Learning and development (L&D) is incredibly important to today’s workforce. The millennial generation prizes growth and development as their top priorities in a job position, much more so than prior generations. Employers also want a workforce that is constantly upskilling and reskilling in their fields so that the organization can learn and adapt to its changing environment.

In this increasingly digital workforce, L&D has never been more challenging. It is difficult for instructors to create genuine bonds, relationships and engagement in hybrid and virtual training rooms. The nature of these environments in many organizations today is disengaging due to the need to adapt better to hybrid and virtual participation.

We cannot put the genie back in the bottle, so the question is instead, how can L&D leaders create virtual environments that bring back the humanity of face-to-face communication?

Understanding the Problem: Trust and Productivity

Employee engagement is the buzzword, but another and more human-centered way to think of the same issue is trust. We all know what trust feels like, and we can tell when we are in a group or an atmosphere of trust or distrust. That sense in your gut has a direct result on productivity.

We are motivated by people, specifically people whom we trust. A number of influential studies have shown repeatedly how companies with high-trust cultures outperform low-trust companies. Engagement is a large piece of the formula: “Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.”

It stands to reason that any group or class operates under similar subtextual rules. Just as with workplaces, we have all been in atmospheres where we felt connected and those where we were distracted. In groups with high trust, participants experience better outcomes, feeling more connected with their jobs and in control of their careers. The goal is to use technology that is designed to bring trust and engagement back into hybrid and virtual training.

Solutions to Drive Engagement in Virtual and Hybrid Meetings

Great leaders have empathy for the people they work with, but it’s hard to show empathy in a meaningful way with a communications tool where feedback is limited. Communications platforms need to recreate the human experience as much as possible. Here are four ways to improve engagement in a virtual environment:

1. Provide opportunities for feedback.

To bring our best to any activity, we need a sense of challenge and immediate feedback regarding how we are doing. Great instructors can gauge the room to receive instant feedback on their performance, helping adjust to their audience and increase engagement over time.

In a virtual classroom, it’s difficult to “read” the audience. Even if you enforce webcams, it is still difficult to read faces that are one-tenth life-size. Those same faces are constantly shifting locations on the screen. Using communications platforms and processes that allow instructors to gauge level of interest and engagement can help to create an environment that enables connection between instructors and learners.

2. Incorporate frictionless collaboration methods.

Think about the last great presentation you saw. The group leader was most likely not tethered to their laptop, stuck at the desk, merely driving a presentation. They walked around the room, free to talk and engage people. They walked up to the whiteboard and annotated on it without thinking about the tools. Likewise, virtual collaboration tools should allow instructors and learners to be at ease, brainstorm, discuss and collaborate frictionlessly. Ultimately, these tools should add value to the program and stimulate collaboration in a seamless way.

3. Use plug and play tools.

When it comes to effective engagement, communication tools should enhance, not interfere, with this exchange. To achieve that frictionless collaboration, the tools we use need to be simple and intuitive.

However, there is a drawback to simple. For example, when selecting a whiteboard tool, you should consider an instructor’s level of knowledge, not just the tools to deliver the presentation when deciding. Oftentimes, the best tools do not require upfront learning to function effectively in a digital learning environment. These tools can include calling a poll that’s contextual to a brainstorming discussion, or simply starting a breakout group based on advantages or disadvantages of an idea with just a click. Consider the tools’ impact on the session’s success for both instructors and learning.

4. Make meetings equitable.

In today’s hybrid training sessions and meetings, it often seems that the pendulum has swung in favor of virtual members. When virtual participants speak, they have dedicated video and audio. Their voice and image come in loud and clear for everyone.

However, in the classroom, instead of a dedicated camera, participants are one person at a table, and it can be difficult to hear them depending on microphone location. It’s not ideal for anyone, especially instructors.

Meeting equity means people in the room and remote participants have the same ability to interact, be present and have their presence known. Both must have the same opportunity to be heard and seen by others, raise hands and ask questions, reply to a poll, be part of a mix mode group in breakouts, chat, access the same content, as well as participate in ideations and discussion.

To achieve meeting equity, both in-person and remote participants must share the same learning experience. This critical concept is fundamental to providing instructors and all participants with an engaging environment.

Making Hybrid More Human

Now, more than ever, leaders are focused on navigating the territory of hybrid work and searching for ways to create a positive, productive workplace and sense of belonging for employees. This means taking steps to ensure that everyone has a similar meeting experience with equal opportunities to contribute and make an impact regardless of where they are joining their meeting from.

We need to accept that hybrid training delivery is more complicated than its fully in person or virtual delivery counterparts. It requires more thought, more planning and better tools to be able to create an environment that’s equitable both for virtual and face-to-face participants.

Current virtual communication is lacking the humanity of face-to-face conversations. Standard videoconferencing tools allow you to communicate virtually, but they don’t come close to the full range of human experiences that face-to-face interactions provide. Learning leaders must focus on emulating the human experience in a virtual environment to foster trust and drive better outcomes for both the learners and organization.

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