Design @ Copperleaf: The Art of Facilitation During COVID

March 2, 2021 Ian Muirhead

The Shift to Remote

The challenge of working remotely during COVID-19 can be difficult in any role, but when your success comes directly from the outcomes of conversations you facilitate, it requires a different skill set than face-to-face management.

I love in-person workshops. Cracking open fresh packs of sticky notes, tediously cutting strips of voting dots, and organizing everything into groups and labeling them with a fresh Sharpie. When the energy in the room is ripe with creative and critical thinking, we can have impactful discussions, create together, and often democratize our direction with voting.  

Therefore, I was a little worried that our ‘new normal' of remote workshops would reduce the positive impact we could achieve in person. However, as we have run more remote sessions and even multi-day virtual workshops, we’ve learned how to adapt our processes in order to ensure we are as productive and innovative as possible.

Where We’ve Found Success

The most important piece of the puzzle for successful remote facilitation is understanding what the objectives of the session are. The potential to meander through a meeting with no clear goal is heightened by the new variables introduced with a fully remote session. This makes the role of the facilitator even more important. Here are a few tips for successful remote facilitation: 

Antifragile agenda: A concept developed by Douglas Ferguson, President of Voltage Control, and Daniel Stillman, Creator of The Conversation Factory, contending that you want to build your agenda in a way so that if it shatters, you can quickly adapt activities and pivot in a new direction. If you’re not focused on the session’s objectives, it’ll be difficult to do this. 

Icebreakers / warmups: Mix in your favourite improv game or other fun activity throughout the session and after breaks to get the group engaged and reinvigorated. 

Breaks, breaks, and more breaks! Ensure your group has time to recharge and prevent the inevitable “Zoom fatigue”.

Rules of the road: Uncontrollable meetings are unproductive and chaotic. When they’re remote, it’s even easier than ever for that loud-mouthed extrovert to take over your session, if you allow it. Design your session with inclusive activities to ensure you can hear everyone’s perspective.

Wrap it up! As the facilitator, you’re responsible for ending your meeting on time and ideally with some desired outcomes. Don’t run meetings to book more meetings. Create individual objectives and follow up on action items in a detailed summary sent out to the entire group.

Facilitation into the Future

If you book a meeting, workshop, or strategy session with your colleagues, remember that you are the one responsible for ensuring a beneficial outcome for the individuals invited. If you invite the group together with the hope that they will somehow guide you to the desired outcomes, I guarantee that the session will have wasted time and resources and end in frustration.

At Copperleaf, we believe anyone can become a skilled facilitator. We strive to help our employees develop the skills to become effective facilitators, whether they are working with internal or external teams, and in person or online. 


Check out more of our Design @ Copperleaf blog series which explores how we leverage design thinking to drive new ideas, empower our people to take risks, validate assumptions, and retain our competitive advantage.

About the Author

Ian Muirhead

Ian is the Director of Product Design at Copperleaf. He is an experienced leader skilled in design thinking, user-centered design, and frontend architecture with a passion for the creation of cohesive design and product experiences.

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