Yes, this was a first, and it was an experiment. A few weeks ago, the GIZ Leadership Lab attracted nearly thirty participants from all corners of the world. We had invited them to a co-creation session for a leadership approach for global sustainability – and we had invited them to join us from the comfort of their offices: online.

With five breakout sessions and three co-presenters, my task was to facilitate and hold the space for the entire session. Not an easy task, but I think it worked sufficiently well. It turns out that facilitating online events isn’t that different to in-person events:

1. Meeting space

Participants are familiar with in-person meeting rooms. As a facilitator, you can benefit from this knowledge by using the room as a metaphor for the online meeting space. For example, I used the following phrases:

  • “As I am looking around the room, I’m seeing people from Asia, Africa and Latin America”

  • “To find your breakout session, you’ll need to take three steps: First, leave the plenary room. Then, orient yourself. Finally, enter the breakout room.” – (We had arranged breakout rooms as separate webinar sessions and had to teach people to switch session in the middle of the process.)

  • “In this room, you can participate by typing comments directly in the chat box in the bottom left corner, by raising your hand using the button in the top left.”

In an in-person session I would normally capture contributions in writing on a flipchart – thus confirming that they have been heard and are taken on board. In online sessions, it’s the other way around: It’s important to read out relevant chat messages to confirm that they were seen. This also helps participants that aren’t giving the screen their full attention at that moment.

2. Design for engagement

Even though you can’t see your participants, they are still there – and they want to bring their ideas and expertise to the table. In the Leadership Lab, we invited everyone to arrive 15 minutes early to give them time to arrive, grab some tea, banter and say ‘hello’ – and of course sort out eventual technology issues. The design of the actual session was comparatively simple – but included ample opportunity for everybody to contribute to the conversation:

  • Check-in: Three words about you (in the chat)

  • Welcome, structure and purpose

  • Introduction: Initial considerations on leadership approach
    with questions + discussion in the chat

  • Breakout groups: Which leadership tools and approaches for which purpose?

  • Brief reports + Check-out: What do you take away from today’s conversation? (in the chat)

3. People are responsible for their own experience

Technology can be an obstacle, and we always make sure to have one person at hand whose only task it is to help troubleshooting. However, not every problem can be solved in the short time available. Other participants might only participate with partial attention or have to leave before the end.

My focus as a facilitator will always be to provide a good flow of conversation for those engaged with the conversation. As I cannot see what is going on in front of the screens of the participants, I trust that they will find a way to communicate their needs.

Normal meeting rules still apply.

In summary, an online meeting is still a meeting. It needs the same amount of process design and attention to result in a meaningful conversation. Technology is an enabler of these conversations and should never stand in the way. Easier is often better, as it creates less confusion and is less likely to break.

Focus on the purpose of the conversation, and you’ll find a way to host it.
Purpose is the killer app.

What is your experience with online meetings?

A conversation is a conversation, even online
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