When the pace and landscape of business changed in March 2020, the initial reaction from most training organizations was to pause programming, wait and see. Once the effects of the pandemic proved longer lasting than expected, those training organizations realized that being on hold wasn’t enough: It was time to pivot.

While many great things have come from these changes, businesses have also experienced growing pains. When managing teams remotely, how can leaders instill the same sense of accountability from a distance? How does mentoring and developing talent translate over the digital divide? How can trust be cultivated without face-to-face interactions? How can leaders know whether their teams are engaged?

Learning and development (L&D) teams found extra responsibilities on their plates – providing support for leaders struggling to answer these questions while fulfilling their development mission in the new normal. At the time of publication, the “new normal” seems here to stay for longer than anyone anticipated. In a time when distance is a necessity, it’s more crucial than ever to meaningfully connect with learners.

Many organizations had already embraced digital learning options, such as eLearning and on-demand microlearning. Similarly, many formerly in-person events quickly transitioned to virtual platforms. Neither of these approaches, however, guarantee the preservation of rich, in-person learning experiences. The challenge with this transition centers on translating the best parts of formerly in-person experiences into engaging virtual learning.

The most effective in-person, classroom learning experiences provide opportunities for critical thinking, teamwork, collaboration and networking. Topics for this learning are typically bigger than what can be tackled in an eLearning module, such as driving accountability, leading teams virtually and operating with strong business acumen. These are business-critical topics, and the challenge today is bridging that learning into a virtual space while preserving impact in the new normal.

Here are some practical steps for successfully conducting that transition:

1. First, take an inventory.

Examine the in-person training program that needs to be adapted to the virtual space. Is this something that should still be facilitated synchronously? How long is it? Could it be shortened to fit a more palatable, virtual timeframe? Modules up to one hour are a good rule of thumb unless there is a high level of interactivity – such as gamification or teamwork in breakout rooms – in which case modules can extend between two and two and a half hours.

Looking at the content, the program flow and the types of interaction will help reframe the learning. The best transitioned programs are reimagined for the new setting, not just converted as they are. Think of it this way: A novel and a film can tell the same story using entirely different mediums. Skilled screenwriters adapting a novel into a film must first examine the story itself, then use the storytelling tools available to them to determine how to best convey the story in film.

Similarly, keep in mind that it’s not going to be the same experience. How could it be? It’s a totally different medium, just as the experience of seeing a film is different than the experience of reading a book. It’s not fair to compare two entirely different mediums, because it’s not going to be the same. While some may bemoan that fact, there’s also beauty in making them distinct experiences. Embrace it.

2. Facilitation will be different, too.

Just as the experience is different, it is also important to facilitate virtual programs differently. In a classroom, facilitators have a wealth of in-person reactions to feed off the energy in the room. This is vastly different – but not absent – in a virtual setting. It may take seasoned classroom facilitators some time to adapt their approach.

Facilitators will need to prepare differently as well. Keeping time will become more important, especially with shorter modules. Facilitators will need to be familiar and comfortable with the technology. They’ll also need to anticipate transitions and clearly communicate what’s coming next.

Instructors will also need to keep any dithering out of facilitation. In their Harvard Business Review article, “How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings,” Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny recommend mixing facts and stories as one engagement tool, as well as keeping talking points “brief and succinct.” They also recommend to “never go longer than five minutes without giving the group another problem to solve.” Structuring the course with a mixture of interaction and limited lecture can help with this.

As Hale and Grenny state, the best virtual facilitation contains deliberate and succinct explanations. It’s much easier to confuse people with verbosity in a virtual session. Think of it as the poetry of facilitation. Well-written poetry omits any filler or unnecessary words, and words are chosen deliberately to create intentional images and messages. The same is true for excellent virtual facilitation.

3. Prepare for technology success with a production team.

Ideally, facilitators will conduct virtual sessions with the support of a technical producer or producers. Even facilitators with a high degree of comfort with technology platforms will benefit from a second pair of hands keeping things running smoothly.

As part of the new kind of facilitator prep, working with technical producers will be vital to conducting smoothly transitioned sessions.

4. Leverage the tools at hand to increase engagement.

The best virtual programs fully leverage the interaction opportunities available within the platform they use. A deep understanding of the technology helps facilitate this. A 2016 study by M. Tan and K.F. Hew published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology examined how meaningful gamification impacted student learning, engagement and outcomes in a blended learning setting. The study found that “students in the [gamification] group posted more messages in the discussion forums than the [non-gamification] group. Furthermore, the quality of group artefacts produced by the participants in the [gamification] group was overall higher than those in the [non-gamification] group. All students in the [gamification] group strongly agreed or agreed that they found the course motivating. However, only about half the participants in the [non-gamification] group found the course motivating.”

When distance or technology separates groups of people, engagement is harder to achieve than when the group is physically together. Facilitators and learners should incorporate web cams when possible to pick up on visual feedback, facial expressions and physical cues. When incorporated thoughtfully, gamified, creative and frequent interactions can only enhance engagement.

5. Create resonant experiences for learners.

Successful adult learning hinges on relevance and resonance. Early in the training, create opportunities for two-way communication with learners using polls or direct verbal feedback. Build in a degree of adaptability in the program, so audience feedback can steer areas of focus in the course. This can be accomplished simply by spending extra time on topic learners identify as important or may be struggling with during facilitator debriefs.

6. Be prepared to be surprised.

“Be prepared to be surprised,” is a central theme and quote from the 2017 film “Dan in Real Life.”  It’s a statement about life that also applies to virtual training. Preparation is key in a virtual space. Winging it is not an option. Time tracking is key and shows respect for learners. Careful design and seamless transitions throughout the program will create a pleasant experience. Yet, despite any amount of preparation, technology will always throw curve balls.

Be prepared to flex, adapt, pivot and problem-solve in the moment. When problems arise, the demeanor of the facilitator and producer will influence how learners react. The more matter of fact and calm the facilitator and producer are, the better learners will react. Similarly, not calling attention to the technology challenge will minimize it. It is in everyone’s best interests not to dwell on it but instead return focus to the learning at hand.

Conducting a pre-session technology test with learners can help assuage insecurities about joining a meeting on a new platform, as can opening the session room 30 minutes early.

When stress escalates, remember to keep things in perspective. There will always be challenges, but there will also be great, smooth sessions. Fantastic programs can be facilitated, empowering learners and accomplishing mission-critical business initiatives. But, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the truly important and impactful things in life happen outside of work hours.

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