What a difference a year makes! Remember when virtual meetings were a novelty, while virtual training was still less common than in-person training? Then, the pandemic hit, and when March rolled around, many employees found themselves working from home. As one of many workplace adjustments, virtual training became the norm, and it will likely become part of the “new normal.”

The Challenge

Learning and development (L&D) professionals heralded virtual training with mixed reactions, ranging from the technical (How do we use the tools?) to the practical (How do we engage participants remotely?) It’s hard to miss the need for structure in a remote classroom: People talk over one another; some appear to be engaged in multitasking; others fail to adjust their lighting; and others have phones ringing, dogs barking and other manners of distractions in the background.

In short, it’s challenging for trainers to keep participants engaged and learning. Given that virtual training sessions may be with us for the foreseeable future (possibly forever), it’s time to establish some rules that everyone can agree to and follow. Let’s start with five tips for virtual trainers and five tips for virtual training participants:

The Opportunity: 5 Tips for Virtual Trainers

1. Ensure the Meeting Setup Is Conducive to Learning

Select a room that provides enough light that your audience will see you, yet not so much that it creates a whitewashed look. Putting ring lights behind the computer usually works.

Then, pick a background — real or virtual — that communicates the spirit of the training and is not distracting. You don’t want your participants to be more interested in exploring your home than in paying attention to your content.

2. Decide How to Share the Materials

Determine whether you will send materials in advance, use a split screen to share content, send handouts via email during the training or all of the above. If you send materials in advance, as with in-person training, make sure to have an ample supply of virtual copies for learners who forget to have them handy during the training.

One hint: Send out the agenda in advance, and use a split screen and/or email handouts as needed. There are enough distractions without participants “reading ahead” during the session.

3. Set Enforceable Ground Rules

Communicate your ground rules immediately after reviewing the agenda. In addition to standard training ground rules, make sure to include:

    • How you will recognize learners to speak.
    • A prohibition on speaking over others.
    • A request for the removal of cellphones (and other tempting multitasking tools).
    • A request for all participants to stay in the training with their video on, unless they need a visit “down the hall,” at which point they will replace the video with their photo.

4. Use a Platform That Works on All Browsers and Includes Breakout Rooms

As with in-person training, small group work enables participants to practice what they’ve learned and to stay engaged, which is especially important in a virtual setting. Assign different roles to participants to keep them on their toes.

5. Solicit Feedback

Remember, practice makes perfect! Conduct a couple of run-throughs with close friends or family, and ask for their feedback. Then, once the actual training session has concluded ask a few learners to stay behind a minute or so to discuss what worked, what didn’t work and suggestions for improvement.

The Opportunity: 5 Tips for Virtual Training Participants

1. Ensure Your Space Is Conducive to Learning

Select a spot that provides privacy and enough light that the trainer and other learners will be able to see you — yet not so much as to create a whitewashed look. Close curtains, if necessary.

Try to avoid any noises that others will be able to hear, such as traffic, barking dogs and loud housemates. Become familiar with the platform you will be using. Practice using the mute/unmute buttons and “show video” and “hide” features.

2. Come Prepared to Participate and Learn

If the trainer has sent any pre-work, make sure you’ve completed it. If the instructions are unclear, ask questions in advance.

As with an in-person training, make sure to eat a meal beforehand, and bring a glass or two of water, coffee or tea. Leave all distracting items outside of your learning space. (Believe it or not, it’s easy to tell when virtual participants are texting, emailing or otherwise distracted.)

3. Follow All Ground Rules

If the trainer did not send any training materials in advance, expect to find out how you will be receiving them: Will the trainer use a shared screen, send materials out via email when they’re ready for use — or both?

Also, expect to learn how the trainer will recognize you when you want to speak and other training rules, such as:

    • Speak one at a time.
    • Everyone should participate.
    • No ideas are “dumb ideas.”
    • Respect others’ ideas.

With virtual training, ground rules will also include:

    • When and how to mute and unmute.
    • When and how to stay on camera.
    • When to stop the video (such as when you need to take a restroom break).

4. Be Prepared for Breakout Rooms

The trainer will likely use a feature that breaks up participants into small groups. It’s important to pay attention to the content and expected outcomes; be sure to ask if you’re unsure about anything. You will be assigned a role in the group’s work; regardless of your role, make sure your group leaves enough time to practice your presentation or “report back” before rejoining the rest of the class.

5. Accept and Give Feedback

When the training is over, spend a few minutes thinking about what to do differently in future virtual sessions to ensure you achieve the most and best out of it. Learning is a two-way street.

The trainer, too, will appreciate feedback. If it’s not solicited during the training session, collect your thoughts and provide a summary of what worked, what didn’t work and any suggestions for improvement.

Virtual Training Is Here to Stay

A year from now, when virtual training has become second nature, we will wonder why there were any concerns about it last year. In the meantime, as we all — trainers and learners — adapt, remember that we’re in it together. With patience, reflection on lessons learned and flexibility, we will master this new medium and stay engaged and involved learners and practitioners.