When You’re Not in the Room: Best Practices for Remote Facilitation

April 17, 2020

Associate Principal Elly Bunzendahl ready to run a remote meeting.


O’Brien360 is known for its inspiring and productive facilitation. From stakeholder meetings to workshops to charrettes, we integrate engaging activities, breakouts, and expert-laden synthesis to glean the most feedback from participants and to create the most appropriate next steps.

But how does this dynamic – highly contingent on face-to-face interaction – work in the era of social distancing. Is it even possible? Yes, it is. Even in these challenging and uncertain times, there are ways to ensure that online meetings are as engaging and productive as they are offline. Below we’ve highlighted some of our tips and best practices from dozens of online collaborations over the past few weeks.


Start with Acceptance

Everyone is battling their own challenges, and with the host and participants joining from various environments - whether from home, the office, or a co-working space - background noises (children, pets, traffic, etc.) and differing internet speeds and reception come with the territory. We’ve found that it puts everyone at ease and sets a positive tone, to begin a remote meeting with an air of appreciation that acknowledges participants’ varying situations while offering humility and flexibility regarding how the meeting will proceed. Typically, we ask attendees to bring their patience, humor, and willingness to embrace the chaos. 


  • Encourage participants to start the meeting with their cameras on – seeing each other is a great way to connect and put faces to names. We know it’s awkward at first, but it helps everyone understand how information is being received. 
  • Perform a structured introduction round robin with the meeting organizer calling on attendees to report out. Not only does this help associate faces with names, but it sets a precedent for structured conversations
  • Recommend that participants turn off their preview or self-view if they find it too distracting to see themselves.
  • Many video conferencing programs allow fun backgrounds, like a tropical beach, for instance – so why not try one and add some levity to the proceedings. 


The Five P’s - Perfect Planning Prevents Poor Performance

Technology is great, but it doesn’t always cooperate. If something can go wrong, it will! During one municipal stakeholder workshop, our presenter’s computer froze while trying to live stream the camera and run a PowerPoint slideshow. Turning off the camera helped and transferring presentation mode to another facilitator solved the problem. Had we not planned for such an eventuality; the entire workshop would have been lost. That’s why it’s vital to anticipate possible scenarios and develop a contingency plan before your remote event.


  • As host or organizer, do a full trial run with either co-workers or friends in different places and using different devices - troubleshoot as much as possible.  
  • Request that participants access the remote service at least 10 mins in advance of the meeting to make sure their video and audio components are in line.
  • Ask participants to log into the meeting with their full name and firm. Providing this information makes it easier to manage structured discussions. As organizer or host, you will likely be able to edit participant names, so you can do this during introductions if someone forgets. Note that all participants will see these changes.
  • Consider using multiple devices when facilitating. During a recent LEED® BD+C Multifamily Midrise Trades Training, we used an iPad for camera and audio while using a laptop to share the PowerPoint presentation. If you can’t use multiple devices, consider having a colleague share their screen and run the presentation while you, as the organizer/leader, lead the discussion and information delivery.
  • Send presentation materials ahead of time and confirm at the start of the meeting if anyone cannot view the shared screen or presentation. As needed, periodically tell participants what slide you are on (reminder to ensure your materials have page numbers).


The Remote Meeting ABC’s - Always Be Collaborating

Instead of presenting information and then throwing the meeting open for discussion, follow the Integrative Process guidance for collaborative meetings: Before the meeting, identify the specific questions that need to be discussed and use them to engage participants. Following are additional tips you can use to spur collaborative discussion: 


  • Call on people by name – not only does this help keep the conversation lively, but if participants know they might be called on, they are more likely to focus on the materials and discussion.
  • Use the tools built into your video conferencing platform such as the Chat, Raise Hand, or Mute functions.
  • Set ground rules at the beginning of the meeting: Request that attendees participate in discussions by “raising their hand” rather than interjecting as they might during an in-person conversation.
  • Commit to using the mute function when attendees are not actively speaking.
  • Use the chat function to coordinate directly with a participant, like asking them to mute so their background noise is less impactful or so they can let you know they need to leave the meeting.
  • For large groups, have 2-3 people on the facilitation side – one to present the info or engage participants; one to monitor participants for raised hand and to facilitate the structured discussions; and one person to take notes (if necessary).


All’s Well that Ends Well - End Meetings Smoothly

Just as how you begin a meeting sets the tone for the duration, so does how you end it. To end meetings and workshops on a positive note reiterate to participants a strong sense of purpose and motivation moving forward. Doing so helps alleviate any sense of awkwardness participants may feel near the conclusion. Also, consider the following tips:


  • Do a roll call at the end of the meeting to make sure every participant has a chance to share.
  • Share a funny anecdote or joke at the end of the meeting and tell people they can hang up while folks are laughing.


During these uncertain and unprecedented times, we will continue to seek new tips we can adapt, and lessons learned we might apply to improve our future performance. Although we prefer to interact with our colleagues, partners, and clients in person, we also recognize that fine-tuning our approaches to remote work reduces our carbon footprint and serves clients beyond the Pacific Northwest.A picture containing building, light, window, drawing

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