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Enter the ‘facilitar’: URBACT’s guide to online facilitation

Edited on

15 July 2020
Read time: 4 minutes

Check out URBACT’s hints and tips for networks' and cities’ online collaboration, including a set of online resources.

URBACT is supporting cities to continue their collaboration and interactive ways working despite the sudden shift to online work. Programme Expert Eddy Adams talks us through ‘hints and tips’ from a new set of URBACT resources launched on 30 June.


The URBACT resources contain:

  • a ‘Hints and Tips’ document, providing guidance on digital tools and referring to the range of platforms in play;
  • a YouTube playlist including an animation on virtual facilitation, 10 tips for online meetings and a webinar on online facilitation.

Welcome to life online: they do things differently here

If your life is suddenly full of online meetings, you’ll have noticed big differences from what you’re used to. People’s attention spans are shorter. Spontaneity and improvisation are harder. Reading body language is, well, impossible. In fact, without a camera on, you don’t even know if your colleagues are still there or not.

Against this background, URBACT networks continue to function. Transnational networks have quickly designed new ways to continue their collaboration, using online platforms and tools. Within cities, URBACT partners are experimenting with ways to maintain momentum and sustain stakeholder engagement.

This is all very fluid, as we learn new ways to design and facilitate sessions. The facilitation role is shifting. Facilitator? Avatar? Meet the ‘facilitar’.

For all of us, this has been a huge learning curve. Perhaps ‘learning cliff’ is a better description. Some are better placed to navigate this transition than others. Good infrastructure, for example, is a fundamental factor, Another is attitude; how comfortable are you taking risks and experimenting in public? And of course, technical competence comes into play, despite the IT sellers stressing the intuitive nature of their products. (Don’t get me started).

If you weren’t already anxious, having to design your first set of online events might nudge you across the line.

To help with this, URBACT has set out its top 10 tips for facilitating online meetings.

Top 10 tips of online facilitation

1. Focused meetings and events

Clear objectives always make for better events. This is especially so online, when attention spans are shorter. In designing sessions, be strict about content. Unless it’s directly linked to the objectives, it’s in the bin.

2. Design a well-organised agenda – with a clear time plan.


Yes, it’s obvious, but you’ll need two agendas: an operational one for you and the team (we’re coming to them); and another one for participants. And no matter how good a facilitator you are, you need help with online sessions. Trust us! In fact, ideally, you have a team of three: someone leading the facilitation; a colleague who is checking what’s going off in the margins (Chat box, Q&A space etc.) and a ‘tech whizz’ who can help when things go wrong. As they often do…


3. Shorter timing – with space to breathe


Many of us made the initial mistake of keeping the same session durations in the online setting. That didn’t last long! Attention spans are shorter, as we’ve noted. People also get tired more quickly. To quote Mies van der Rohe, “Less is more” when we’re online. 90 minutes is probably the longest you want to run for.
As well as shorter sessions, you need to build in breaks and space for people to breathe, stretch and grab a coffee. See how more productive your sessions are when you do this.


4. Co-facilitated sessions

We’ve already introduced the team. Agreeing clear roles and responsibilities is obviously key to optimising these resources. And you can mix things up, swapping between you to give a variety of voices and personnel. You can also play with a mix of tools – polls, voting, quizzes… – to keep things fresh. Surprise guests popping in can also keep people’s attention and add to the fun.


“As a facilitator you have limited tools to coordinate the meeting, feel the vibe and intervene when necessary - so you need to be on top of your game, be aware of what is happening, and intervene if something is going wrong. Having someone who supports you as facilitator (with technical issues, managing the online voting, whiteboarding, etc.) really makes a world of difference.”
Béla Kézy, TechRevolution Transfer Network.


 5. Make full use of available online tools

We mentioned quizzes and polls. In fact, there’s an endless sandpit of online tools to play with. And let’s not forget the new functionality they give us. We can capture content instantly and record everything. We can also design sessions which allow people to contribute when it suits them, rather than needing everyone available at the same time. What the tecchies call asynchronous. These are big pluses!

Our Hints and Tips guide dips into these tools, suggesting how URBACT practitioners can apply them in their work. At the start, the range of tools can be intimidating. There’s MIRO, MURAL, KLAXOON, and JAMBOARD and that’s just for whiteboards.

If you dip into each of these you’ll probably find one that you feel at home with. All of these products allow you to use the basic functions for free. The smart money says ‘try before you buy’, allowing you to find the one that works best for you.


6. Maximise visual facilitation

Content is king whether your sessions are face to face or online. URBACT underlines the power of effective storytelling and the use of visual tools to convey messages effectively and to engage audiences. This is perhaps even more true online than in face-to-face settings. Make sure you invest in good slide decks, powerful images and other non-verbal tools. Perhaps even get a graphic illustrator on board to capture the key points.


7. Stimulate discussion


Experienced facilitators are comfortable with silent moments in physical meetings and put them to good use. However, silence is harder to manage in online sessions. At times, technical glitches or small misunderstandings between speakers can lead to blips in the flow.

It is more awkward when the discussion dries up. Although we have advised not to ‘overpack’ the content, the facilitator should make sure that the flow and logic are coherent. Also, think carefully about effective ways to bring a contribution to life – again, perhaps through images, objects and unexpected cues.

Experience has also shown that although we discourage wordy PowerPoint slides, some text is helpful in supporting participants to follow the thread – particularly if there are sound quality issues.


8. Keep attention levels high


Keeping participant attention levels high during online meetings is the main challenge for our ‘facilitars’. Providing unexpected elements during the session can help with this. Playful short sessions for icebreaking and group energising can foster a friendly and relaxed atmosphere among participants.


“With online meetings, participants’ presence is reduced to thumbnail talking heads, and meetings’ attractiveness should be enhanced by rotating moderation, surprise guests, using physical objects such as a timer in additional windows.” (François Jegou, Lead Expert, BioCanteens)
How to re-design online collaboration?, published by


9. Record sessions

The online meeting offers the opportunity to record the session, allowing others to watch and listen later on. Often, it’s difficult to watch recorded meetings in their entirety. If you have the technical capacity in house, think about producing a short edited highlights video of the session.


10. Share a postcard of the online experience

And why not take a screenshot of participants, in online mode, as a good way to capture the moment. Share these on social media to let the world know that your work continues.

What’s in the URBACT resource box?

The tools have been designed to meet an urgent need and we would never claim they’re exhaustive. But, they draw upon the brainpower, talent and experience of our URBACT community. Two of our Lead Experts, Sandra Rainero and Ileana Toscano, have produced the resources with support from many colleagues. It’s been my pleasure to work with them on this.

At its core is the Hints and Tips document which explores the context, provides guidance on digital tools and refers to the range of platforms in play. In addition, the team has created other products to use with groups, including an animation, slide deck and webinar.

Although aimed at URBACT city networks and participants, it may be of interest to others making their transition to online working. After all, regardless of what happens, more online working means less travel, less carbon and a happier planet. Who could disagree with that?