Digital learning was already a popular trend in the learning and development (L&D) industry. But in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re no longer shifting toward digital at a comfortable pace — we’re careening toward a new normal that demands we act now and act fast.

As of early March, roughly one-half of in-person programs through June 30 had been canceled or postponed in North America, with many more likely added to that number in the months since. This situation has forced many instructional teams to rapidly transform their planned live training programs into digital training experiences.

In the midst of immediately transitioning to a digital environment, however, we have the potential to lose one of the most important elements of in-person training events: human connection. Let’s explore a handful of ways you can build in authentic moments of personal connection for participants throughout your digital training experience.

1. Recreate the Small, “In-between” Moments

You’re heading into a conference room for quarterly sales training. As colleagues file in, you start to chat — about your family, your weekend, the latest Ben & Jerry’s flavor or the newest action film on Netflix. Once training is underway, you lean over to your colleague to comment on what the facilitator is discussing.

These conversations are personal and casual. They’re also moments of human connection: smaller, “in-between” moments that are inherent with in-person experiences but not so natural over webinars, conference calls and virtual instructor-led training sessions (VILT). When developing a digital learning experience, we must intentionally build in opportunities for these moments to flourish. Strategies can include:

    • Beginning or ending each session by asking participants a non-work-related question (e.g., “What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend?”).
    • Hosting virtual coffee breaks where participants can chat casually and get to know each other.
    • Offering one-on-one chat functionality that allows colleagues to communicate throughout training.
    • Holding open office hours for participants to ask questions, receive clarification and connect with facilitators.
    • Creating collaboration opportunities through VILT and video-conferencing technologies, such as whiteboards and screen-share.

2. Turn the Camera on

When screen-to-screen is the new face-to-face, video conferencing is critical to creating connection among participants — which, in turn, can help increase productivity. In a 2016 survey by Lifesize, 98% of users said “that video conferencing helps with relationship-building,” while 85% cited a boost in productivity by using video conferencing technology.

When you have the ability to see your team and your facilitator over video, you gain insight into their body language and tone — which allows for stronger, clearer communication and collaboration.

3. Break out Into Small Groups

Whether in-person or digital, small group breakout sessions are a key part of creating an engaging training experience. However, breaking out into small groups can be even more important in a digital setting, where the barrier of a screen can cause disconnection and disengagement.

When choosing your VILT platform, look for breakout room and digital whiteboard functionality. Facilitators should also be able to jump back and forth between rooms to check in.

Just as they would for a live training event, facilitators should first set expectations when splitting participants into small groups by letting them know what they’ll be doing, how much time they have and whether they will be checking in with them. Facilitators jumping from room to room should leverage chat functionality to avoid breaking up the flow of conversation when it’s clear that the group understands the task. And, if possible, have a producer available to handle technical issues, confirm group understanding of the instructions and answer any basic questions.

4. Buddy up for Accountability

Digital accountability partners are becoming increasingly popular among professionals, and with good reason. The American Society of Training and Development (now ATD) found that we are 65% likely to achieve a goal after committing to another person — and our chances of success increase to 95% when we build in ongoing meetings with that partner. With an ever-growing remote workforce, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the need for individual accountability is more important now than ever before.

When incorporating accountability partners into digital training, take the time to pair people based on personality and performance. If needed, have participants take a short “get-to-know-you” quiz to help with pairing. Then, set up their initial meeting on your chosen video conferencing platform to remove potential barriers and make it easy for both participants to engage.

It’s important to note that accountability partners may be more effective for leaders and executives. These roles often need networking and peer support when developing new ideas, tactics and strategies.

Moments of human connection, such as small groups, peer learning and face-to-face communication, can make the difference between a digital training experience that is impactful and authentic — and one that falls flat. By adding in these opportunities to connect with others, you can help participants become more engaged, collaborative and confident throughout training and beyond.