Tunley Engineering, an engineering advisory firm, stumbled into learning and development (L&D) by accident: In March 2020, William Beer, managing director, learned the company had lost 90% of April’s confirmed orders as organizations slashed budgets amid the coronavirus pandemic. He was advised to furlough his team — and himself — until business ramped up.

For Beer, furloughs weren’t a permanent option. Instead, he decided to leverage his team’s expertise to create virtual training webinars that they could deliver to an international audience quickly and at scale, successfully expanding the business and protecting employees’ livelihoods.

This is just one example of how COVID-19 forced businesses worldwide to pivot at a moment’s notice. Whether through moving existing in-person learning programs online or building new remote learning initiatives from the ground up, many training companies proved they could adapt and deliver amid the chaos.

Going Digital

Mandel, a communications skills training provider, delivered training virtually about 20% of the time before the pandemic. But once COVID-19 halted in-person training, the company “went 100% online” within a couple of weeks, says Diane Burgess-Faber, senior vice president and chief learning and design strategist at Mandel. “We were flipping classes like crazy,” she says. Mandel worked individually with clients who had already booked in-person training courses to create custom remote learning solutions.

After all, moving an in-person course online doesn’t mean simply translating it into a PowerPoint presentation. A McKinsey article explains that shifting from in-person to virtual training delivery goes “beyond merely applying existing technology solutions to offer virtual classrooms.” Rather, it requires a “fundamental rethinking of the learning experience to enable collaborative, interactive social-learning experiences for groups of learners.”

Business consulting firm Korn Ferry also moved its in-person courses online as a result of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the company delivered training both in person and virtually but “definitely preferred in-person [training],” says Josh Daniel, a coach and career partner at Korn Ferry. After initially adjusting to virtual training facilitation, Korn Ferry was able to “really refine and polish” its courses to ensure they followed key best practices for virtual engagement, Daniel says.

Adjusting to the Demand

Although remote learning has been on the rise for some time now, the pandemic accelerated its adoption. Many organizations sent employees to work from home during the pandemic, and some even announced a permanent switch to remote work, increasing the demand for remote learning in the process.

Not surprisingly, the demand for online health and safety training, specifically, increased during COVID-19 — but many training providers stepped up to the plate. Relias launched a suite of free resources to combat COVID-19, SafetyTek launched a free COVID-19 workforce health analysis solution, ej4 released training videos to help alleviate employees’ fears about the virus and assist in organizational planning, and many additional training providers launched free online resources when learners needed them most.

Initially, Mandel struggled to keep pace with the increased demand for remote learning. Even with a strong training team, “the volume was just outrageous,” Burgess-Faber says. “Being able to maintain the love and care that we devote to each workshop was hard.”

Daniel agrees the demand for learning noticeably increased amid COVID-19. “Many people are using this pandemic as a launching pad to [learn] something new” or even to explore a new career path, he explains. As Skillsoft’s report “Skilling the Workforce During COVID-19: A Skillsoft Perspective” states, “People are taking learning seriously during the lockdown.”

Engaging Virtual Learners

After adjusting to a newfound demand for learning, many training providers faced a new challenge: engaging virtual learners. Burgess-Faber says Mandel worked hard to combat remote learning’s reputation as being “substandard” compared to in-person training. That bias, she says, “will hold your creativity back, full stop.” Virtual training courses can be engaging and impactful and can even “achieve things that you can’t in a face-to-face [course]” she says, such as increased accessibility for geographically dispersed learners.

Korn Ferry also struggled to bring learners on board with remote learning. While it’s not new, some learners still thought remote learning was less engaging and impactful than face-to-face instruction, Daniel says. “It was a challenge getting learners into the right mindset.”

To help them engage hesitant remote learners, Mandel’s online coaches went through the training alongside learners, who could ask them questions throughout the course. Learners also had access to one-on-one coaching sessions with instructors and could collaborate with their peers during breakout sessions and on discussion boards.

Skilled, experienced facilitators are critical in delivering engaging remote learning programs, Beer says. As with in-person delivery, virtual training instructors should know “more than the content” they’re teaching so they can provide context on how it relates to learners’ individual job roles. After all, training should offer more than what learners can find with a quick internet search, no matter how it’s delivered.

Of course, even the most knowledgeable facilitators will fail to deliver impactful remote learning programs if they don’t follow best practices for virtual delivery. Turning their video on, looking into the camera, and using a background that’s not distracting and has good lighting can make a world of difference, Beer says.

From breakout sessions to one-on-one coaching, there are a variety of ways to engage remote learners. But remember: There’s more than one way to be engaged, Daniel says. Some learners, such as those with young children at home, may be uncomfortable turning their cameras on … but that doesn’t mean they’re tuned out. “You have to make sure learners can engage in the way that they’re most comfortable [with],” Daniel says.

The Future Is Remote

Although it won’t fully replace face-to-face training anytime soon, Daniel says virtual training delivery will remain a “staple of learning” post-COVID. To remain competitive, both training providers and internal learning and development professionals must “get up to speed quickly” and learn from experts who have mastered the art of remote learning.

Ultimately, organizations that resist remote learning are “cheating themselves” from an opportunity to expand their programs to learners they otherwise couldn’t reach, Burgess-Faber says. “Virtual and online [learning] offer an opportunity to bring more minds together at the same time … and there’s something beautiful about that.”