5 Facilitator Skills to Re-think in the Digital Era


Facilitation is a craft that requires many very different types of expertise. The best facilitators know how to pick and choose the right skills and methods for any situation, which often happens partly by skill, partly by instinct. 

Digitalization and its great accelerator, the covid-19 pandemic, are currently moving many workshops and events online – even those that nobody would have previously thought can be organized remotely. Consequently, the amount of physical facilitation is rapidly decreasing, at least for the time being. Because of this, digital upskilling is a good move for anyone and everyone right now, and it’s especially crucial if digital facilitation has not been your area of focus before.

What does this mean, exactly? For the most part, it means re-thinking how your tried and tested skillset works in the digital setting. Certainly, some skills that apply in a face-to-face setting also apply, unchanged, in the digital. Then there are some new skills that need to be acquired.

This article is for facilitators who have previously been focusing on face-to-face workshops or events and are now completing their transfer into the digital environment. 

The good news is that all the things that make an excellent facilitator apply regardless of the environment. The “bad” news, if you want to call it that, is that you can’t just take a physical workshop and stick it into a video conference. That’s not how it works. Inevitably, you will need to go through a learning curve and put in the effort – but once you do, it certainly pays back, not least in scalability and new opportunities.

1. Re-think ice breakers

For the start of a face-to-face session, you would have prepared an ice breaker exercise. In other words, something to set the mood and get the participants to relax.

This is still very much needed, but when we talk about digital facilitation, there is an additional aspect to consider. Besides just being eased into the situation and process, the participants may also need help in understanding the nuances of the remote setting. Many would be naturally inclined to feel that the digital platform is something they need to “deliver in” – perform what the interface or the instructions seem to require. This is the way people are accustomed to think about software. So, you will need to actively help your participants reframe the digital tools as a space or an environment where they are free to explore and make sense of the process as well as the thoughts of others. Creating a common understanding about the context is just as important as encouraging participants to deliver their own input.

In addition, your skill in writing clear instructions is crucial. The more diverse your group, the more it matters.   

2. Re-think timeframe

Having a sense of rhythm and sensitivity to the use of time are essential traits of a good facilitator. When moving workshops online, it’s important to be aware that the concept of time needs comprehensive re-thinking.

Here at Howspace, we often help our clients to conceptualize time use by talking about synchronous and asynchronous facilitation. The idea as such, is nothing new: even for face-to-face or synchronous workshops, you would usually initiate some asynchronous ‘homework’ to get the participants engaged beforehand or afterwards.

With digital facilitation, asynchronous activities play a much bigger role and offer many remarkable opportunities. For this reason, you should apply that sense of rhythm you feel in a workshop to the entire process you are facilitating. That may mean that your participants need to invest more time in the process before, between, and after the meetings. Meanwhile, the synchronous time required for the workshop will be shorter and thus easier to fit into everyone’s schedules.

So, you will want to re-think how you can get people engaged before, during and after the project to create sustained impact. The pre-work leading up to the digital workshop should not be seen as a task or series of tasks but rather the start of a journey. For example, the participants could be invited to join a digital platform where they can introduce themselves and engage in brainstorming and prioritizing topics to cover in the actual workshop. This way, there is a clear agenda and a consensus when the workshop begins, which helps the participants to take the most out of the valuable time spent together synchronously.

3. Re-think tools

Re-thinking tools has two parts: you need to re-think your facilitator toolset, and you need to re-think your choices of digital tools.

Successful digital facilitation does not happen by simply attempting to do the same thing digitally that you’re used to doing in a physical setting. It is possible, for instance, that your favorite exercise in a classroom is not the right choice for the remote environment. Therefore, while you may not have to re-design everything, you will need to find the digital environment that suits your needs. But you can’t do it in isolation without understanding the digital tools you’re going to work with.

One of the key facilitator skills in the digital era is the ability to use different tools for the purpose they were designed for, to ensure they truly serve the process. Consider, for example, what should be done via chat, what requires a video all and what could be an asynchronous exercise. For this, you need to familiarize yourself with the different tools and solutions that are available

For example, Wenche Strømsnes, CEO of Better Meetings, recently wrote that many people process their thoughts through dialogue so it’s essential to create a space where dialogue can take place. You want to create environments where the way in which people engage is meaningful for what is needed at that stage. 

Also, don’t be afraid to use video, images, and voice in a creative way! 360 images, videos, and podcasts are already here. Text is not always the best medium. 

However, always be conscious about your participants’ digital skills and don’t overcomplicate things.

4. Re-think context

Another dimension that requires re-thinking is how to create a disturbance-free space where your participants feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and contribute in a constructive way. 

In a physical workshop, this happens naturally as everyone is in the same space together and usually also shielded from external noise and stimuli.

In a remote setting, the right kind of digital tool will allow you to create a similar experience – a space with a clearly defined purpose and context. Fruitful input starts coming when the participants stay in that space, feeling they know what is expected of them and how to participate. This is how the digital space can become an environment similar to a physical room: just like in a physical workshop, in a digital one it’s also possible to, for instance, ‘write post-its and stick them on the walls’. Co-creation becomes possible, and the participants can become active agents in building their shared journey.

To enable this, it’s important that your participants can mostly stay within the same digital context, meaning that they don’t have to keep shifting from one application or window to another. This would risk them becoming distracted or interrupted by notifications outside of the workshop context. 

5. Re-think ‘reading the room’

Here’s the truth:

Acknowledge that the ‘vibe’ you get in the physical room won’t appear in the digital. Stop looking for it. Create something new.

In a physical workshop, most facilitators rely on their great interpersonal skills and gut instinct to make sure the group stays engaged and any tensions are resolved.

How does this happen remotely? The ability to keep the participants connected to the group and engaged the process is absolutely crucial. So, how to create, impact and bring out emotions in a digital environment? How to conduct active listening so that people feel heard and understood? And, most interestingly, how to benefit from the personal characteristics that make you a good facilitator?

Again, there is a need for a well-designed structure and process. For the best results, you should think about this aspect already at the planning stage of your workshop

You may, for instance, want to plan some time for reading aloud some of the people’s comments. This way, you make them feel heard and build a shared understanding of the consensus. You can also anticipate topics that provoke emotions and design ways to handle them, such as anonymous voting or commenting. Videos are helpful in creating a sense of personal connection. For example, instead of writing assignment instructions, you can make a video where you talk your participants through what needs to be done.

Another good practice is to keep calling participants by their names. In a digital setting, you aren’t necessarily able to notice if someone is becoming detached or would like to speak but doesn’t get the opportunity. Asking participants for individual input helps them to stay connected and gives them the space to speak their mind. This way, the facilitator can make sure that everyone gets heard, and everyone or every team’s comments will be notified.

As far as your personality goes, your voice is very important in a remote setting, so you may want to learn how to use it for emotional impact: A calm, accepting voice puts people at ease. Letting humor or amazement show in your tone can create a shared atmosphere. 

Combinations of facilitator skills create opportunities

Before your participants can trust the process, you need to trust it first. In many ways, remote facilitation is very different from face-to-face facilitation. You do lose some – but you gain plenty as well, especially if you consciously decide to work on your digital toolkit and accept that nothing becomes perfect overnight. Digital facilitation is here to stay, after all, so it will always pay off for you.

As a facilitator, you are accustomed to combining different ways of thinking to create something new. This is the key skill to use when re-thinking facilitation: on the one hand, there is a collection of different tools and processes you need to select and deploy. On the other hand, facilitation, in essence, still is and always will be about humans: human interaction, human emotions, humans learning, creating and transforming together. Wisdom lies within the ability to see how these two dimensions can be weaved together to bring forth the most fruitful outcome. 

If you want to further enhance your skills at digital facilitation, please check out our free guide.