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Bridging the virtual gap: How to facilitate HR development online?

Flashback: Autumn 2017
After finishing my training in systemic coaching, I have helped to kick-start our internal HR development at Commha Consulting. I created yearly meetings which are similar to coaching sessions. I wanted to give people a sheltered space where me and my HR colleagues help them to explore what the next step in their development might be. The ideal setting of these development meetings seemed obvious to me from the start: We meet in a pleasant room where we both feel comfortable, take our time to map out ideas and visions on flipcharts, sticky cards or whiteboards, and move about the room as necessary. In other words, we work together in close contact.

The plan has been working well. Our development meetings have since become an integral part of our HR development. I really enjoy helping my colleagues along on their Commha journey by facilitating the process and asking good questions. We could continue like this for a while, I think to myself…

Present: Spring 2020

"Can you hear me?", "Is your internet working?" and "Is someone looking after your kids so that we can talk undisturbed?"

With questions like these, I start my first virtual development meetings. The Corona pandemic is setting the scene everywhere. Virtually over night, we are forced to develop and test new strategies and virtual formats that we deemed “difficult to digitize” only a short while ago. Suspending development meetings while we are all working from home is out of the questions for my HR colleague Barbara and me – so we need an online adaptation and we need it quickly!

Transferring key questions and exercises to PowerPoint and digital whiteboards is a quick win. Our conferencing software includes a survey function which proves helpful if we ask people to rate ideas. But what about the personal atmosphere of these conversations? Can we somehow transfer the shared experience of being in a room together to our virtual meetings? And how will the physical distance affect my ability to ask the right questions that help to stimulate new thoughts?

Structure is key

After the first virtual meetings, I am beginning to be more optimistic. I can see advantages in the digital aids. I can quickly find pictures on the Internet and integrate them on the whiteboard to prompt ideas. We can both write thoughts and results directly on the whiteboard at the same time and easily move and cluster them. This makes actual working together even more successful than doing the same thing offline on a flipchart. What’s more, documentation afterwards does not suffer from my handwriting.

And the conversation itself? Subjectively, I feel the need to check more often that I correctly understand what my colleague is saying. Even when both of us switch on our cameras, I miss the nuances of offline communication, a subtle change of posture or facial expression. On the positive side, I am training my active listening skills. I concentrate on paraphrasing what has been said to give my colleague additional prompts for further ideas. I focus even more on the content and stay closer to the conversation. This is how I succeed in asking good questions – even online.

Joint reality

Overall, I get the impression that our development talks in the virtual space are somewhat more sober than offline. Our shared experience is changing. While working together with the help of digital whiteboards and other tools helps to create a joint reality, I notice there is less physical depth. In the end, however, the actual added value of the development meetings remains unchanged. Everyone takes an hour and a half once a year to reflect on past experiences and strengths and to take a look at their own professional future. I am always amazed and thrilled how valuable this short time can be - regardless of whether such meetings take place in real or virtual space.

Anna Herb and Barbara Hott present more methods and tools for virtual collaboration in their live webinar:

Virtual Workshops: Methods, tools and best practice: 8 July 2020, 14:00-16:30

Practical and interactive online training for all those who want to facilitate virtual workshops, meetings, or training sessions. Discover successful online techniques and tools, and find out how virtual collaboration can be fun, inspiring and effective.