The lockdown period has forced many social sector organisations to rapidly adapt or find new ways to deliver services online, and NPC is no exception. Since our first paper on theory of change was published back in 2012, the NPC team has facilitated hundreds of theory of change workshops, all of which were—until recently—delivered face to face. As a result of the Covid-19 crisis, we have since started delivering pre-scheduled theory of change workshops online.
Overall, we’ve been surprised by the success of the online workshops, so much so we intend to carry on offering online workshops alongside face to face workshops after the lockdown has ended. Below, we share some of the secrets to this success. Here are our initial top ten tips, based on what we have so far learned about online facilitation with one of our clients:
- First, plan ahead: Our face to face theory of change workshops are typically full day events. However, as noted in this NPC Labs blog, a whole day is a very long time to keep people engaged online. We found that planning several shorter sessions at different times of the day helped participants with other responsibilities (e.g. childcare or shift work) to join in at a time that works for them.
- Take the opportunity to widen participation: Online workshops can provide a chance to consult with many more people and widen participation. Face to face workshops are typically limited to about 12-15 people as it is hard to facilitate good conversations with a larger group. However, with shorter and more frequent online workshops, it’s possible to engage with a much wider group of people, perhaps those from other parts of the world. We recently delivered a series of theory of change online workshops for the Lambeth Early Action Partnership (LEAP), which involved over 50 stakeholders, partners and service users. This is of course contingent on participants having access to a computer and being proficient with technology. Online workshops may not be a viable option for some organisations (e.g. rural charities delivering services for older people).
- Get everyone familiar with the tech as early as possible: We are finding that Zoom video call breakout groups and Miro virtual whiteboards can work really well together. Miro is great for creating pre-loaded exercises for each breakout group, as well as sharing training slides and relevant examples from other projects. However, we have had technological teething problems. During one of the LEAP workshops, several people struggled to get to grips with Zoom and Miro. Had the more digitally savvy participants not stepped in to help the others, we might have been forced to postpone the workshop. We recommend asking all participants to try out the software well before the workshop officially starts. Ice-breaker activities at the start of the session can also get people used to the new platforms (e.g. adding their name to a virtual post-it note on Miro).
- Set some expectations for involvement: We have found that it helps to start by going over some basic remote working etiquette. These expectations are typically introduced after an acknowledgement about how some people’s current home / life situation can make working from home difficult. So far these ‘ground rules’ have included:
- Where possible, find a quiet, well lit room and turn your webcam on if the connection is working well—it’s nice to see everyone’s faces!
- Shut down other devices and tabs taking up bandwidth if possible, to help ensure a stable connection.
- One conversation at a time and use the mute button when not speaking.
- Be ‘present’, listen carefully and build on the ideas of others.
- Share the space, let everyone participate, and speak concisely.
- Feel free to challenge others in a respectful and constructive way.
- Encourage nonverbal communication: The lack of informal interactions and non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures can make online communication more difficult and misunderstandings more common. As a facilitator, it is often hard to gauge the mood in the online room. We have found that it can be useful to encourage participants to use gestures and the chat feature, such as smiling and nodding to show that you understand a point and raising your hand or simply typing in the chat to ask a question.
- Take regular breaks: It’s important to schedule regular breaks into the workshop agenda. Anxieties about video call technology, sound delays and awkward silences have all been cited as reasons why online video calls can drain your energy. For a recent three hour online workshop we incorporated two ten minute breaks—where participants had the option to turn off their camera and mute their microphones—which seemed to work well.
- Share the facilitation: In a large online workshop, it’s a good idea to have more than one facilitator. Having more than one facilitator allows the organisers to initiate smaller conversations in breakout rooms, and the facilitators who are not currently speaking can keep an eye on the chat box for comments, questions and queries. This also means that all introductions and wrap-ups are not done by the same facilitator, and so participants avoid having to listen to a single voice for too long. For the LEAP online workshops, which had between 15-25 participants, we had either 2 or 3 facilitators each time.
- Consider adding ‘silent working’ to the agenda: For any face to face theory of change workshop we would create an agenda with time allocated for teaching, exercises and discussions. We started off with a familiar looking agenda but quickly found that it was useful to also include time for silent working where participants can review questions / content individually before coming together for group discussions. With the need to cut down the overall agenda time, you might also want to consider doing some of the teaching elements in a different format. For the LEAP workshops, we presented much of the theory of change teaching elements in a webinar for participants to watch prior to joining the workshops.
- Think about how to foster constructive discussions: After our first few online workshops, we noticed that participants were less inclined to openly challenge or comment on each other’s input. As facilitators, we have found it helpful to prompt discussions ourselves by asking questions, which encourages participants to critically review and build on each other’s ideas.
- Finally, enable 24/7 follow up input: A key benefit of using online platforms like Miro is that facilitators can continue to give participants editing access after the official workshop has finished. This feature has been useful in that it has allowed busy workshop participants to take their time and consider the full complexity of the issues being discussed, and respond more fully at a time that’s convenient for them. With people often juggling other responsibilities, this ensures that participants continue to benefit from the session at a time that works for them, even after the event has finished.
We hope that you find these tips to be useful. If you would like further support with consulting stakeholders online and facilitating online strategy or evaluation related workshops, then you can contact us here.