How to take training virtual

Remote workforces have meant a spike in the number of companies shifting learning and development online.
By: | June 2, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Last year, Guild Mortgage converted its classroom training for new sales hires to virtual training. The catalyst was its $200,000 annual travel costs, says Emily Zachariasen, regional sales training manager at the organization, which specializes in residential home loans.

“We were flying people to training centers around the country, paying for their hotel and food,” she says, adding that the company’s nearly 4,000 employees at 222 retail branches in 30 states, includes more than 850 sales professionals. “Because they were traveling, it really made training a pressure cooker … Virtual training enabled us to spread out the training from two and one-half days to five days a week. We now have more hours of instruction and slowed down the pace, which made it easier for [participants] rather than drinking out of a firehose.”

Related: Exploring the virtual future of L&D

As the number of remote employees has peaked due to COVID-19, more companies are converting face-to-face training courses into virtual programs. Although some trainers worry they can’t bond with online participants or that employees will struggle with the technology, virtual training has evolved from a trend into a necessity. So instead of asking why, HR professionals are experimenting with how to transform existing training into engaging and effective virtual programs.

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Keep Your Pants On

According to a 2019 survey of 230 global training professionals conducted by ATD (Association for Talent Development), 93% percent were using live, online learning. ATD’s research also reveals that 87% of organizations use virtual classes to reach geographically dispersed workers, while 81% use it to save on travel costs.

Converting programs isn’t easy. Among the challenges is modifying them to fit a virtual environment, says Zachariasen, who adds that roughly 25% of the traditional sales program was altered, the class size was capped at 14 and participants are now equipped with dual monitors, a camera and microphone.

“We had games before we went virtual,” she says. “Now we use Kahootz! to create quizzes and give out credit to the company store as prizes. We might say, ‘Stand up’ while you take the quiz, which helps get the class re-energized.”

See also: Remote work in a COVID-19 world

Zachariasen and her team also developed a checklist and funny video to help offices better understand how the virtual training would work and then rated them on six different areas, such as if the office supplied the required technology and private training space.

“One change that made a big difference was we teach every [virtual] class with two trainers,” she says, explaining that, while one teaches, the other watches students for signs of confusion or distraction. “If someone is slowing down the class or gets stuck, you can put them in a virtual breakout room, get them unstuck and then they rejoin the group.”

But beware. She says some forget they’re on camera—like the participant who made a phone call during training or another who changed his pants for everyone to see.

Still, Zachariasen says, the benefits are meaningful. Any trainer in the country can jump online and teach a class. Likewise, virtual trainers can be observed online and generally become more connected, collaborative and consistent with content delivery.

Can-Do Attitude

HR can start the conversion process by inventorying its training programs, explains Chris Willis, director of product content at eLearning Brothers, an online corporate training company.

Which ones are the most important and time-sensitive, demand a live facilitator or are repetitive and can be effective as a recorded webinar or self-paced course?

Then, become familiar with virtual tools, especially their built-in features like polling. Train presenters on how to adapt existing content, use the technology or monitor participant faces. Are they drifting or confused?

See also: Training in a virtual world—The new normal

To escape “death by PowerPoint,” Willis says, slides need to vary in appearance from one other, be frequently flipped and each deliver a key message. She also supports the two-presenter approach since one can focus on content delivery while the other on technology and monitor participant questions or comments to avoid straying off topic.

Converting also represents a good opportunity to update content, adds Nikki O’Keeffe, senior facilitator and instructional designer at ATD. Is it still valid and relatable? She says never lose sight of the fundamental basics, such as the program’s purpose or end learner goals, and focus on what you can do instead of can’t do in this new learning environment.

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She suggests incorporating blended activities like participants meeting in breakout rooms to discuss specific topics, researching a topic for 10 minutes and then sharing their findings, or brainstorming creative ideas on a virtual white board.

Okeeffe says trainers must also “chunk” content in a way that makes sense. For example, break up an eight-hour classroom program into two-hour sessions over four days. Make sure the topics flow and assign homework to participants between sessions.

“How to convert training activities is a big question people have right now,” she says, adding that HR professionals must choose a platform with sufficient bandwidth and abilities to track learner progress. “Sometimes we rush these decisions that could have a [negative] impact on how we’re designing and administering our programs and calculating our evaluation.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.