Meet Jane. She was recently hired at a large manufacturing company and was set to begin a week-long onboarding program when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The company was no longer allowing in-person training events. As many employees began adjusting to their new environment, the learning and development (L&D) group quickly adapted the in-person onboarding program to a full week of virtual training. Problem solved! Or was it? Jane began to feel overwhelmed and found it difficult to focus during the full-day sessions. In addition to Jane’s inability to concentrate on her work, she began to notice physiological changes, such as increased fidgeting and headaches.

Jane is not alone. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 41% of training was delivered in person while 52% of it was virtual. Now, organizations have drastically shifted this model, with only 22% of training being delivered in person and 72% being delivered virtually. Jane’s responses to this shift are just some of the indicators of “sensory overload” that have become more prevalent as the industry has accelerated toward a virtual environment.

Human Factor Labs, an organization studying how humans interact with technology, found that virtual collaboration is often more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration. Specifically, brainwave patterns associated with stress were much higher when collaborating in a virtual environment than when collaborating in person. Studies have repeatedly documented that this social isolation contributes to significant declines in cognitive performance, spikes in cortisol levels and disrupted sleep.

For Jane, this change in her environment caused neurological and physiological responses that, left unaddressed, may result in negative impacts on motor performance, decision-making, social behavior, learning and memory. Given that 74% of organizations anticipate that their workforce will remain, at least in part, in a virtual environment, the question now becomes, “With all of the remarkable advancements in technology, how do we properly design and administer training, so our learners are protected from the unintended consequences of sensory overload?”

While we cannot change how each individual reacts to changes in their environment, we can assess our audience and provide blended solutions that reduce feelings of sensory overload, virtual exhaustion and isolation. We can help learners determine possible causes of sensory overload and provide solutions that offer learners a personalized way to accomplish learning objectives. Consider the ABCs of minimizing sensory overload: Assess, blend and communicate.

Assess

The first step to crafting a learning experience that minimizes risk of sensory overload is to carefully assess your learners’ environments. Consider their roles, workspaces, reliance on screen time to do their jobs, proximity to others, and social or public interactions.

  • How much of their work is typically done in a virtual environment?
  • What experience do they have in a virtual environment?
  • What is their ratio of in-person to virtual experiences?
  • Do they have access to the hardware and software needed to support a virtual experience?

The answers to these questions will provide you with a framework for understanding just how much virtual or solitary training the learner can consume without risking sensory overload. We also need to look forward:

  • Where does your organization expect learners to be in three months, six months or even five years?
  • What about their environment do we know will change?
  • What physical, social or emotional changes can be expected?

The answers to these questions should be evaluated early in the design process and directly influence the outcome of your learners’ experiences. This gives you an opportunity to provide learners with a strategy to assess their own struggles with sensory overload and isolation.

To assess your learners for sensory overload, consider the following:

  • Send out surveys to gauge employee baselines with common causes and effects of sensory overload.
  • Review pre-remote data against current key performance indicators and performance data to evaluate impact on performance.
  • Determine what factors employees perceive will be obstacles in overcoming screen-time issues and returning to the office or classroom.
  • Formulate criteria on levels and types of sensory overload to determine an appropriate course of action.

After you’ve assessed the current environment, it’s time to put your findings into action with a blend of learning elements.

Blend

Blended learning, whether following a traditional model or crafting your own unique blend, can help employees get the information and training needed while reducing sensory overload. After you identify impacts on employee performance during the assessment phase, use that information to create a blended solution that minimizes contributors to sensory overload. Blended solutions offer learners several delivery options to explore content, allowing them to progress through learning in a way that makes sense for them and their environment. Below are examples of leading practices for implementing blended learning solutions:

  • Make use of microlearning content provided through different modalities.
  • Limit screen time to no more than 40 minutes.
  • Active learning improves learners’ perception and attitude towards information and helps to spread out virtual learning. Make good use of collaborative tools, game-based learning, skill practice sessions and discussion boards.
  • Look for ways to incorporate a good balance of social and cohort learning with individual experiences.
  • Stay safe, get up and get out – build physical activities into the blend for virtual learners.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to refresh their water, encourage healthy snacking and ensure personal breaks are included throughout the session.
  • Consider creative ways to provide experiential learning in a virtual environment: Find ways to learn through reading, hearing, watching, smelling or touching.

Before we get to the last step of the ABC approach, let’s revisit Jane’s onboarding experience. If the L&D group had conducted an assessment and identified that most learners had minimal exposure to a virtual environment, would the team have considered other ways to deliver learning content? Instead, they may have considered a blended approach giving participants the opportunity to participate in training that includes a blend of both instructor-led and self-directed virtual learning, coupled with experiential learning.

Communicate

Now more than ever, we are aware of how sensory overload impacts our ability to comprehend, apply and retain key information. However, we often do not help employees identify symptoms of sensory overload or give them space to express their struggles. Communication is essential to increasing learner awareness of sensory overload. Providing open communication will encourage learners to stay alert for signs, as they are in the best position to address sensory overload within their own environment.

It’s also important to provide recommendations on how to identify sensory overload and reduce virtual exhaustion. You should also be consistent in your communication efforts, but vary the methods you employ; communication does not always need to happen through email. Ask learners their communication preferences and consider a variety of formats, including text, personal calls, daily huddles, and diagrams and visuals to ensure processes are fully understood.

As with Jane, in her highly charged period of change, good communication can help reduce the impacts of isolation and reliance on a screen. Communicating the results of the assessment and understanding the training options available can help Jane understand her own sensory issues and participate in training events that support her own ability to focus, comprehend and retain pivotal information.

The L&D industry is replete with problem solvers. We love to evolve and branch out in our attempts to provide innovative and effective learning experiences. When it comes to sensory overload, we have the ability to support our learners and reduce negative impacts on performance. Now you may be asking yourself, “What can I start doing today to better support my learners?” To that, we recommend the following:

  • Assess your learners through a survey. Understand sensitivity to these changes and identify learners at a higher risk of being affected by the transition.
  • Be creative with your learning solutions. What non-virtual, yet self-paced, learning elements can you blend into your solution? What experiential learning opportunities exist?
  • Communicate the risk of sensory overload, and share best practices. Even after you roll out a learning program, check in with your learners often. Review the best practices described in this article and share those with your learners, so they can become more self-aware.

Virtual learning is here to stay. Let’s provide better learning experiences by designing our solutions to reduce virtual exhaustion and social isolation. Now is the time to be evolutionary and innovative in how we assess learner needs and create effective blended learning opportunities that, supported by open communication, will minimize sensory overload and provide effective, timely and safe conditions for learning.

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