Man looking at computer with online participants on screen, leading discussion

I’m approaching 30 years in international development and that means a lot of workshops. Over the last 10 years, I have had the pleasure of facilitating these workshops, especially planning and learning events. As with every organization, COVID sent DT Global online and forced me to re-examine what is essential for facilitating a successful gathering. Workshops often have two parallel and mutually supportive outcomes—one is about relationships between participants, and the second is about the technical task at hand. While there have been a lot of discussions around “Zoom fatigue” and concerns about missing seeing people, I’ve been surprised by some of the benefits of using virtual gatherings that support both outcomes. Here are a few insights that are now helping me rethink the future of face-to-face workshops and meetings.

Virtual meetings allow for more equal participation

Virtual workshops create a more level playing field: there are fewer peaks but also fewer valleys. I’ve found virtual workshop are simply fairer for participants. There is no front of the room or center of the table, and it’s harder for few assertive people to dominate the discussion. Everyone sits equally across the screen. Hands are raised by hitting a key and can be taken in the order they come. There is more than one way to communicate, especially for those who don’t like public speaking. There are chat functions, white boards, polling programs—in short, endless ways for participants to pass messages to each other and organize. It’s also easy for people to comment anonymously, making it safer to discuss sensitive discussions. And, you aren’t dependent on the venue, which can sometimes dictate how people interact. For instance, I just finished an in-person workshop in Juba, South Sudan. Though the space was generally good, when we divided into breakout groups, we didn’t have enough physical distance in the space for each group to discuss privately. In contrast, online, you can quickly and easily organize breakout sessions by letting participants select groups or selecting for them, with little time wasted during the workshop. In sum, virtual workshops enable more ways for more people to speak.

There are many ways to archive the event

It’s easier to document and to provide different types of records of a virtual event. The hours of typing up flipcharts and deciphering notes from small group sessions is replaced by having groups type them onto PowerPoint slides, by using whiteboard programs, or by using transcription software. Virtual meetings also provide better opportunities to hear what you as a facilitator sound and look like…so be warned. A written report can easily be supplemented by audio and video recordings, creating a far more dynamic record of what was discussed for those there and those who weren’t.

Remote meetings can be more diverse

Virtual meetings allow for a more diverse group of people to attend. We are less constrained by the cost of moving people and less likely to exclude people because they are not near us. With the right investments, virtual meetings are a good tool to promote localization, allowing more direct representation of people and communities in activity planning and learning. While rolling out broadband access to all of our beneficiaries is not feasible, investments in technology for our field offices, that beneficiaries can use, is a good first step.

Lowers the environmental cost of meetings

The rise of virtual events over the past year has given me time to consider the true cost of workshops. One round trip for me to facilitate in Sudan uses the equivalent of 5 metric tons of carbon. Add in flying and busing people from across the country, plus the hotels, local transport, food, t-shirts—it all adds up. Of course, we can find greener venues, we can add into the workshop budget the cost of offsetting the carbon emissions, and just try our best to walk softly, but we also need to make sure it’s really worth gathering people. As we move forward, I suggest we all weigh the real environmental costs of in-person events against the benefits, and perhaps choose more virtual events even after travel becomes easier.

Virtual facilitation has lots of teambuilding options

It’s hard to replace the energy of face-to-face interaction. It’s hard to create the informal and unplanned interactions that can lead to some of the best insights and build strong relationship across a team. It’s hard to manage bandwidth differences and time zones. But there are more and more ways to address these problems. There are also great new online teambuilding activities: from quizzes and puzzles, to scavenger hunts and virtual escape rooms that connect people. There are innovative ways to host virtual networking events. And there are bandwidth scalable platforms (Teams, Zoom, Skype, Club House, and more) to allow for the participation of people with limited internet. In a recent meeting that I facilitated with 60 attendees across Somalia, Kenya, and the US, we had back up low bandwidth platforms, prepared template slides in PowerPoint to capture answers, and met in small groups to keep everyone engaged. None of this would have been as seamless in the old way of doing things. Technology has leveled the playing field and opens up a range of teambuilding activities to support engagement and more equitable participation.

Conclusion

I’m now rethinking face-to-face gatherings. How do we make them worth their carbon, how do we make them fairer and more genuinely engaging for everyone, how do we level the playing field?  I’m paying more attention to the space and how to de-center it. I’m adding in multiple ways for people to communicate, by projecting surveys and brainstorming on a screen so participants can contribute in real time (Mentimeter is good for this) and doing more small breakout groups. I’m considering how to keep better notes and invest in multiple ways to record and share events. And I’m really trying to bring in epic teambuilding games (A hint is to search "Teambuilding done in the Philippines," as they really make the most of gatherings.)

I’m the first person to admit that it’s hard to replace the energy of being together and it’s near impossible to plan for the unplanned interactions. It’s easier to read a room with people present. But if we can find ways to bring this into our virtual engagement, the benefits are real and important. Because just as virtual events aren’t perfect, in person meetings also aren’t without potential harm—to the diversity of our participants, to the inclusion of all voices at an event, or to our environment. In the future, I’m committing to weighing these costs and benefits and integrating these lessons into my facilitation both on and offline.