A Year Reflected in Numbers: What I Learned from Facilitating Over 240 Hours of Virtual Workshops in 2021

(photo credit: Marc-Olivier Jodoin, Unsplash)

Inspired by Oliver Burkeman’s Book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, I reflected over the New Year about how I had spent the last 12 months of my professional life. The concept of “4,000 weeks”, that make up (on average) an entire life,  provided a useful lens for envisioning this upcoming year, which was part of my objective for doing this particular piece of reflection.  The book made me think “time”; my foray into statistics for my PhD work made me think “numbers” instead of “narrative” for this reflection (plus I had the time tracking data).

This was another Covid year of almost entirely virtual work for independent organizational learning professionals, like me, who facilitate, train, write, and undertake MEL activities (monitoring, evaluation and learning).

Amongst the overwhelmingly virtual activities, were two exceptions of face-to-face (F2F) retreats held with local (to me) organizations in the months between Covid waves in Switzerland (September and early November). For both of these, my commute time was less than 15 minutes, one group was 8 people and the other was 20, and they were intact teams where they had complete control over logistics and could cancel, postpone, or flip into virtual format at a moment’s notice.

There were other events that were also planned to be F2F, but that took one of the other options instead of holding their events as planned in 3D. It goes without saying that all kinds of Covid protocols were put into place for those teams who did hold their workshops, but that is another blog post.

Here is what happened, with three qualifiers – 1) This represents the work that I did (and my colleague Lizzie will have a similar list); 2) this includes both paid and pro-bono work; and 3) where hours are given, they do not include preparation time (I estimate that later), only delivery. After these numbers I will include some observations.

  • In 2021, I completed 46 activities. An activity is a distinct project or workshop/event. Preparatory meetings don’t count. Many were spread over 2-5 days – however these still counted as one activity. Some five activities did not have a workshop/event attached, but were design, advisory, data collection (interviews) and/or writing. These latter five are considered “virtual activities”, but their time does not feature in the “facilitation delivery” hours accounting below.
  • Of the total: 44 activities were virtual and 2 were face-to-face.
  • A total of 269.5 hours were spent in “delivery” – facilitating or co-facilitating workshops, webinars, training courses and other events (this is “participant facing” time and does not include preparation).
  • Of the total delivery time, 242.5 hours were spent in facilitating or co-facilitating virtual workshops and 27 hours of the total were spent facilitating F2F workshops.
  • For the total virtual delivery, 219.5 hours were spent on Zoom, and 23 hours were spent on WebEx.
  • 13 virtual workshops used simultaneous interpretation (for 2 to 4 languages).
  • 77 days of this year (2021) featured the delivery of a workshop/event, and 7 of these days had two (e.g., one event in the morning and one in the afternoon).
  • These 46 activities were undertaken with 23 different organizations.
  • Total activities by sector: 8 with foundations; 16 with NGOs; 5 with government and United Nations (UN) collaboration; 3 with UN; 13 with standard-setting organizations; 1 with a university.
  • 6 activities were entirely or partially pro-bono.

How these delivery hours (workshops) were spread out over the year:

  • The top 3 months for delivery hours were: October (60 hours), November (46 hours), and May (39 hours).
  • The bottom 3 months for delivery hours were: January (0 hours), August (0 hours), and July (6 hours). These lower times were in part due to quieter times of the year and part due to my holidays 🙂
  • The monthly average over the 10 months with delivery activities was 26.9 hours of facilitation delivery.

My observations from this exercise and reflecting on the year:

1. The nature of my work has fundamentally changed. That is a lot of time to be sitting at my computer.

I used to do most of my work in F2F workshops where I was standing up all day in front of a group, and walking around a room, or zipping around a conference venue. I used to travel to and from workshops, local or on other continents through airports, around bus stations, through cities. I have absolutely had to integrate other physical activities into my days (hello online pilates and yoga, walking and cold/warm water swimming).

2. Virtual workshops for facilitators are incredibly intense from an attention and focus perspective, and you are almost entirely immobile for the duration of the event.

When you are facilitating workshops virtually you can not move around, you are on camera, you are deeply listening, you are looking ahead in the agenda for online tools you need to use, slides to share, music or timer to launch for the break, managing participants with low bandwidth, answering questions in private chat.

Large events may have a team to help with the “backstage” work, but that doesn’t reduce the intensity of work for the lead facilitator who is using the WhatsApp back channel for timekeeping or prompting team members, and the platform chat to keep speakers to time and signal changes to those speakers who are to come.

As a result, the facilitator can’t tune out to regroup, zip off to walk around, or decide to take a break. Even the scheduled breaks often have planning discussions or activities you are queuing up, or slides you are revising. You are lucky if you can grab a cup of tea in a 3-4 hour period.

3. The intensity of virtual workshops means they can be exhausting and can take more time to recover energy and focus than expected.

You think you are just spending 2 or 3 hours on Zoom, but the quality of focus needed means that you are not able to muster that kind of mental energy again in that day. As a result, it is not wise to have more than one virtual workshop per day. You can combine F2F with virtual workshops as there is more respite time built into F2F workshops (you can walk around the room as you talk, stand at the back of the room, look away, sit down.)

4. I am very competent at Zoom at this point, ask me anything.

Zoom seems to be winning the platform race. From my facilitator perspective it is by far the easiest and most flexible online workshop platform. Over these last two years, we have used many of them, and are increasingly seeing less diversity. If I can become competent so can others.

5. Virtual events can take much longer than expected to prepare.

Focusing on the number of delivery hours is deceiving. It does not reflect all the preparatory meetings to develop these activities, nor the email correspondence and any reporting (several projects had substantial reporting components).

This amounts to anything from a 3:1 to 10:1 ratio of preparation hours to delivery hours. Online workshops can easily take MORE time than F2F workshops to prepare if you are trying to do more than just hold a webinar with a few speakers that only need light briefing. A 6-hour strategic workshop spread over 2 afternoons for 250 people with simultaneous interpretation can easily take 50 hours to prepare the facilitation component, with interpretation testing, coordinating the delivery team, creating online tools and templates in languages (google forms, slides, etc.).

Another 9-hour symposium spread over three afternoons for 50 people took 72 hours to prepare the facilitation element, including 8 parallel sessions, a complex MURAL to capture outputs, numerous interactive elements, speaker videos, etc. It takes organizations some time to understand the complexity of facilitation preparation, for what seems like a very short workshop.

Based on this learning, I will…(connected to the above observations)

  1. Not skip my daily exercise and I will use my standing desk more (I got a varidesk desktop riser that lifts your computer and screen to standing position), I have a balance board (Simply Fit Board), and an under desk stepper.  I forget to use these or are too embarrassed. But I need to get over that. For workshops I can stand, for preparation meetings I can use these other movement tools periodically.
  2. Space my virtual workshops out so that they are not every day in a week. (I had a couple of weeks last year when I had a workshop every afternoon of the week.)
  3. I will certainly not schedule two workshops in one day.
  4. I will help some of the organizations I work with take over the Zoom technical elements and help them learn some of the tricks so that they can run their own events. I can help with design and providing ideas or “makeovers” to add more interactive elements or fun into agendas. But I don’t need to run all these workshops myself when they are relatively straightforward and when my role involves a lot of technical backstopping.
  5. Based on a further year of experience and data collection on the ratio of preparation to delivery hours for facilitation, I can be confident in my estimation of the time it takes to add a facilitation component to an online meeting. We still had many workshops where our estimation for preparation was significantly under what it took to prepare and deliver. This should be a thing of the past in 2022.

Overall, 46 different activities was too many for me. I love my work and I am called to support organizations that are committed to positive change. And at the same time, I didn’t always build in enough respite time between these surprisingly intense activities to reenergise, to context shift, and to get away from my desk (for exercise, for enjoyment, for day dreaming, for music, for culture).

Granted this past year we still weren’t able to do all the things we used to do to take care of ourselves, our minds and bodies – travel to see this wonderful world, visit dear friends and family, attend weddings, celebrate anniversaries, go to concerts, festivals and theatre shows…

As facilitators, we love our work helping groups solve wicked problems, generate radical new ideas, support transformational change. Out of my 4,000 weeks I reflected on one year; fifty-two weeks; five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes….there is of course only one answer to the question:  How do you measure a year in a life?  Measure in love! Measure your life in love! (oh gosh, I miss going to musicals!)

Fellow facilitators, how did you spend your year, and what will you do differently in 2022?


3 replies
  1. Roopin
    Roopin says:

    Dear Gillian,

    Great article – very useful insights into managing facilitated workshops online and the importance of balancing/recharging/planning for the facilitator.

    I spent 2022 on zoom as well -learning to hold space/create conditions to activate the relational field through dialogue/facilitator’s presence. Interestingly, it was possible to do this through zoom. I had chosen to do few projects and even then felt zoom fatigue after 3-4 hours/day of back to back meetings/workshops/classes.

    Hmmm what will I do differently- I will apply your advice and have fewer hours of continuous zoom sessions, keep ‘space’ in my planning, spend 20% of my time nurturing physical movement and social/ creative activities. Covid permitting – participate in or deliver in person dialogue meetings/gatherings in addition to the zoom component. It would be interesting to think about a virtual self-paced learning component/course – maybe in 2023.

    Finally, measuring your life in love – yes. Measuring your time spent on doing with love and attention.

    Have a wonder-filled 2022!!

    Warm wishes, Roopin

  2. Michelle Laurie
    Michelle Laurie says:

    Thanks for always sharing your thoughts and wisdom with the world Gillian! Sounds like a very hectic year indeed. My year (mostly on Zoom) was good and ending with a hybrid meeting was somewhat more stressful than a fully online meeting. I suspect the number of distinct groups you worked with also can be taxing. I find shifting from project to project mentally challenging. While I do like the diversity, I also like one strong / long project with a few smaller/ shorter ones to keep things interesting! Take care and best for 2022!

  3. Claire
    Claire says:

    I agree more intense, more preparation and you have to work so hard – in my case as a panel moderator and trainer – to keep people engaged.

    Congratulations on your successful year. I am going for more hybrid or FTF this year for my own personal well-being 😀

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