Rachel Smith, The Grove’s director of digital facilitation services, is finishing a book about facilitating remote collaborative work. We chatted with her—virtually, of course—about the key themes she’s working with and what she’s learned along the way.

Grove: Your book is about how to be more facilitative in virtual settings, whether your role is as a facilitator, a team leader, or a team member. Why did you decide to write about this?

Rachel Smith: Because the virtual experience is a human experience, and ultimately humans are what will make it or break it. People tend to think virtual work is all about the tools, but it isn’t. It’s all about human interactions and relationships, and how to work effectively with people when you can’t be in the same room together. Skilled facilitation makes virtual work better, shorter, more engaging and more effective.

Grove: Why is a company like The Grove that specializes in highly engaging face-to-face meetings interested in virtual work?

RS: Let’s face it—a lot of virtual meetings are pretty painful. We know how to make these meetings engaging and productive. Most of our clients have teams or work groups that are not co-located, so incorporating more virtual facilitation into the mix is a natural next step for The Grove.

The thing that strikes me over and over again is how people react when they participate in a visually supported meeting for the first time. It just blows their mind. I have heard so many people say, “I was a facilitator for 20 years before encountering visual facilitation, and I’ll never do anything else now.” Or “I have been to so many meetings, and this is the first meeting where I feel we’ve gotten work done in the first 90 minutes.” This happens all the time in face-to-face meetings. In virtual meetings, the impact of visual facilitation is even greater.

Rachel Smith

People tell me they want to avoid virtual meetings because they are frustrating and unpleasant. But if you use visually supported approaches, the time flies by, and people don’t even realize how much work they are getting done together in how little time. At the end of it everyone is astonished at how much progress has been made. People who wanted to have a voice have been heard, and people who wanted clear agreement on action items can see they have this. The visual notes make what they’ve done understandable, sharable, and actionable.

Grove: What stops facilitators from bringing their skills to virtual settings?

RS: Facilitators already know most of what they need to know in order to be good at virtual facilitation; they just need to think about what they know in a slightly different way.

We tend to think of visual facilitation as being in the same room with the group, using physical equipment, such as paper and sticky notes. But really, it’s not that big a step to do it virtually, and it makes such a huge difference. Your core skills and instincts are still going to be good. You still want to use sticky notes; you just have to find a tool that supports that. You still want people to be able to contribute their ideas and work with them directly; you just have to find a tool that supports that. You want to be able to do graphic recording—perfect—find a tool that supports that.

Experienced facilitators tell me, “Oh, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing this virtually, I just don’t know enough about technology.” Well, look at it this way: even people who have had a lot of experience with virtual work and virtual meetings may not have thought about how to be facilitative. The expectation is, “We get online and we talk to each other, and then we sign off and we do our thing.” It can be so much more than that if you bring in facilitation skills.

In fact, the book is more about facilitation than it is about technology. It’s about how to prepare yourself so you can facilitate in virtual settings. Yes, the implementation can be complex. Yet as a visual facilitator, you already are skilled at selecting methods and tools that fit a situation’s needs. The only difference is knowing how to roll out that method virtually. It may be time-consuming, it’s learning something new—but it’s very doable, and the payoff is a more effective and enjoyable remote meeting experience.

Grove: You’ve been thinking a lot about how to introduce new tools to people. What have you learned about working with people who are intimidated by, or resistant to, technology?

RS: It takes two weeks of daily use for someone to feel comfortable with a new tool, so there’s plenty of opportunity there for people to feel uncomfortable or to resist a newly introduced tool. When someone expresses resistance, it usually comes from fear and discomfort. You can’t just steamroll people into changing the way they do things; when you try to force them to change, it doesn’t work.

Instead, you need to connect with their fear and discomfort, validate those feelings, and help them understand that it’s normal to have that reaction. You can say, “I get where you are coming from. Your feeling is valid, you’re not the first person to feel this way, and we’re slowly going to get past it.” You don’t force them to like the tool—sometimes, they will never like it—but you give them a space where it’s okay to be uncomfortable and inexpert, where their frustration and anxiety is okay. You normalize the discomfort of the transition.

It’s like helping people when they are stuck in the middle of an annual planning process, or in some other group decision-making process where the group is falling apart and people are pulling in six different directions. Even if bewildering or frustrating things happen, when all is said and done, as long as people can trust that you are keeping a safe space, they sense that it will all be okay. They can fall apart a little because you’re supporting them through the process of learning and change.

​Grove: One of the themes you’re writing about is that virtual work processes don’t have to be digital duplicates of face-to-face processes. Tell us a little about that.

RS: That’s exactly right. If you use the right process and support it with the right tools, you can get outcomes from a virtual session that would not be possible in a face-to-face session. Although recreating what you would do if everyone were co-located can be a good first approximation, you have to be ready to throw your process out and redesign it if it doesn’t work. You need to be able to say, “Wait, there may a better way to do this that is different from the face-to-face way.”

This is something that I explore throughout my book—this idea of not just directly copying face-to-face to virtual, but saying, “Let’s rebuild this. Let’s start with our outcome, and let’s put together something totally different that takes advantage of what we can do virtually that we can’t do face-to-face.” This leads to a more successful virtual meeting result than simply trying to replicate in-person methods.

Grove: Just one more question: What do you hope this book will do for people?

RS: I really hope it will give people a clear path that they can follow to make their virtual engagements better. For facilitators, I hope it will help them approach collaborative virtual tools with more confidence so they can use their skills online. And for non-facilitators, I would love to see more people being facilitative with their own teams, and using visual approaches.

Grove: Thanks, Rachel, we’re looking forward to reading it!


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Would you like to start building your virtual facilitation skills right now? Take a Grove online workshop. Rachel Smith will be the trainer for both of these multi-session workshops:

Facilitating Virtual Collaboration

Strategic Visioning: Visually Activated Planning for Remote Teams

Click here to view the full Grove workshops schedule.

To engage The Grove’s consulting and design services for meetings, teams and organizations, email services@grove.com or call +1.415.561.6126.