The New Covid-19 Reality – Facilitating Business Workshops on-line

By Dori Sella

4 Categories of Best Practices to make your on-line workshop successful.

Covid-19 has created a new reality in the world of business facilitation and workshops. This isn’t going to end soon and many more business workshops – especially international ones will be conducted on-line. Workshops are different from a regular webinar and even an on-line training in that by definition (work-shop) the participants are expected to work and participate. In fact, the content they bring to the session is significant to the success of the entire workshop. After facilitating a few on-line workshops I have some insights and best practices that can be  useful to anyone conducting on-line meetings with a focus on facilitating on-line workshops.

Before getting started – 5 basic questions to ask

  1. Workshop objective Is it a learning session? Do you want to get approval? Create a change in people’s perception like in a sales situation? Perhaps you want to get feedback and input from attendees on an idea or a process? Which leads to the next question –
  2. Content Methodology – what is the main source of the content? Does the facilitator present a new concept or topic? Is there a team of pre-prepared panelists? Does the main bulk of the content come from facilitated questions from all of the attendees?
  3. Attendee’s “State” Are people paying to join? Is it a freebee where people are “checking in” out of interest? Are they compelled by their managers to join?
  4. Attendee’s location/language Do they all speak the same language with the same fluency? When people talk, is it possible you will have difficulty understanding their accents? How many different time zones are people calling in from?
  5. Intimacy – Do the people know each other and feel comfortable talking out loud on line? Do you have an option for people to ask questions on chat? (and will you be able to manage it – later in technical)
Work Culture is people culture

The 3 Biggest Challenges

Gauging participant involvement/states and interest


The most obvious challenge is that you can’t really see the people and their body language. Even when the video is on, you don’t get a full representation, people can have light behind them and you cannot see their expression. And technical difficulties (or “fake difficult”) is always an option for sudden “drop off” of call.

When you have over 25 people (depending on technology used), you can’t see them all at once on a screen, which makes it much more difficult to have control over who is still with you, who is raising their hand/nodding etc.


Keeping people involved/feedback mechanisms


Even when you use a feedback mechanism like polling/voting/Mentimeter cloud words etc., not everyone will participate and you don’t really know why. (technical or don’t feel like it)

When you do have open discussion, understanding and processing information is more complex with the technology. It’s possible, just more complex and needs much more time – at which point you have to weigh the benefits of open conversation with the con of losing some of the people’s attention.

Dealing with Technology


It doesn’t matter how tech-savvy you are, you are still facilitating using technology, and have to be prepared for glitches (malfunctions) like loss of internet, frozen screens, sharing wrong screens, not being able to see the people and the presentation, losing material collected on whiteboards..  shall I go on? All of these have happened to me and I consider myself technically savvy.

Best Practices


Define relevant objective. I have written about this a lot in my book “ Business Meetings that Work – 6 steps to increase productivity”. It’s the same when facilitating, if you don’t know where you want to go – how can you get there. Sure, you can focus on great content – but does it answer the objective?

 Content – chose content that is relevant to your objective and matched with the attendees (and their objectives), state, level of intimacy with each other and of course – the time.

Time – Much to my surprise, I found out that 3 hours on line can work as long as the material is very relevant to the people, they are active and there is a break. The time/content and type of workshop all have to be congruent.





Building the Methodology and Creating Engagement

At the core of a successful workshop is the appropriate methodology that creates engagement and achieves the objectives.


The opening sets the Frame for the entire workshop – just the same as in a f2f workshop. The frame sets the context in how you want the attendees to listen/participate.  In a business (not by choice) workshop, then having the most senior person available to open and set the expectations is always a good idea. The same tools that are used in any workshop like storytelling/metaphors, establishing rapport  are all relevant in on-line workshops as well.


Open discussion in large group (over 25)

Open discussions in a large group can work when there is a level of intimacy between the people, they know each other and are comfortable speaking. In many ways similar to a F2F situation where some people are comfortable expressing themselves and others prefer to listen.

Even so, I wouldn’t recommend opening any session with an open question. When you can’t see the people, it’s almost impossible to read the nuances of body language that tell you who needs a drop of encouragement to start talking. If you want to start with questions –  voting/polling platform that can allow everyone to write and participate.

Just remember that not everyone will participate, some just can’t be bothered and others may really have technical difficulties. In any case, do not build the methodology  based on getting everyone’s participation in a large group (over 25) .


Breaking into Breakout Rooms (B/O) – Breakout rooms are great for creating intimacy and having a real conversation and getting everyone to participate. Depending on your objective, you can decide in advance which rooms people go into or do it randomly.

B/O Room Facilitators – Do you need facilitators for each group? Depends on the desired outcome of the session. If you think you need to keep the conversation focused and make sure material is collected as needed then of course you need facilitators. However, there are times where you can just have a head of room just like you would in a face2face session and have them collect and share the information. Just like in any workshop – all facilitators and/or heads of table need to be aligned before the workshop.

Collecting information – How do you collect the information discussed in the rooms? Are whiteboards used? Important to have clear directions on how to save collected information and share it. Also, to decide in advance what it is you want to collect and share.

Processing B/O room information – As a facilitator, processing information shared from breakout rooms poses new challenges. If you have also been facilitating a room, you have to change states very quickly to manage the entire group. The information collected needs to be minimal in order to be able to process together.

Best practices to process B/O rooms

  • Leave a significant amount of time and/or have a break before returning to main room
  • Have a co-host to process what is written while you listen to what is being said
  • Ask for only 3 points that are clearly written