle visual clues of body language and facial expressions, and dial up our somatic knowing that comes from physical sensations, feelings, and emotions arising with ourselves.
  • It’s challenging to scan and notice what’s happening while presenting and it is easier to work with a co-host if you are engaged with virtual group process work. This means one of you can focus on the virtual facilitation, while the other observes the group.
  • Use gallery view to watch and listen intently. There are fewer visual cues so we rely more on listening to what is being said and how it is being said. Some things to pay attention to:
    • How people position and move their head
    • Eye movement patterns, widening or narrowing
    • People opening their mouth, getting ready to speak
    • Leaning forward towards the screen or sitting back and moving away. What was said to triggered that movement?
    • Breathing patterns
    • Fidgeting or stillness
    • Are these movements and expressions one-off or repeated to form patterns?
    • The language used and metaphors that emerge in the conversation, are they commonly used across the group or just by a sub group or individual.
    • The language used and metaphors that emerge in the conversation, are they commonly used across the group or just by a sub group or individual.
  • When tracking, look for:
    • Repeated occurrences that form patterns
    • Patterns of contribution – who speaks the most, who speak first, who initiates ideas, who supports or opposes them
    • Interpersonal dynamics – are there small groups of people who trigger patterns of behaviour. These may have a positive or negative impact on the working of the group
    • Impact – who are the influential voices that get attention when they speak, who gets ignored
    • How decisions get made, is there an explicit process
    • How does the group deal with disagreement? Does it get smoothed over, surfaced for discussion, or do ‘spiky’ exchanges take place?
  • We may not do group process work every time we facilitate online, but when we do we need to contract at the start with the group about this role, and what they may experience when we intervene
  • Understand the nature of groups and group dynamics
  • Skills in observing, listening, summarizing, and spotting patterns
  • Track contributions, spoken and non-verbal, what is and what isn’t said
  • Pay attention to individuals and the whole group
  • Notice bias, inequality, and power imbalance
  • Non-judgemental curiosity
  • Smooth working with co-facilitator
  • Clean contracting for ‘group process interventions’ agreed with client
  • Making Virtual Interventions Making interventions relies on acting with what you have been noticing and tracking. At best they are swift and immediate, bringing attention to what is happening ‘hear and now’. There is an intuitive aspect to the choices we make in those moments, the choice to speak up and intervene, or stay silent and continue to notice and track. Silence itself can be a powerful intervention.

  • Use of Self is our practitioner DNA, using ourselves to intervene with intent. This can also be described as how we turn up online, and what we do as a result.
  • Using ourselves to make dynamic adjustments to a conversational flow – know when to extend a conversation rather than following the plan – as well as intervening to open up a dialogue are all elements of intervening with our presence.
  • Five ways to make virtual interventions that are spoken/written when on line are:
    • Speaking directly to the group when they are working
    • Speaking directly to one or more individuals while they are working
    • Speaking directly to the whole group during a reflective pause
    • Via Chat to everyone while the group is working
    • Via Chat to an individual
  • There are also physical ways to intervene which can help to shift the energy in the group or reframe something:
    • Taking a break or having time away from the screen.
    • Closing your eyes to give a release from the screen, including music or a guided meditation
    • Working solo away from the screen, or going for a walk to reflect on something as part of a workshop
    • Getting everyone to physically move at the same time can release stuck energy and shift thinking.
    • Physical movement creates a different mental state and opens up new neural pathways for innovation, creativity and learning.
    • Playfulness and laughter release endorphins that create bonds within a group, so some lightness in your activities can create this.
  • Intervening in breakout rooms can be trickier for virtual facilitators. If you are not in the breakout room from the start of the conversation then your sudden appearance may be a disruptive intervention. Consider how to elegantly enter and exit a breakout room:
    • Be explicit and create an agreement at the start about if you will visit, and what your role will be.
    • Agree that when you first enter you will sit silently to absorb what is going on before speaking or answering any questions if needed.
    • If the nature of the work means that a group will need support at some point during a breakout session then it may be less disruptive to have a facilitator present during the whole breakout session. They do not need to be active and can be a silent observer, or in a group process role
  • Build relationships and establish credibility in the group for the intervenor role
  • Confident to intervene in the group with appropriate intent
  • Hold boundaries successfully
  • Self-awareness of own bias and triggers
  • Emotional self-regulation to adjust under pressure
  • Make credible and timely interventions to interrupt the flow
  • Use of neutral and respectful language
  • Remain grounded under pressure
  • Confront inappropriate behaviour
  • Curious to continue to learn from others
  • Part IV:  Routes to developing competence and some resources  

    If you are interested in developing this specialism, I recommend any of the following approaches: 

    1. Self-Learning 
    1. Practicing and experimenting with support 
    1. Formal Learning 
    1. Creating opportunities to learn and develop 

    1. Self-learning  


     ‘From Physical Place to Virtual Space – how to design and host transformative spaces online’ Gwen Stirling-Wilkie 

    Available on Amazon 


    I did the majority of my self-learning online and found the following to be the most helpful 

    • There are many videos and tutorials provided by the virtual platform and digital collaboration providers (Zoom, Mural, Miro etc) 
    • YouTube has many videos available through their search engine 
    • Virtual facilitators on LinkedIn often post articles, blogs and videos, and some offer free workshops.  
    • Howspace have a great free resource – Virtual Facilitation Playbook  
    • Session Lab have lots of resources and a free virtual facilitation guide 

    2. Practicing and experimenting with support 

    Create your own ‘practice group’ with others interested in developing their virtual facilitation skills.  This is a safe online space where you meet and practice something you want to use with a client.  They can give you feedback and help refine it, and together grow your skills and confidence. 

    3. Formal learning  

    Many training and development programs are emerging in this space.   

    A Hybrid Approach to Dialogic OD + Transformation 

    This is the current online program that I offer, based on the content in my book, and now adapted to include hybrid approaches to OD and facilitation.  Future program dates can be found on my website:  

    Here are some other specific programs and organisations I recommend: 

    4. Creating opportunities to learn and develop 

    Work with more experienced virtual facilitators and volunteer to be their technical producer or support facilitator. 

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