According to a Gallup poll, 43 percent of employees spent some time working remotely in 2016. Real estate, facilities and human resource leaders are adapting organizational structures to accommodate and support on-site and distributed talent. They’re integrating infrastructure and systems that enable people to be more agile, team-driven and cross-functionally collaborative.

The workplace is technically enabled for collaboration – virtual or not, cross-functional or not, occasional or every day. Today’s global workplace is moving from “me” to “we” – and it’s happening virtually. Leaders want team players who work well with others – a valuable life lesson that’s learned through experience. Individual and organizational performance are based on combined individual and team achievement.

How can we do a better job of helping people gain skills and confidence in using collaboration tools and working as a team virtually, helping to cross this technology competence and virtual teaming chasm? Online learning has crossed the chasm and is now a common, expected practice. It’s a golden opportunity to develop virtual team player competencies, and we can better engage online learners if they know that the learning is as much about teaming skills as it is about the assignment.

Following are six simple ways L&D and educational professionals can better leverage the online learning environment to develop virtual collaboration competency.

1. Anchor and deepen learning outcomes with juicy, relevant online discussions and analysis.

Are your online learners expected to engage with each other to deepen discussion learning? Class discussions should be more than a place for people to post carefully crafted short essays (though that’s a good start.) A well-crafted question, short case study and even a pithy quote relevant to learning outcomes provide opportunities for students to consider, challenge, support and think critically throughout the week.

Model and expect active and frequent participation. Discussions are asynchronous, so online learners can add value multiple times throughout the week to thoughtful large-group conversations without interfering with schedules. It helps tremendously when the instructor is in the discussion nudging, clarifying, provoking and redirecting questions back to the group. Create a rich dialogic environment.

2. Reference past discussions in a current module or live session.

“Remember two weeks ago in our discussion about X when Nelda mentioned Y?”  This question demonstrates to learners that what they post matters and that the instructor is engaged and positively reinforcing active participation. It’s also an opportunity to connect concepts for better learning transfer.

3. Help them learn from each other.

Does your course include opportunities for learners to teach or present? Do learning teams and discussion groups complete peer evaluations? Are online learners giving peer feedback on application of learning assignments before submitting them for assessment? Can the instructors easily assign peer evaluators using the learning management system (LMS)?

4. Set up a 24/7 virtual office, and invite learners to answer questions for each other.

Online instructors should provide a “place” for learners to ask questions, raise issues or share thoughts that are relevant to the course. The LMS may dictate how to do so, though it’s also easy to set up a virtual office with a pinned discussion thread that remains open throughout the course. It can function as a virtual learner lounge, a place where learners can clarify assignments and ask for help with the technology or platform. A virtual lounge might be more effective if it’s “located” where your online learners already gather, such as a private company Facebook page.

5. Use tools that prepare learners for online collaborative work.

Integrated company networks and mobile apps are part of the daily employee experience. Teams communicate, document and store work results in the cloud. For a virtual team, the network becomes the place where team members can communicate with each other, the rest of the organization and leaders.

Conduct a mini-technology audit of your online class. How digitally integrated is your classroom? At a minimum, incorporate some of the following components into your online or blended classroom:

Live Webinars

Nothing beats seeing and hearing people. Modern videoconferencing platforms enable instructors to see facial expressions, ask attendees to raise hands or give a thumbs up or down, respond to questions with short answers in chat, or share a whiteboard. Most platforms also enable breakout groups, so learners can complete quick group projects and discussions with reports back to the full group for feedback. Another benefit of live webinars is that sessions can be recorded for replay if anyone is absent or wants to review a key concept.

Polling, Quizzes and Self-assessments

Survey and polling apps (as well as videoconferencing polling capabilities) are easy ways to understand learners. Most learning platforms have quiz-making capabilities or link to external polling apps and websites. Polling also provides a way for the instructor to conduct simple pulse checks with learners to determine what, if any, adaptation they need to meet learning goals.

“Go-find” Assignments

Send online learners to the internet to source, assess, share and incorporate additional content. A simple way to start is to ask students to post discussion links to research studies, TED Talks and other online resources that add value. Ambitious instructors can create topic-focused scavenger hunts with a set of questions requiring digital research to find answers. For teams, consider group go-find assignments.

6. Assess team assignments with team grades to reflect the shared responsibilities of work teams.

Are you expecting learners to complete assignments independently and in teams? Most jobs require collaboration with people, other departments and robots. Collaborative work helps manage complexity and streamline decision controls. Instructors need to prepare learners to be good virtual team players by creating assignments that are assessed (at least partially) as a team.

Students often complain about virtual group work, yet they need to be competent in virtual team collaboration. Try these approaches:

  • Record an on-demand demonstration showing how to use the learning platform and integrated apps to set up groups and collaborate virtually. Include the demonstration as a course overview assignment with a short, graded quiz. Include a brief, data-driven explanation of the power of team learning, including an emphasis on virtual team play as a required core competency expected by the company.
  • Make the first assignment negotiating and agreeing to team norms and expectations, including how to work with absentee or low-contribution teammates. Have teams submit written agreements that align the group by defining roles, shared and rotated responsibilities, scheduling, communication and document protocols, and agreed-upon collaboration tools and processes. This activity helps learning teams develop productive norms while getting to know each other virtually.
  • Add a separate, individually assessed assignment near the end of the team project that requires learners to reflect on the virtual team learning process.

Instructors don’t have to be power collaboration tool users to set up online learning to be more collaborative and to help learners develop virtual competencies while they accomplish learning objectives. Structure assignments and class interaction in ways that replicate and prepare people for the virtual, collaborative workplace.