Companies rely on virtual meetings, training, and eLearning to solve the challenges of employees distributed across distances and time zones. And, amid this global COVID-19 pandemic, virtual and telecommuting are now part of almost everyone’s vocabulary. Employees around the world are teleworking, many for the first time. Businesses learned quickly what work can be done virtually that previously was done in an office setting. It seems everyone is now an expert on “all things virtual.”

During these telework times, virtual training is emerging as of one the most important ways to engage employees. It brings working groups together around a common goal, and it helps to standardize messaging and culture, which used to happen naturally in workplace gatherings. Virtual training also fits into the new way of working and can help with employee satisfaction and retainment.

What makes a virtual program successful?

Planning your strategy and setting goals are the keys to any successful eLearning program. The old adage still applies: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

When I started my career in learning and development nearly twenty-five years ago, classroom training was king. The promise of eLearning was still on the horizon, and early solutions were complicated. Over the years, many promising solutions appeared and then disappeared. I saw many training professionals jump on one new tool or another and try to make their paradigm for training fit. I occasionally fell victim to this thinking as well. Some of us laughingly refer to this as the “hammer” approach to training. If the only tool you have is a hammer, all workplace challenges suddenly look like nails.

In an ideal world, we design an optimum solution to fit each of our training needs. In reality, things are more complicated. For our purposes today, my point is that our training delivery platform was chosen for us the moment our organization selected its telework platform. That is now the platform people know, the platform that’s supported by IT, and the platform people will use. It is possibly the most logical way to deliver training, even if there are other platforms, better platforms, we might prefer.

In effect, we are handed a hammer as our primary tool. What shall we do with it?

From my experience, there are a few things to consider before starting a virtual learning program.

What objectives can be met easily within the limitations of your virtual platform?

My emphasis here is on the word easily. We can meet training needs using almost any platform if we invest enough time, effort, and other resources. Given business needs, however, we are likely better served by producing more with less effort.

The most common telework platforms I’ve encountered are designed for virtual meetings. Skype, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, and Zoom are examples, joined by a growing list of other choices. Generally, all of them do an excellent job of merging attendance and calendaring, chat, voice with meeting content: slides, documents, and videos. Some handle camera feeds well, others less well. With perhaps a few exceptions, they were not designed as elearning delivery platforms.

Bloom’s taxonomy can help identify easy targets for virtual training. The bottom-most levels of the taxonomy focus on objectives related to knowledge, recall, and understanding. These are accomplished in the virtual meeting platforms with minimal effort. Objectives requiring ongoing collaboration or simulations are more challenging. If time is a luxury, or if the need is critical, then do what it takes to virtualize the program. Otherwise rescope objectives for maximum effectiveness.

“Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Perhaps my favorite quote, attributed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, applies here. In designing programs for virtual delivery, especially against aggressive timelines, keep them simple and as short as possible.

My rule of thumb is to set objectives that are accomplished in a single sitting for employees before their attention turns to other things. Need to accomplish more? Build additional experiences that are threaded together, one following the other at a different time or on a different day. Episodic television does this and it’s a proven formula. Packing several days of content into a single experience is a paradigm from classroom training where people took time away from the workplace and often traveled. Learning management systems (LMS’s) are designed to handle most of the overhead associated with threading virtual events like this together into curricula.

Know the tool

As with any tool, knowing how to use it well is the difference between success and failure, the difference between a good experience and a train wreck.

Many tools I’ve run across have features beyond basic meeting functions, such as chat or polling. These allow participants to interact with content. Using them effectively can enhance the experience and improve engagement.

Also, spend time testing the tools. How does the system respond at different times of the day? What happens if the presenter (possibly you) loses connection? I’ve seen first-hand where a platform’s performance behind a firewall, with all employees physically on-location, was superb, but then problems arose when participants joined from hundreds of distinct locations such as their homes.

Build a team and know the roles

Almost every expert will give the same piece of advice to produce virtual training: build a team. Someone (the “talent”) will likely deliver a presentation. They may also view and respond to questions in chat. They should, however, be as free from the burden of monitoring the technology as possible, which are roles best delegated to others who can intervene as necessary.

You also need to assign other roles. Among these are assuring proper function of the virtual environment, addressing participant issues and questions, or making and producing recordings. You may also have dedicated staff to monitor chat and interrupt presenters when appropriate, or to monitor time and keep the program on schedule.

Even if you fill most of the production roles yourself, there is no such thing as a flawless system. It helps to know your tool well and prepare for the inevitable technical hiccups, whether the fault of technology or your users. The more distributed your participants, the more likely that technical issues that will affect your training. A team can help. When testing the platform, explore what happens when the presenter or the producer loses connection, and develop a backup plan. One participant losing connection is a small problem. A presenter losing voice connection or training content failing affects all participants.

Act now…but not just for now

While those in the industry talk a lot about virtual training and elearning, I’ve seen many organizations resist. Lots of classroom training remained before the COVID-19 crisis. Out of necessity, almost all corporate training is now virtual with little reason to go back except for learning experiences that can’t be done virtually. As I’m taught, “If it can be virtualized, it should.” A virtual-first learning strategy can be the path forward in these uncertain times.

In my own experience, a virtual-first strategy combined with a strong team is a successful recipe. When orders for company-wide telework came, we were prepared. In the months following these orders, we experienced an increase in participation and not a decrease. Employees are more able to participate in short, focused learning experiences that are relevant to the work they do.

In conclusion

If you want to build a learning program that is resilient to changes of the times, you need a strategic approach that embraces virtual training. Virtual shouldn’t be the delivery mode du jour, but a foundation for the overall learning strategy that supports business operations.

Knowing what can be virtualized, and what can’t, is the beginning. Re-thinking each opportunity with a virtual-first mindset follows, along with creative problem solving. The playing field for virtual training is complex and not as simple as “just going online with classes.”

This is a good time to rethink strategy, use lessons learned, and consider virtual-first. Not will solutions scale at a reasonable cost, you will see huge gains in communication, employee satisfaction, and return on expectations.

Tom Spiglanin, Chief Learning Strategist
Ansera Solutions LLC

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