Lockdown highlights the power of virtual training

The EMA faced many challenges during the COVID-19 lockdown, including how to offer courses to members when our training rooms were suddenly out of bounds? There were also questions around if there would still be an appetite for training when everyone was focused on keeping their businesses afloat.

Demand for some of our courses did drop, but we also saw an increase in members looking to make productive use of time in a ‘bubble’. This desire for professional development prompted the EMA to pivot and deliver courses via ‘virtual training rooms’, putting Microsoft Teams to good use.

What we learnt during this transition can help anyone looking to move more into the online training space.

Upskilling our trainers & learners

While some of our trainers were veterans of online training, others had a crash course in how to modify content and delivery to suit the virtual environment. It was a steep learning curve, but they met the challenge quickly and imaginatively.

The real question was could our learners adapt? Could they make the jump from face-to-face to online training and still get the same value?

We strive to create genuine ‘learning communities’ in our courses through brainstorming, collaboration, role playing and encouraging social ‘banter’ to build group rapport. When we announced the move to virtual training rooms, concerns were raised around whether employees would get the same value as actually being there?

The ‘team spirit’ we look for in good face-to-face training sessions quickly emerged in our virtual classrooms. Learners bonded via the video, audio and text chat channels available in MS Teams and our trainers adapted their usual icebreaker and introduction activities to suit the new situation.

Of course, the virtual environment wasn’t right for everyone. People with slow internet connections, older computers, or who lacked equipment such as a decent microphone, speakers and camera, found themselves at a disadvantage. We recommended deferring their training until our venues reopened. But learners already familiar with Zoom, Facetime or Skype calls to family and friends made the transition smoothly and happily.

Training materials and exercises

We also had to tackle how to deliver course information, exercises and materials to participants in a usable and convenient way. The Microsoft Teams document sharing feature has some limitations. Attachments and links scroll out of view as soon as comments are posted for example, so we sent workbooks and exercises to participants in advance so they could print the materials ahead of time.

In terms of PowerPoint and other visual presentations. Microsoft Teams’ built in screen-sharing features were easy to use and one trainer opted instead to set up a room with a wide-angle camera and deliver their presentation in the usual manner!

We were already using digital collaboration tools for some of our training courses so we continued that in the virtual sessions and some of our learners found this approach more accessible and fun than doing exercises in person.

We had to accept some activities don’t work in a virtual environment, like courses addressing interpersonal communication skills – sometimes there is no substitute for being in the same room. We also found it difficult to split large groups into smaller breakout groups (although Microsoft claim they are working on a feature to address this).

Conclusion

There are many factors that determine whether virtual training is a good solution for an individual or organisation including the course topic, available resources, the learner’s circumstances and personal learning styles and preferences.

When a pandemic gives you little choice, virtual training can be a viable and effective solution.

With lockdown over, our face-to-face venues open again, but members are still showing a significant interest in virtual training and a continued appetite for remote learning based on greater convenience and accessibility.

If you think virtual training would suit your organisation, we can develop a stand-alone online training session, or blend virtual training, eLearning and face to face engagement to suits your training needs.

Jay Amelia Stone manages the EMA public training portfolio for Management, Supervision and Leadership courses. She also facilitates courses on Influencing People and Emotional Intelligence.

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