Facilitating Virtual Participatory Workshops

meetings from home

South Africa is entering its third month since Covid-19 reached its people. Despite early action and lockdown efforts, the end of the crisis is still unclear globally. In the evaluation sector, evaluations have either been cancelled, postponed or are continuing by using remote methods only.

Development Works Changemakers itself is continuing with multiple projects using remote methods, engaging in meetings using online platforms and undertaking data collection using telephonic or electronic means.

Evaluation during COVID

Our approach is typically highly consultative and participatory in nature. We closely engage with the client throughout the evaluation process and ensure we gather their input at key stages and on key deliverables. The benefits of taking such an approach include ensuring buy-in and ownership of stakeholders, validating processes and decision making, facilitating skills transfer, promoting learning, and building trust through transparency.

Some key consultative processes incorporated in our evaluations include;

  • Inception meetings at the commencement of an evaluation,
  • Theory of Change (ToC) and Theory of Action (ToA) workshops to clarify the programme logic or as part of design evaluation,
  • Findings validation workshops to share initial evaluation findings and receive stakeholder feedback for incorporation,
  • Final report findings presentations to share the final findings and conclusions,
  • Progress meetings throughout and more.

As such, the move to more remote methods puts the face-to-face engagement to the test.

online meeting room

Working virtually

Many of us are attuned to participating in virtual meetings, given our exposure to these prior to the pandemic and that they run very much like our normal face-to-face meetings. However, something that many of us may not have been exposed to is facilitating a participatory workshop with a client and/or stakeholders.

In probably all circumstances, workshops work best when conducted face-to-face. Workshops are often much longer than meetings, and depending on the subject matter, can be run over a few days. As such, a facilitator needs to be conscious of participants’ body language, signs of fatigue, signs of misunderstanding etc.

To help entrench learning, face-to-face engagement allows for participants to be broken up into groups to work on activities, and for the split groups to present to the larger group. Even tea breaks in between also facilitate networking and sharing of ideas, and for participants to become more comfortable with the group.

As such, facilitating a workshop online requires adaptation, creativity and a new approach.

Good practices for an online workshop

Some good practices one should consider when facilitating an online workshop include:

Familiarise yourself with the platform

Make sure you are familiar with the online platform you are using. If you use a particular platform for the first time when running a workshop, time may be wasted figuring out how to use the tools adequately. Prepare beforehand!

Reiterate house rules

Especially if you are facilitating a large group, you should encourage participants to use the mute button when they are not speaking. If everyone’s microphones are on, multiple noises can become distracting, and this is very likely the case while many of us work from home alongside family, children and pets. If a small group is being facilitated, and participants are not in noisy environments, the mute can be kept off, which can encourage more spontaneous engagement.

Share an agenda

Create and share an agenda ahead of time; this will help participants to focus if they understand how the time will be spent and will help you as a facilitator to keep the session on track. The agenda should include opportunities to engage with participants, as a pure lecture style will lead to participant fatigue.

Be prompt (or early)

Arrive online a few minutes early to test any technical specifications. In cases where the host must be present to allow participants to join, it is even more imperative that the facilitator/host is prompt. Arriving a few minutes early also provides a chance to engage with participants in a more social manner, and set a warm and positive tone for the remainder of the session.

Encourage face-to-face (online)

Encourage participants to use their video. Video helps participants to feel more like they are in the same room and is more conducive to building rapport with one another than a microphone alone. It encourages more interaction and participation as well as accountability – participants are less inclined to multitask and engage in other non-workshop activities.

Being able to see people’s faces allows participants to pick up on non-verbal cues, and for the facilitator to stay on the pulse with how participants are engaging – whether they are growing fatigued and bored, whether they need an energiser or tea break, or whether someone does not understand something.

Check-in with participants

Especially in a time like now, a check-in with participants is a good way to start a workshop. It is helpful to know if there is a low mood that needs picking up, whether certain sensitivities need extra focus, or if some participants may not be eager to participate. It is also a way for participants who don’t know each other to possibly find common ground with one another.

Introduce an icebreaker

In groups where participants do not know one another, an icebreaker is a good starting point. It should be creative, energising or light-hearted, and help participants feel a little more comfortable with one another. When a workshop is aiming for participants to collaborate on a product or deliverable, establishing group rapport and cohesion upfront is key.

Include breaks if needed

If workshops are long, plan regular breaks. It is often more difficult to concentrate at a virtual meeting while only looking at a screen than in real life where there is more visual stimulation and engagement.

Respect is key

Mutual respect must be the norm in virtual meetings for them to be successful. One must be respectful of participants’ time and be fully present. As a facilitator, these attributes should be encouraged upfront and throughout.

meeting applications

Additional tips for online workshops

As part of an evaluation planned earlier in 2020 prior to the pandemic spread in South Africa, Development Works Changemakers had intended a face-to-face ToC and ToA workshop with our client. With the decision to continue with the evaluation using remote methods only, the workshop was to be held online using an online platform.

In this case, we used Microsoft Teams. The workshop went well, with all attending stakeholders inputting on and refining the ToC and ToA. And the final deliverable was approved by stakeholders to be used as a core reference point for the remainder of the evaluation.

In addition to employing some of the points above where applicable, there were a couple of other ways our team adapted to facilitating the remote workshop, and we found these to work well in our circumstances:

Consider access to the internet

Some participants did not have long-term access to working internet. This is not uncommon. According to the General Household Survey (2018) only 10% of South Africans have a home internet connection. The participants were relying on subsidised data, and in cognisance of this, our team agreed to hold an abbreviated version of the workshop.

Core content would initially be covered in a brief session, and we planned for follow-up engagements if the content was not sufficiently covered. The benefit of this approach was that no undue stress or pressure was placed on any participants who were restricted by data usage.

Additionally, participant fatigue was limited due to the shorter nature of the workshop, and the process allowed for participants to have time away from the workshop setting for further reflection.

Share resources beforehand

Our ToC and ToA workshops typically involve an introduction to related terminology and theoretical learning. However, due to the time constraints imposed, our team put some relevant and user-friendly resources together and shared them with participants before the workshop.

This included definitions of terminology related to programme theory, graphic examples of programme theories, and the programme’s draft logic model that would be further refined in the virtual workshop. We also provided a list of questions around the programme to encourage some thoughts and ideas about how best to represent its programme theory.

This “pre-work” encouraged participants to come to the workshop with an understanding of programme theory and to be armed with ideas and contributions; taking full advantage of the limited time. We also ensured that before diving into working on the programme theory together, participants were given the opportunity to ask questions and gain further clarity if needed about the content shared beforehand.

Take advantage of screen share and real-time technology

During the workshop, our team used the screen-share functionality to share workings on Lucidchart, where the ToA and ToC could be amended in real-time for the group of participants to see and comment on. Within the brief workshop, the group was able to revise the ToA. A ToC was then constructed by the lead evaluator based on the ToA developed. The ToA and ToC were then shared with the group a few days after the workshop for their further feedback.

This process worked well, as it gave participants time to reflect further and allowed them to make suggestions that would not necessarily have come to mind in a half-day workshop. Participants shared their feedback with the lead evaluator and where appropriate, feedback was incorporated.

This iterative process enhanced the quality of the input and buy-in of the ToA and ToC. It was found that no further workshop sessions were required, and participants were satisfied with the ToC and ToA produced from the single session and feedback.

The methodology undertaken here may not necessarily be applicable or appropriate for all workshops or evaluations. However, we found that this process was successful in our circumstance. We made efforts to meet the needs of the stakeholders, adapt to the limitations imposed, and at the same time ensure that participants had a voice and were heard.

By Jenna Joffe

For more information and tips on how to facilitate virtual meetings and workshops, see resources below: