Why virtual training is here ‘forevermore’

While the coronavirus pandemic picked up steam in the United States early this spring and the world of work went virtual, face-to-face interactions quickly started looking antiquated. Training company ELI, however, noticed that many clients were initially hesitant to shift their scheduled learning and development sessions to a virtual setting, opting instead to cancel and await the return to the workplace.

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Tucker Miller

However, as the timeline for that eventual outcome remains elusive–and with a bit of education from ELI on the value of virtual L&D–many more employers hopped on board. And, according to Tucker Miller, vice president of client development and consulting at ELI, they aren’t looking back.

“The initial impact [of the pandemic on L&D] was much different than six to eight weeks in and then to where we are now,” she says. “There’s been this wave of adaptation as we’ve gone along.”

In its conversations with clients about the potential for virtual training efforts, Miller says, the company found that many had never even considered such an option, nor known that ELI had the capacity. The organization started offering virtual training about eight years ago.

Related: Exploring the virtual future of L&D

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Because of that history, Miller says, ELI has been uniquely positioned to educate clients about the value of virtual training. For instance, in comparing the evaluations for its face-to-face and virtual sessions over the years, the only differentiating factor has been the level of surprise participants in the virtual sessions registered about the success of the training.

That education effort also focused on unique additions that can make virtual L&D sessions just as interactive as in-person trainings. For instance, ELI relies heavily on Socratic dialogue to support interactive communication, along with chat functions and voting.

“These allow everyone to participate simultaneously in a highly interactive way that’s always giving them something to do,” Miller says.

Breakout rooms are another feature that can help mirror an in-person feel for a virtual learning session–though Miller notes not everything about face-to-face learning should be replicated for a virtual setting. For instance, employers should pay close attention to timing.

ELI’s typical in-person program provides four to six hours of content, which is adapted to about two hours for a virtual setting. At first, she says, some clients that transitioned to virtual L&D during the pandemic were resistant to shortening the length.

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“People can’t be expected to sit still for that long and just look at their screen,” she says. “There’s research that shows how the brain has to try to process these images and these pixels and that the sweet spot is really 1.5 to 2.5 hours at a time.”

As more employers have recognized the value of virtual L&D, and the reality of remote work becoming a long-term shift sets in, ELI’s train-the-trainer sessions are now focusing on bringing a virtual mindset to L&D leaders.

See also: Google workers will stay remote until summer 2021

“We want to get our client trainers familiar with the format and show them best practices for how to deliver this type of training,” such as varying their cadence and learning new ways of interacting, Miller says. “Many organizations are starting to realize, ‘OK, this [virtual L&D] could work, so we now need to learn how to do it and do it well.’ ”

See also: How to take training virtual

The evolution ELI has seen with its own clients–from avoidance of non-traditional L&D methods to apprehension about virtual learning to embracing it as a forward-looking strategy–will mirror the wider landscape for L&D, Miller predicts.

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“Virtual, as a part of the L&D solution, is going to be with us forevermore,” she says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get some of our clients now to transition to back to face-to-face because this is becoming an imprint of their training experience; this is just what training looks like now.”

And as the pandemic rapidly reshapes the world of work–from creating new positions to upending the labor market–learning is going to become more essential than ever.

“There’s a demand and a desire for it, and now people are looking for the ways to do it best in this time,” Miller says. “We weren’t sure if people would stop doing training altogether, and that’s not at all what we’re seeing. Organizations are adapting and converting and are now looking at all of the possibilities of virtual learning.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].