The fourth dimension…

There is a paradox showing itself in our current ways of meeting.

On one hand, we seem to be behaving as if virtual meeting is second best to meeting face-to-face, and on the other hand, we know that many of our face-to-face meeting practices are dreadful.

The good news is that people are realising that they need to review how they work together in this virtual world, which is providing an opportunity to dramatically improve things. One area that provides ongoing room for improvement is getting intentional about the multiple dimensions of group work online and consciously attending to all of these.

We notice that when people talk about facilitation, they usually mean multiple things and identifying these different dimensions, especially as they apply in virtual and online environments, can be really helpful. As a result, those leading and participating in these meetings can plan how to manage and work with these dimensions.

Let’s explain what we mean by this.

In any group work online there are at least four dimensions to consider:

  1. Content production – this is built around the subject or topic being discussed. The focus here lies in considering what information is needed by the group to enable them to do good work together, and how best to share this. This is often represented by the Powerpoint deck and tends to be, traditionally, where most preparation for group work is focussed.
  2. Group process facilitation – this is about designing and facilitating group processes that enable people to work together effectively. For example, how will conversations take place in the group, how will people access and make sense of information, how will decisions be made, how will relationships be built and maintained, how will people’s need for breaks and shifts in attention be accommodated? These processes should be intentionally designed and facilitated, paying close attention to the human dynamics in the group.
  3. Digital facilitation – this is about managing the virtual platforms that enable the work to be done online e.g. ensuring everyone can connect with sound and video, managing the waiting room, organising breakout groups, considering how files will be accessed, what platforms will enable human interaction, when and how, and what technology is needed to support collaborative work in real-time.
  4. Information management – this is about managing the information that emerges from the group discussions. This is the virtual equivalent of the flipcharts and whiteboards used to capture real-time conversations in ways that support the work being done by the group.

The value of calling them out separately lies in an awareness that all four of these things are going on every time a group meets online, that ALL of them need attention, and that none of it can be left to chance.

Unlike in the face-to-face world, it is far less easy to improvise in the virtual space; less likely that habitual ways of doing things will compensate for a lack of intention and attention; almost impossible for the human relationship dynamics to play out informally and incidentally as they normally would during coffee breaks and corridor conversations, and none of it happens accidentally. It all needs to be factored IN!

So, given that virtual working is with us and set to stay, what are we saying?

Essentially, this: Even if a virtual session is being led by one person, it is helpful for that person to consider all four dimensions and plan how they will work with them. If you are working alone, keep it simple but don’t ignore or neglect any of the dimensions. And, be aware that things tend to happen slightly more slowly in virtual spaces.

That being said, we know how hard it is to manage even two of these dimensions at a time, in real-time, and so more than ever the value of having two or more people working together to spread the load and share the roles becomes obvious. Call in a colleague, get support to build your skills, rotate the roles, experiment and practice with the tech and, above all, remember that there are humans in the ‘room’ even if the room is everybody’s kitchen or home office!