23rd March 2020 by Steve Holyer
White Paper : Longer Read
You're working with a distributed team
Whether you Planned It or Not
You’re working remote. You’re working hard to hold rich and productive meetings, meetups, and training courses. You want to encourage connections with your teams. You'd like a work environment that's as productive and connected as it was before we all went remote. You're not feeling it though—it just feels like something inportant is missing when you work remote.
Leaders, Managers, Coaches, Facilitators and Trainers:
You're asking, “How do I engage people productively online?”
I'm writing this article for you.
I know you want to engage people, but suddenly the only connection you have with them is this Internet connection. Internet is great and all that. But you wonder, “Can working this way be as effective as working in the same actual place?”
Even if you haven't put it into these words, everyone feels the sudden loss of connection bandwidth when you go from working in the same room to working on Zoom. (So much lost bandwidth). Many subtle signals and cues of human communication and connection aren't coming through that screen.
Now. Like it or not, you're called to be the guides in these new distributed spaces.
In fact, I'm calling you “Guides” in this article. If you're a nervous or questioning Leader-Manager-Coach-Facilitator-or-Trainer who's just been asked to work with a remote team, then I'm talking to you when I say guide.
You need to move your class from a well equipped training room to Zoom. The class starts next week, and you've never trained online before.
And, I bet it doesn't feel very fair.
It feels scary and unfair because you're passionate about your work. You care about curating an experience that engages people. You want to set up conditions for deep learning.
You've invested a lot to learn, practice and master modern adult classroom principles like those in the Sharon Bowman's book Training From the Back of the Room. You simply don’t have the experience to do that in a distributed online classroom. Yet.
You know. This probably would be much easier if only you didn't care about creating rich learning experiences.
You could give up on creating those experiences.
But the good news is you don’t have to compromise like that.
Managers, Coaches, and Facilitators
You're in the same predicament. But instead of a 3-day training course, you're moving an all-day strategic planning session to Zoom. Or you're simply trying to create effective connections with the people that you manage. It's just as hard, and I imagine just as scary. Of course you care deeply about all of it. You wonder if it's possible to deliver that value you usually deliver when you're doing it online.
Don’t worry. It's possible to deliver that same value, or even more, online.
What We’ve Learned.
The Tips You Need
We’ve been facilitating regular remote meetups, or Coaching Cocktails, since 2013. We moved to Zoom in 2015. Coaching Cocktails are world-wide remote meetups for a global community of change-makers.
We also hold workshops, and planning sessions online. We’ve moved our own training online. People love the experience and say it's richer than they realised online training could be. We’ve helped several others move their training online too.
When we took our work online starting in 2013, we refused to compromise. We were set on creating a rich experience with full connection. That's the only way we'll work. We don’t want you to compromise that quality either.
Here's an overview of some things we’ve learned about remote facilitation and guiding remote teams and groups while we were mixing up Coaching Cocktails.
I hope you to find a few valuable tips in here that will help you get the results that you want from your next remote meeting or class.
And if you still want more, I discovered last week, that I'm the Carrie Fisher of creating these online distributed experiences! I'll explain how I'm like Carrie Fisher at the end of the article.
First Things First
This is always the first tip—that I give to myself.
Take a deep, slow breath in. Hold. And out. Do that 3 more times. Get present in your body. Calm your nerves a bit.
Do this as many times a day as you need.
And yes, try this online in your session, too. While you're working with people. With Zoom on. Invite the others to join you.
I do this. It always creates more presence, and other immediate improvements in the session. It still surprises me.
Tip #1 : Breathe.
Whatever Happens ...
Whatever happens is the only thing that could.
That's one of the 4 principles of Open Space. It's very important right now as you enter this distributed team space.
Like most things worth mastering, you build fluency for the work while you're doing the work. Which means you build fluency by guiding a group online. It's the same principle as learning to speak a language or master a sport.
Learning to do this remote thing well is a progression. You're always getting more fluent while you're doing it.
As you practice guiding deeply connected experiences online, you'll become a fluent guide at the highest levels—when you need to be. It doesn't take that long. Trust me.
You might also be just fine mastering enough tips to teach your first good course or hold your first good meeting. That might be all you need. When you're fluent at the level you need to be, the things that seem tricky or impossible now will become “muscle memory” pretty quickly. You'll realise one day that you're guiding connected, living online sessions that just flow. You'll be working ease.
That will happen one day soon.
But this is now.
So be kind to yourself. No-one expects a preschool child to speak her language with the fluency of a college professor.
Most people will understand that you're new at guiding online experiences. I invite you to be just as understanding with yourself.
Tip #2 : Remember whatever happens is the only thing that could.
What are We Expecting?
What Kind of Experience are You Holding
There are so many types of distributed online experiences.
To visualise some of the variations, imagine you have ‘bandwidth’ on one axis. Imagine ‘interactivity’ is the other axis.
The amount of bandwith you have and use can range from two tin cans tied on a tight string to fully immersive virtual-reality rigs. (Something most of us don’t have access to yet.)
Interactivity ranges from ‘pre-recorded’ to ‘the flying trapese’.
Lower Bandwidth, Lower Interaction
Remember that phone number you could call that told you the time and temperature. It was a fascinating remote experience—back in the day.
During ski season in Switzerland there are any number of telephone numbers you can call to hear a pre-recorded snow report.
Those experiences are pre-recorded audio. They're also remote sessions. They're just very low on bandwidth and very low on interaction.
Lower Bandwidth, More Interaction
There are many more examples of remote experiences that are stil low in bandwidth but higher in interaction
Where do those audio-only conference calls fall? They probably end up somewhere low bandwidth but with fairly high interactivity.
At last there's usually a lot of interactive cries of “can you repeat that?” “Lean closer to the mic?” “I think we lost you there for a minute.” And, “Sorry I didn't hear the last 20 minutes, can you repeat it all for me?”
Higher Bandwidth, Lower Interaction
Webinars are very popular. They're often pre-recorded. You rarely see the speaker (or the participants), but you do see a slide presentation that keeps time with the narration. Often Webinars offer some interaction in the form of online polls, chat windows, and a highly-moderated Q&A after the recording finishes. It's a lot like information talk radio with an informative animated graphic display.
Higher Bandwidth, Higher Interaction
Some online sessions offer an experience that flows almost like everyone was in the same actual room.
One or more guides or facilitators are often online to enhance the bandwidth and cultivate interactivity in order to help these sessions flow.
Where Does Your Experience Fit?
There are many more combinations and possibilities. Some possibilities don’t fit neatly onto the coordinates we’ve been imagining. My colleagues Sam Liang and Karen Greaves teach hybrid courses that take place online and offline. Their courses are carfully designed to move all over the bandwidth/interactivity map in one full lesson. (That's a very good thing!)
The experiences you guide could fall anywhere along the two axis of bandwidth and interactivity.
When people talk about remote training, they're often talking about an educational webinar. Most of the “launch your course online” courses you see online target something in the higher bandwidth, but lower interaction zones.
The important question for you is: How much bandwidth and interaction are you planning for?
That answer will help you think about your experience. And it helps you align expectations for the event.
Tip 3 : Identify and decide where to build your experience based on bandwidth and interactivity.
SIDEBAR : Learning our Craft Over Coaching Cocktails
Deb and I had two goals when we started offering Coaching Cocktails. First we wanted to offer connection to our friends and colleagues who live around the world. We wanted to host a fun, world wide happy-hour type meetup (that never required alchohol). So we knew we had to do it online.
Plus, we wanted to create the kind of meetups we were passionate about. That meant online meetups that were high bandwidth and high interactivity. We wanted “The flying trapeze.” If only we had universal access to better VR.
Many of our colleagues told us that it was impossible to “do Agile”and good facilitation unless everyone gathered to work in the same room. We suspected that wasn't true. If we could prove for ourselves that you can “do Agile” and good facilitation with a distributed group, then we wanted to learn to guide that fluently.
We care about holding space, and we care about good facilitation. Our second goal for Coaching Cocktails was to prove that high bandwidth, high interaction meetups work online. We wanted to prove distributed setups online can be as good, or even better, than the best meetings happening in an actual room.
We believe we’ve proven that.
What Kind of Experience Do They Expect you to Guide
We held an on-line community retrospective recently. (In the first week after many people started working from home due to the world-wide situation with the corona virus and COVID-19.)
One person said a Product Owner expected her to move her training online in a week.
I'm sure she's not the only person who heard that this last week. Matter of fact, I've heard from three different people who heard the same thing! I also know college professors who heard it for their upper level classes. Move your class online in a week? Why not? It's easy right?
( No, I really don't think so.)
After thinking on that for a day, I realised: if I was in her shoes, the first question that I'd need to ask would be: “What kind of experience do you want me to guide online?”
And I’d want to follow that question with:
- How much value do you need from this experience right now?
- How much bandwidth is available for the experience?
- How much interaction will give you the value you need?
I'd also try to find out how the people planning to attend the class would answer those questions. (I’d try to do that in advance of the training event if I could. But if I couldn't, I'd ask early in the proceeding when the class started.)
Finally, I’d start designing an alliance with stakeholders and students that's fit for what's possible right now and what's available right now. (If the company has disabled video on all employee machines, it will restrict bandwidth to the Audio channels. Just like a conference call. If that's the case, you’re in conference call territory, and you'll have align for that. Unless you can influence the organisation to change their policy to allow for something with higher bandwidth.)
The same thoughts about audio-only will also apply if people are joining your session areas where the Internet won't support the video bandwith.
Tip #4 : Find out what’s expected and needed.
Tip #5 : Design your alliances. Consider what's possible and available.
Tools for Distributed Experiences
When we started this Coaching Cocktails “experiment” we knew our most critical tool would be the actual video conferencing system. No surprise there.
We’d need a video conferencing solution that helped us make a a high quality connection without getting in the way.
That meant, we needed easy, intuitive controls so that people wouldn't have to think about the video tool. If they spent time thinking about the video tool, it would cost them their full presence in the meeting.
We also wanted to offer people the option to call in from a phone line if internet or video wasn't reliably available.
Zoom offered everything we needed in 2014 and 2015. So we chose to use Zoom. With Zoom our video tool just worked. And our tool almost alwas stays out of the way.
Tip # 6 : Tools - Use Video Conferencing that works & stays out of the way.
We need more tools, right?
We went looking for other tools next. Remote Facilitators love tools. We were no different.
Before long we were overwhelmed by the complexity of all the tools we found. In fact, we were overwhelmed almost immediately.
It was clear that our other tools had to stay out of our way too. We needed to be able to use them without thinking about them.
We know that we don’t have the mental bandwidth to focus on tools while we’re actively holding space for a Cocktails Meetup.
We also needed to think of our guests. The tools had to be very easy to use and explain for the other people in the session. We knew we'd lose people at once if they didn't understand the tools we asked them to use. We didn't want to lose time helping people learn a new tool. We couldn't tolerate tools that made it difficult for guests to login. Any other tool we used had to be simple, and it had to be intuitive like our video.
Essential, We Thought
We thought we needed a reliable interactive whiteboard that offered a natural intuitive interface for using “sticky notes.”
We also thought we needed a separate backchannel so people could communicate even if the video conferencing went down or they lost connetion to it.
Finally we discovered later that we needed a break timer.
We kept asking ourselves two questions inspired by Extreme Programming and Open Space Technology:
- “What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?”
- “How can we do less to hold space effectively.”
Whiteboard In the Clouds
Some online sessions need a whiteboarding tool. But we soon discovered the whiteboard tool can promote engagement, or it can actually dampen it.
We realised that many sessions don’t need a whiteboarding tool—as long as they had mindful design. Sometimes we do need some type of board tool, but many times there are other highly interactive ways to accomplish better results.
When we do need a whiteboarding tool we want to keep it really simple.
Our board tool of choice was Boardthing. Sadly Boardthing didn't capture the traction it needed and the startup closed in early March. We're looking for another board tool that meets our standards and our needs. (If you recommend one let us know!) For now we're using a shared Google Document.
The “backchannel” is a way for people to connect with us and ask for help, even if something prevents them from joining, or re-joining, the video-conferencing session.
We tried many good tools for a “backchannel.” We finally settled on the most obvious and simplest tool. It's probably already obvious to anyone who's not searching for a remote facilitation tool.
We were so busy trying to find the right tool, that we overlooked the phones in our pockets!
These days we almost always give out our mobile phone numbers at the beginning of a session. We ask people to TEXT / SMS, or message us on Whatsapp, when they need us on the backchannel.
That's easy for us. And it's probably the easiest thing for the our guests. It doesn't require any special software or new, special logins.
When the team is already connected on a Slack workspace we might use Slack for a backchannel. We don't ask people to use Slack if we aren't already connected. We find it requires too many steps to join a Slack workspace and it robs bandwidth, interactivity and time from the session. All the channels and other messages in slack are also very distracting
Tip #7 : You only need a few simple tools.
Tip #8 : Ask yourself, "What's the simplest thing that could possibly work?"
Tip #9 : Ask yourself, "How can I do less and get the same result (or better)?"
Both Tools and Process
The next thing we did was: we created calls for ourselves. We needed to practice (sometimes we signed in from each of our phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops to simulate more users). We needed to be fluent enough using our tools, that we could use them without thinking about them.
We played “chaos monkey” and tried to “break” the flow of our tools on our test calls. That way we’d know how things happen when something inevitably goes wrong. We learned how to recover from errors and how to support others who are having problems.
We see lots of people having impromptu remote Dojo parties to do this right now. We’re right there with you. They're valuable. Important. And lots of fun.
The practice calls also gave us a chance to practice our process.
Tip #10 : Find a friend and practice using your tools (and your process) together. Have fun while you do it.
Replacing Lost Bandwidth and Juggling More Balls
No question. We lose bandwidth when we move our connections online. We're not using technology that lets us smell each other or breathe the same air (kinda of the point right now). I’m pretty sure the technology doesn't even exist yet.
We believed, and still believe, that we have to boost the suddenly weaker signals using good facilitation.
A guide or facilitator is always juggling several balls at the same time. With remote facilitation it feels like you're juggling more balls faster.
Planning Guides and Facilitation Plans
That's why we carefully think through all of of our online facilitation before a session. We also write the plan down with a lot of detail. We write down (estimated) wall-clock timings to keep us on track.
I say we write it down. We type it into a planning template that we created though trial and error—inspection and adaptation. We’ve agreed together that's the planning template that works for us.
When I'm holding space with everyone in an actual room, I create a basic outline of a basic facilitator’s plan. But it’s often very basic without many details. That's all I need with my fluency as an actual room facilititator. When I'm working with people online in a virtual room, I almost always write out a detailed plan.
When things get hectic online, I'm always glad I did.
We know that nothing will go exactly as planned in a high bandwidth, high interactivity session. For things to go exactly as planned we'd have to lower the interactivity to pre-recorded. That's something we won't usually do.
But once we know the plan and the estimated timings we're able to discard the plan and go off script whenever we need. We know we’ll find our way back to it.
We call that dancing.
Tip #11 : Learn the moves and the counts. Write the moves down and memorise them. Throw out your notes (when your space demands it). Then DANCE gracefully in the flow.
Work in Pairs
Because it's so effective for us, we (almost) always work together when we guide any Coaching Cocktails meetup. I really notice the diffence when I’m working alone for another project. I feel like I lose half my bandwidth on those occasions when I am working alone. That's why I always try to find a facilitation partner when I’m guiding any session online.
When you guide with a partner, one person is always able to watch the participants and sense and respond to their needs. That's holding space. I find that holding space online goes much better with a second person. One person can also wrangle the technology and the tools while the other is guiding and facilitating. We often switch back and forth.
Tip #12 : Work together in a pair or team.
Create Roles and Working Agreements
We needed to have have working agreements between us. We knew this from working with Coaching Cocktails, and from our work as consultants and coaches.
We needed a quick short-hand way to understand our place in the dance each time we do it. We didn't want to have a long conversation about roles and expectations every time we planned a session. We needed to simplify that too.
When we thought about the types of sessions we run, we came up with 4 roles: Host & Co-Host, or Pilot & Co-Pilot.
You noticed the names we chose indicate we can move between roles. That was important for us. A Co-Pilot can fly the plane while the Pilot is doing something else that's important. A Co-Host can welcome and serve guests while the Host is doing something in the kitchen.
Then we created working agreements for each “role.” That's how we understand each other's expectations. The working agreements are things we inspect and adapt all the time.
You will need your own agreements if you're working with partners online. Take the time to agree.
Tip #13 - If you're working with other guides, create working agreements.
Tip #14 - Revisit your working agreements often. Remember to inspect and adapt.
Moving to the Back of the Zoom
We love Sharon's book, Training from the Back of the Room. We don’t want to do any remote training or remote facilitation that doesn't have a heavy “back of the room” component.
Several years ago when we moved our training and facilitation online, we looked at the activities in Training From the Back of the Room.
At the very beginning we asked ourselves one question. We asked how to convert an actual room activity into the same activity— but online. We stopped asking that question before very long.
We discovered when we asked how to do the same thing but online, the answers were often more complicated than they needed to be. They required new tools that try to mimic the things we’d have in an actual room.
Before long we realise that the activities we translated always "smelled" like physical activities that were transported online. (It’s a slightly musty and damp odour.)
Now. When we're designing and planning any session we ask ourselves 4 quesitons:
What would we do now if we were all in the same actual room?
Next, we ask ourselves:
How would we work “from the back of the room” in an actual room?
Then we ask ourselves:
What are the outcomes we'd want from those activities?
And finally, we ask ourselves:
What's the simplest and best thing we can possibly do in our online environment that produces that same outcome?
When we started asking about the outcomes and not the activities themselves the questions quickly led us to new activities that “smelled” fresh. They were natural and perfect for using online.
We also discovered that some experiences get better when they move online. But, the better online experiences usually dont come from doing the same thing virtually that you once did in an actual room.
Tip #15 - Look for ways to get the same outcomes online.
Tip #16 - Your old favourite activities may not spark joy online. If they don't spark joy online, thank them for their service to you, and let them go.
Individuals, Interactions, Processes, Tools
In That Order!
The Agile Manifesto says "individuals and interactions over processes and tools". When it comes to remote facilitation, a guide needs to spend time and energy on all four areas: People, Interactions, Processes and Tools. In that order.
This isn't to say that some of these things are not important. They're all important. It's just to say some are (much more) important than others.
I see people new to remote facilitation that invest heavily in the tools. Having good simple tools that support the remote work is vitally important. We continue to invest time and energy on tools too. But not barely as much of it as we invest in the people.
The great news is: a lot of people suddenly moving to remote facilitation right now are already fluent in guiding teams. You're fluent at working with people and you're fluent with enablig good interactions. You're already fluent with the most important things.
A coaching friend posted on Social Media that the more you get into remote facilitation the more it comes down to coaching. (I wish I either remembered who posted that, or that I could find that post again, so I could give attribution.)
The more groups I guide with remote facilitation the more I’m convinced that it doesn’t matter if you’re in the same actual room or in an online session. What matters is that can hold the space for the group.
Tip #17 - Put the people first.
Then interactions, processes, and tools. In that order.
Tip #18 - Hold the space you’re in.
Now what about you?
This is all great news. It means when you pause to breathe and be kind to yourself, you'll probably find you're more prepared for remote facilitation than you realise.
The rest is practice. If you want to be more fluent, the only way to get more fluent is to practice. Take four deep breathes, and do it.
You got this.
What was that about Carrie Fisher?
Where else can we go from here?
I wear many hats: Trainer. Coach. Consultant. Course Creator. The hat I'm wearing a lot right now is my Remote-Experience-Script-Doctor Hat.
Everyone knows Carrie Fisher was the Star Wars princess and general. Not so many people know she was one of Hollywood's most sought after script doctors. She had a real talent and ear for helping to create and hold the movie experience.
When Hollywood's producers feel like a film might not reach it's potential they get help from a script doctor like Carrie Fisher. Sometimes the script doctor makes small changes to a few lines of awkward dialog. They might touchup a character's backstory or motivation to help the film present a crisper story. It's not as common, but sometimes a script doctor does signifiant rewrites changing most of the movie.
It's common knowledge that Carrie Fisher for movies like Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer. But she did recieve a writer's credit on those movies. Script doctor's don't expect to receive credit. Script doctor's, like coaches, are there to help their clients succeed.
I can do the same thing for you to help you move your training or meeting experience online. I didn't intend to become a secret Remote Experience Script Doctor. It just happened. I offer immersive high bandwidth, high interactivity training, and I've been curating high bandwidth, high interactivity experience for our community on Coaching Cocktails for years now. Like Carrie Fisher for movies, I have a real talent and ear for the remote training experience.
A few years ago, people started asking me for help polishing their online expereinces, just like Hollywood went to General Princess Leia. I've helped a few well-known Agile authors and thought leaders create their online experience. I'm available to help you with your remote experience. Let's work together. Just get in touch!
How can we help you?
Conversations are best. Let's start talking. Contact us on your favourite channel, or use the contact form below.