Independent trainers and coaches, training providers and consultancies have all, through necessity, had to pivot to online and virtual training in the last year. For some this was nothing new but for others, it has been a steep learning curve as they signed up for Zoom for the first time, learnt about breakout rooms and got their camera face on!
I’ve been surprised to hear some clients and even trainers describe virtual training as second best, not as effective or a substitute for face-to-face training. Virtual training can be done (very!) badly but when done well should be seen as an equal in the hierarchy of training formats. In the right context and format it can be just as effective or even more so - often it's the right choice, even putting aside current limitations. But done well, it’s hard work!
Here’s why I am an advocate of virtual training for the long term and what I’ve heard my clients say.
It reflects the reality of virtual working
Even before the pandemic when virtual working became the norm, it was already the reality for many professionals and organisations, whether in global project teams, with trans-national colleagues or overseas clients and suppliers.
Whether or not the training topic has been on virtual management or communication, my clients have fed back that it has been valuable to learn new techniques that will help them to facilitate their own virtual meetings and collaborate with remote partners.
Training becomes more inclusive
Many of us have attended or facilitated training where one or two more assertive participants do their best to dominate or even disrupt the whole group discussions and trainer input elements, while others stare out of the window or feel unable to get a word in. Of course, this can also happen all too easily in a virtual classroom, but with access to chat and other text-based functionality or applications, participants who may have struggled to get their voices heard can share their thoughts and questions in their own time. This also helps those who don’t speak English as their first language.
It’s a networking and knowledge-sharing opportunity
Previously, corporate trainers travelled around the country or across the continent delivering their programmes to local offices – or local trainers were sourced to avoid travel costs. Bringing employees together from different locations provides opportunities for participants to make new connections and diversify their networks. It also allows employees to share and learn best practices in other parts of the business or how local restrictions impact how things get done. Participants on my recent virtual courses have really appreciated the opportunity to learn from colleagues who they wouldn’t have met otherwise.
It facilitates deeper learning
Yes, it can be easier for participants to disengage when they attend poorly-facilitated training via their screen, but how much learning is really embedded after a one-day standalone training event? A Harvard Business Review article quotes the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who found that if new information isn’t applied, we forget about 75% of it after just six days. Virtual training lends itself more easily to short bursts of instructor-led training interspersed with opportunities for participants to practise, apply and reflect on what they have learnt in their own professional context or with their peers.
What won't work?
But despite these benefits, virtual training will seem like second best if you simply take your face-to-face training materials and approach and drop them into a Zoom meeting.
It won’t work well if you:
Run your virtual training courses as one or two-day events as you may have done in a bricks and mortar training environment
Take your static, wordy presentation and transfer it directly to your virtual environment
Adopt a trainer-talking lecture style approach – although this tends to be less effective in any type of classroom
What will make it a success?
Here are just a few tips:
Set ground rules – make it clear how you would like participants to engage with you and let them practise using the functionality – don’t assume that everyone is now a Zoom pro! Agree protocols for using mics and cameras.
Mix up your media – if you are using PowerPoint, make sure your slides are high in graphics and visuals and low in words, use animation (in moderation) and change slides frequently. When you’re not speaking to your presentation take it down, and use the gallery view instead. Make use of the other functions of your chosen platform such as white boards or polling and try using external applications such as Padlet for sharing ideas or Kahoot for quizzes.
Allow space – my experience, this year more than previously, is that learners want to share and learn from each other. They can’t catch your eye in the same way to ask a question so pause regularly and allow space for questions and comments as well as encouraging ongoing use of the chat – you’ll find people answer each other’s questions if you don’t. My lesson from this year is to allow more time that you think is needed for breakout groups!
Let in some chaos – in some ways virtual classrooms need to be more controlled and it can be helpful to keep everyone on mute for a lot of the time. But sometimes a bit of chaos can be a positive thing and letting people jump in, speak when they want and interrupt can add to the richness.
Manage your energy – it takes a lot of focus and energy to deliver good virtual training so it’s important that you acknowledge this. Prepare yourself before you start and build in moments when you can pause – not only formal breaks but times when you can take a moment and turn your camera off such as when learners are in break out groups or taking a few moments for an individual reflection or exercise.
Personally, I can’t wait to get back to the training room when I can, but virtual training is here to stay and will continue to be the best option for many. It's worth investing the time in learning new techniques and adapting your approach to make sure that your virtual training is not second best.