In 1987, I found myself standing in front of 20 New York City police officers in a Manhattan classroom to teach them how to successfully manage people with emotional disturbances when they become confused, angry and a potential threat. I’d just started my career as a soft skills trainer, and, as terrified as I was, I also knew that being in the room with those cops and bringing to bear my interpersonal skills and experience as a professional stage actor would help me to help them learn new behaviors. Back then, in-person, “hands on” experiential learning was the gold standard of soft skills training.

I would argue it still is, yet today, most learning and development (L&D) organizations must provide in-depth, engaging and effective soft skills training using online and virtual learning techniques and technologies that are, in many cases, new or still under development. On top of this challenge, as always, they must ensure that online soft skills training triggers and supports long-term, positive behavioral change and development. Due to the many challenges that virtual training presents, it’s a tall order.

One of the biggest challenges to teaching soft skills virtually is the lack of sensory immersion that in-person training provides, wherein participants not only intellectually process what they’re learning but actually “feel it” with all of their senses. For example, if the goal is to teach managers how to provide feedback effectively, then an in-person class would naturally include engaging them in practice sessions with the instructor and/or each other. In a virtual learning program, however, they’re not in the same physical space as the instructor or other learners, making it that much harder for them to sense the subtle emotional cues that they’d easily pick up in person.

Developing social and emotional intelligence in online training is also difficult. How does a manager practice being more genuinely empathetic when they aren’t in the same physical space with the people with whom they’re supposed to demonstrate empathy? They can do it with words and some facial and body language, but it’s not the same as being in person.

Another challenge is the physical isolation of the participants — each sitting alone in a room, staring at a laptop screen and interacting through less-than-audiophile-quality speakers or earbuds and a dodgy mic on unreliable Wi-Fi and internet connections. As a result, engaging participants as a unified group and creating an “all of us together” feeling where they can learn from and support each other is more difficult in a virtual classroom.

Distractions pose additional significant challenges. During this unprecedented era of work-from-home (WFH) and lockdown orders, many of us have family members — including children, individuals with disabilities or illnesses, and/or the elderly — who are seeking and/or needing our attention, not to mention our pets and the noises and sounds of life going on around us. As a result, keeping participants fully engaged for more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time is difficult.

After reviewing these challenges, it may be tempting for training managers and instructional designers to throw up their hands and say, “Forget it!” But there are approaches that can work to make virtual soft skills training more effective:

1. Use Every Available Online and Blended Learning Tool

Deliberately and liberally use books, “read-aheads,” polls, chatrooms, whiteboards, screen annotation, structured group discussions, quizzes, virtual practice sessions and breakout rooms, animated graphics, storytelling, music, and videos. Fortunately, online learning platform developers are dreaming up some especially useful technologies every day. The trick is to use them all regularly and with mastery.

2. Break Down Concepts and Skills Into Bite-sized Chunks and Multiple Sessions

In person, it’s relatively easy to teach participants an emotional intelligence model and for them to learn some of the concomitant skills in one day. But it’s generally accepted that four continuous hours of focus per day is the most that we can expect of online learners. Therefore, it’s important to break down online soft skills training programs into smaller modules and multiple sessions. This process, of course, takes more time — time that leaders often say their employees don’t have — but if virtual soft skills training is going to be effective, it is a “must have.”

3. Assign “Homework” That Requires Practice With Real People

Just because someone is learning soft skills virtually doesn’t mean he or she never comes into face-to-face contact with others. Give participants specific homework that requires them to practice their new skills in person with someone else, such as a family member or a friend, and then prepare to report back on their results when class resumes.

4. Review the Classic Visual and Vocal Cues That Signal Emotions

Emotional cues, including physical and vocal micro-messages and what some people call a “mood” or “vibe,” are easily perceived with all of our senses in an in-person classroom. Virtual learning forces us to rely only upon sight and sound as perceived through a computer screen and speakers. It’s vital, then, that virtual soft skills programs review the visual and vocal cues that signal emotions.

5. Create Post-program “Huddle Groups”

Have small groups of participants come together virtually for 30 to 60 minutes a few weeks after the program to review lessons learned, present current challenges, and receive advice and coaching from each other.

6. Provide Post-program, One-on-one Coaching

Experts in soft skills training have been emphasizing the measurable benefits of post-program, one-on-one coaching sessions for many years, but many organizations see it as an expensive “nice-to-have.” For virtual soft skills training to be as effective as leaders want them to be, post-program coaching is an imperative.

Is it possible to deliver soft skills training virtually that is as effective as in-person programs? Based on my experience, I can only say that it’s almost as effective — but it can be done through hard work, new and different training techniques, and a lot more time and patience.