Designing Online Meetings that Feel (Almost) Real
Learn key principles and tools that help you facilitate online session almost as effectively as offline meetings
If you ever worked in a distributed team as a manager or a Scrum Master, you know that facilitating meetings online is painful. I know what I’m talking about because I worked in distributed teams for the most part of my career. So, I was constantly trying to find ways to make online facilitation as effective as it is in a room with participants being physically present. Over time I’ve learned that it will always stay subpar to a physical session. However, I’ve also found out that there are some very practical ways to narrow the gap between the two so that it becomes insignificant. In this article I will cover the key aspects of online facilitation:
- the principles I formulated based on a few years of experience;
- the tools that I prefer personally and the rationale behind choosing them.
I will also share the toolkit I’ve developed to help me with online facilitation in my daily work.
Note: the approach described below has proven to work for me in small groups. When a group gets bigger than 8–9 people, dynamics and the facilitation style change, which may require different tooling and different methods.
In my experience, online facilitation can be almost as effective as the regular, “physical” facilitation. This becomes possible if you apply the principles and use the right tooling that gives you enough freedom and flexibility. The principles and the list of tools are summarized below. Further in this article I examine each of them in detail.
Principles of Online Facilitation
Keep it as close to physical experience as possible.
- Use a webcam.
- Everyone joins remotely.
- Discuss in pairs.
- Use a virtual whiteboard.
Tools of Choice
The ideal process of facilitation, as defined by Sam Kaner in his book “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making” , looks like this:
In the middle of a facilitated session sits the most important part — the Groan Zone. It’s called this way because this is where all the tough and unpleasant discussions happen. However, this is also where the brightest and most creative ideas are born. The facilitator’s task is thus to help the group approach Groan Zone gracefully and, while the group is pacing through the zone, provide enough support so that they reach the final decision constructively and with mutual respect. Since this part of the session is extremely uncomfortable and requires a lot of focus and determination, a group will most certainly try to avoid it. There are numerous ways to do this, but in my experience the absolute majority of online meetings falls into either of the two scenarios, both caused by the fact participants can’t see each other.
The first one is what I call Awkward Silence.
A facilitator asks a question, but nobody responds. The facilitator asks again, but the silence still remains, oftentimes even after addressing people directly. An open question posed to the entire group is almost a guaranteed way to plunge into Awkward Silence. What happens afterward is typical: the feeling of uneasiness that rises in the facilitator transforms into the urge to reanimate the conversation. The facilitator quickly falls back to talking themselves, which only exacerbates the problem: now, as the facilitator is talking, participants feel even less incentivized to join the discussion. No discussion occurs in the end and the group feels their time is wasted.
The second scenario is The Broadcaster.
This situation is quite typical to offline meetings, but it is much more common and much harder to deal with in an online setup. What makes it especially difficult, is the fact that the facilitator can’t use non-verbal means to intervene: look into a person’s eyes, walk around the room, tap them by their shoulder. As a result, it seems nearly impossible to find the right moment to interrupt the Broadcaster’s energetic monologue without shouting over them. And shouting is hardly an effective way to continue a discussion.
Luckily, both scenarios can be easily avoided by designing and conducting a session in a way, that the level of participation is the same for everybody, non-verbal communication is not lost entirely, and the facilitator has the means to control the flow of the discussion almost as if it were held in a physical room. This is where the principles and the tools come into play.
Principles of Online Facilitation
As defined by Sam Kaner , the participatory values are:
- Full participation.
- Mutual understanding.
- Inclusive solutions.
- Shared responsibility.
Simply put, as a facilitator you want to make sure that the group speaks, listens, and reaches a decision in the end. The only question is, how to make this happen. Easier said than done when you are in an online conference. As first demonstrated by Alistair Cockburn and then restated by Scott Ambler , a face-to-face conversation is believed to be the most effective way of communication between people. I combined this idea with the participatory values and several years of my own experience. The result is the principles of online facilitation that can make online sessions almost as dynamic and productive as physical meetings. These principles are:
Keep it as close to physical experience as possible.
- Use a webcam.
- Everyone joins remotely.
- Discuss in pairs.
- Use a virtual whiteboard.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Use a Webcam
One of the biggest downsides of online facilitation is that non-verbal communication is limited. A webcam helps you alleviate this setback.
With a webcam, participants can bring back non-verbal interactions at least partly. This makes the conversation more lively and the participants tend to stay more engaged. A webcam also has some practical advantages for a facilitator: you can see their mood and reactions. Are they bored? Are they excited? Agitated? It gives the facilitator valuable information about the state of the group and whether an intervention is necessary. Intervening also becomes much easier: you can do something as simple as waving at the webcam. People will react to the movement on their screens.
Everyone Joins Remotely
If a group is highly dispersed, this principle looks pretty self-evident. But is there a benefit for the groups, in which just a small part participates remotely. The statement seems to contradict the foundational principle: keep it as close to physical experience as possible. However, let’s take a look at it from a different angle.
If you’ve ever been in an online call as the only person joining remotely, you probably should be familiar with this situation. You call in. Everybody else has already gathered around a speakerphone somewhere in a room. They start speaking. The sound comes in muffled so you barely understand a thing. You almost fall asleep. Then, thirty minutes into the meeting there’s a sudden burst of laughter. It’s so loud your ears almost explode. Then the group gets back to mumbling for another thirty minutes and the meeting ends. You are left in confusion, frustration, and absolutely no desire to repeat the experience.
My observations show that having a minority joining remotely effectively removes them from the discussion. The major part — the people in a room — are at such an advantage communication-wise, they hardly notice they only speak to each other. So, when you are facilitating online, you have to make this trade-off: on the one hand you need to support full participation, on the other hand you want to keep high levels of energy. The participatory values come first here. Making everyone join remotely puts everyone on the same ground. Nobody gets the unfair advantage of a richer communication channel and nobody gets swept out of the discussion. Surprisingly, from my observations, this ends up in group dynamics much closer to a physical meeting than one would expect.
Discuss in Pairs
This technique also comes from offline facilitation, but I’ve found it to be most crucial to offline meetings. There are different approaches to information gathering during a session. One of the ways is individual writing. It is fast and prevents authoritative participants from influencing the group. On the other hand, it removes the benefits of exchanging ideas between the group members. The opposite is open discussion. Open discussions allow for free flow of idea and maximum conversation tempo, but are much harder to facilitate and much more time-demanding, especially online. Breaking up into pairs hits the sweet spot between the two approaches. On top of that, it makes it much easier to prevent situations like Awkward Silence or The Broadcaster because it is much harder to keep silent or hijack a conversation when there’s only two people participating.
As a rule of thumb, I try to break people up into pairs in such a way that:
- people with different skills have a chance to talk to each to bring different perspectives into a topic;
- if there are multiple break-ups during a session, people exchange pairs, so that, again, they can bring more perspectives into the discussion;
- people in the same location may have discussions in pairs at their desks and return back to the rest of the group when necessary — this saves time.
Use a Virtual Whiteboard
Although not much can be said about this supportive principles, I find it, perhaps, the most important of all. A whiteboard (or a flip chart) is an powerful facilitation tool. Many facilitation techniques either are built around a graphical metaphor or imply lots of writing on a board or on sticky notes that are then placed on a board. A common mistake many beginner online facilitators do is using a text tool, usually a forum or a wiki page. The issue with this approach is that once the text has been written, it’s very hard to manipulate it: you can’t easily move or group ideas and voting for pieces of text might become problematic. Another downside is the lack of the graphical component. The group is missing out on the advantages of graphical metaphors. Last, a text tool limits the opportunities for the group to interact with their own ideas, such as moving them around a board, putting emphasis visually, color-coding, and so on. In an online session every chance to make a group interact is precious. A virtual whiteboard gives you these small opportunities that help keep the energy levels high: creating virtual sticky notes, dragging them around a board, voting with dots  that are actually movable, and many others.
Choosing the Right Tools
I‘d like to share the list of tools that I personally prefer and would recommend for online facilitation.
Online Conferencing Tool
The principles of online facilitation give us very convenient criteria for choosing a conferencing tool. Since we are going to use a webcam and ask everyone to join remotely, the tool should
- provide video calling (almost every tool on the market can do this today);
- allow group calls;
- be able to display multiple participants on the screen.
Since discussions will be held in pairs,
- the tool should support breaking up into sub-groups (and the feature should work smoothly);
- if it doesn’t support sub-groups, a viable workaround should be possible.
Zoom is a tool with a very pleasant user interface and a multitude of convenient additional features. The main advantages are:
- shows up to 6 participants on the screen in a thumbnail view;
- does this even when someone is sharing screen;
- has a break-up functionality out of the box that is very stable compared to the other tools I had experience with.
The free version includes everything you might need but limits the duration of a meeting to 40 minutes. After 40 minutes it drops the call and you need to start a new one.
Google Hangouts is a free video-conferencing tool with limited features, but it has almost everything that’s needed for online facilitation. The only thing from the list it can’t is breaking up into sub-groups. Here’s what it can:
- shows up to 10 participants on the screen in a thumbnail view (possibly, even more than this and definitely more than Zoom does);
- does this even when someone is sharing screen (except for the person sharing);
- multiple people can share screen at the same time;
- it’s free.
As for the break-ups, there’s a relatively simple workaround. It’s possible to have multiple browser tabs open with multiple different Google Hangouts conversations running at the same time. During a break-up section, ask everybody to mute themselves in the main conversation but keep it open. Then in each pair, one of the participant calls the other one in a separate browser tab. It takes not too much additional time compared to break-ups in Zoom.
For me it started with the need to facilitate team retrospectives, so I tried several different applications that were made specifically for this purpose. Then, there were other more powerful tools that provide a wider set of features and act as full-fledged virtual wideboards. None of them was a good fit because of three reasons. Free tools were poorly implemented. The tools that were versatile and powerful enough were not free. Then, in both groups there were tools mostly designed with very specific meeting formats in mind, thus vastly limiting facilitation options. Eventually, I settled on Google Drawings.
Google Drawings is a general purpose drawing application. It wasn’t designed as a facilitation tool, so the UX sometimes is not perfectly smooth, but it has some key advantages:
- it has concurrent editing, just like any other Google’s office tool;
- it provides full freedom, as you start with a blank canvas and can draw on it virtually anything you want;
- it’s absolutely free.
Kiryl’s Facilitation Toolkit
As I started working with Google Drawings, I realized that my sessions can benefit from some prior preparation. That’s how Kiryl’s Facilitation Toolkit came about. Over time I built a collection of canvases that would help me with kick-starting any meeting. It began with different retrospective formats, but soon I realized that Google Drawings can be used for all kinds of facilitated sessions. The Toolkit is available for download on my website for free.
The Toolkit includes a number of retrospective formats, a blank canvas for retrospectives and a general purpose blank canvas, a few other types of meetings, plus a library of visual elements that cover many common facilitation tasks. The collection has been built gradually based on my own needs, so everything there has been trialed in practice and covers most of the Scrum Master’s needs.
The Toolkit will help you with:
- preparing retrospectives and other meetings — you can choose from one of the pre-designed templates and save a lot of time;
- designing own sessions — blank canvases and the library of visual elements provide great assistance here.
The most valuable option the Toolkit opened up for me, which was quite serendipitous, was the ability to quickly set up a session that hadn’t been planned. I’ve had quite a few occasions when I had to improvise and create sessions on the go. I would start with a blank canvas, then throw in a few common visual elements, such as sticky notes or dots for voting, lay them out in a particular way, add a few text hints, et voilà — you‘re all set to facilitate an unplanned meeting!
Examples of Sessions Facilitated Online
So, we’ve learned the principles of online facilitation and have a set of the right tools to facilitate online. Let’s take a look at how this plays out in practice.
Just like a physical facilitated session, an online meeting requires some preparation. Namely, a facilitator should bring with them some “stationery”, such as pens, sticky notes, or whatever else might be needed. In our case, it’s most likely colored boxes that act as virtual sticky notes, dots for voting, possibly, something else.
Usually, I place all auxiliary elements outside of the canvas. The working area remains uncluttered and the unnecessary stuff doesn’t appear on the final image when you save it after the meeting. The templates in Kiryl’s Facilitation Toolkit are already enhanced with the elements suitable for most of the cases you might encounter.
Note: The examples are based on the sessions that took place in real life. They’ve been slightly modified for better readability and in order to remove all sensitive data. They are available in the Kiryl’s Facilitation Toolkit examples library.
Facilitating Sprint Retrospectives
Most sprint retrospectives look more or less the same, especially those that follow the five-stage framework by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby . So, the templates for different retrospective formats have a lot of commonalities. A good example is the “Action Items & Agreements” area — the crux of a meaningful retrospective outcome.
The results of an online session look very similar to a physical whiteboard, perhaps even neater and easier too read. Moreover, as a software tool, Google Drawing invites for creativity otherwise not possible, as shown in the examples below.
Facilitating Other Types of Sessions
Of course, as I mentioned before, Google Drawings doesn’t lock you down to a specific meeting format. Below are a few more examples of facilitated sessions. Some of them had been thoroughly prepared, the others were improvised.
As you can see, online sessions can be almost as effective as the physical ones. And although in the Agile world we admit that face-to-face communication is king, sometimes it’s not up to you as a Scrum Master to decide whether the organization will stay distributed or not. And sometimes it may be economically reasonable or even dictated by the needs of the employees themselves if, for instance, they want to live in different countries. In the modern era of digitization this is not a problem anymore. As a Scrum Master, you should always have an answer to a challenge like this. Principles of online facilitation and the suggested tools are one such answer.
About the Author
Kiryl Baranoshnik is an experienced Agile and Lean practitioner. He works as an Agile Coach at a large bank in the Netherlands and shares his knowledge publicly as an Agile trainer. If you want to learn more about Kiryl and the trainings he offers, check out his website and the schedule of the upcoming trainings. If you want to get the latest updates on Agile, Lean, and related topics, follow Kiryl on LinkedIn and Facebook.
 Kaner, S. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, 3rd Edition. San-Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Business & Management, p. 20.
 Kaner, S. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, 3rd Edition. San-Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Business & Management, p. 24.
 Ambler, S. (2014). Choose the Best Communication Technique Available. [online] The Disciplined Agile (DA) Framework. Available at: http://www.disciplinedagiledelivery.com/choose-the-best-communication-technique-available/.
 Wikipedia. (2017). Dot-voting. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dot-voting.
 Appelo, J. (2014). Management 3.0 Workout, version 1.01. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Happy Melly Express, p. 350.
 Derby, E. and Larsen, D. (2012). Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. Dallas, Texas: The Pragmatic Bookshelf, p. 4.
 Kua, P. (2006). A Retrospective Timeline. [online] thekua.com@rest. Available at: https://www.thekua.com/rant/2006/03/a-retrospective-timeline/.
 Derby, E. and Larsen, D. (2012). Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. Dallas, Texas: The Pragmatic Bookshelf, p. 81.
 Agile Alliance. (n.d.). What is Definition of Ready?. [online] Available at: https://www.agilealliance.org/glossary/definition-of-ready.
 Kniberg, H. (2014). Squad Health Check model — visualizing what to improve. [online] Spotify Labs. Available at: https://labs.spotify.com/2014/09/16/squad-health-check-model/.