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KNOWLEDGE CENTER

Virtual Training Best Practices

By Susan Hall

Is your organization trying to sort out how to continue to train your talent remotely? If so, then don’t underestimate the steps needed to ensure a smooth remote training experience both domestically and globally. In Episode 24 of the Strategic Insights Podcast, Susan Hall and Janis Lipsitz share best practices and lessons learned when implementing successful Virtual Training for maximum ROI.

Susan Hall: 00:01 Hello and welcome to the Strategic Insights podcast, brought to you by Strategic Enhancement Group. I'm Susan Hall, Vice President of Business Development and Performance Improvement, and today I'm really excited to be joined by my colleague and one of our most senior consultants, Janis Lipsitz. Janis was former head of Global Talent Development at two large multinational companies, including high tech and healthcare, and she's now a Senior Facilitator for both in-person and virtual training with Strategic Enhancement Group. She and I have worked together for... , Janis, it's hard to believe, but about 25 years and I consider her one of my favorite thought leaders to consult with. She's a senior consultant, a client, and also a friend. Janis, it's great to have you here today.

Janis Lipsitz: 00:50 Thank you so much for having me, Susan. I'm really excited to contribute to the conversation here.

Susan Hall: 00:56 We know from our research and experience that the ideal learning process includes components both before, during, and after, and ideally brings colleagues together at some point, not only to learn the skills from what is ideally a professional facilitator, but also from each other. There's the perfect world and there's the real world, and sometimes, whether it's due to travel or budget restrictions, events are such that companies can't physically bring their people together to develop their skills, yet the business issues and the performance gaps that that training is designed to address have not gone away.

The question that we want to address today is, "How does your organization retain and develop talent that you need to achieve your goals, objectives, and initiatives when travel restrictions, budget limitations are in play?"

Luckily we know from experience that there are quality creative options available in this case, and many companies look to virtual or e-learning as a solution to develop talent when this happens. Now there's advantages and disadvantages to that. So let's first talk about the downside, because it is a reality, and Janis, I know you've implemented numerous global virtual trading solutions and have also consulted with organizations about this.

What are some of the concerns and fears that you think learning and development and sales leaders have with virtual training?

Janis Lipsitz: 02:31 That's a great question, and you mentioned before, during and after as a framework to structure effective virtual learning, and with that as context, I could start with a story way back when we were first entering into the virtual learning world and trying to navigate best practices, and boy, that class experience remained with me because it was so painful. The unanticipated issues took away I'd say about 25% of a two hour planned training.

Susan Hall: 03:06 Yikes!

Janis Lipsitz: 03:07 Yes, it was really challenging. People came into the virtual classroom really unprepared. They'd never used the technology, and I think we underestimated the level of confusion and disruption that it was going to cause.

I think also when you have an in person training, there's usually a leader or somebody who will stand up and set the context of why this training is occurring, and in this case, people jumped onto the call. There was really not context set beyond an invitation.

So there was a lot of questions about, "How does this really relate to our real worlds?" It was a global call so there were significant language barriers that weren't planned for before the call, and lastly, I think we just underestimated how challenging it would be to facilitate meaningful dialogue.

Susan Hall: 03:59 I can imagine that added to your stress as a leader in the business.

Janis Lipsitz: 04:03 Well, yes. The answer to your question about some of my fears as a leader in the business responsible for training, some painful lessons came out of it. First of all, all the time and resources to develop that training in house was daunting, we brought a lot of people together. We pulled input from the participants, but in the end, because of the disruptions, the return on investment wasn't there. Our stakeholder, our sales leader, and the people that were on the call on the training didn't feel it was worth their time. We could've just sent a PowerPoint out.

Susan Hall: 04:46 Yes, that's painful.

Janis Lipsitz: 04:48 Yes and you never want to have an unhappy business leader, because you lose your credibility. Taking time away from sales, you never want to hear that.

Susan Hall: 04:58 No.

Janis Lipsitz: 05:00 And last, I think a big fear of mine that I always keep in mind is I have a budget to spend and I need to make sure I spend that budget and do it in a way that delivers quality return on investment. So it's a use it or lose it.

If I lose the spend, then next year I don't get that much into my budget. I have to make sure that when I do use it, it's really effective and it drives the outcomes and is seen as a smart investment.

Susan Hall: 05:31 Right. Let's talk about that then, and one of the things that I've learned to make virtual learning a smart investment is, really the number one thing that I've learned is it requires a very different type of design and facilitation.

You can't just expect to deliver your face to face training online and have it work. It will fail. We'll talk a little bit more about that as we go through.

From your perspective Janis, what are a few of the lessons learned that you think our listeners would be interested in hearing?

Janis Lipsitz: 06:02 Well, lots. There's a lot, but for the time purposes today, let's focus on three best practices. First of all, how to engage your audience and really hold onto those learners' attention. It's really easy for them to get distracted and jump off and check their emails, et cetera.

You have to understand and make clear the goals of the training and how they align with the company, but also really important how it aligns to their day to day realities. So really early on in that training, you've got to design a quick engagement dialogue where people go, "Ah, I understand why what we're about to learn is going to help me be more effective with this challenge that I'm facing."

Janis Lipsitz: 06:50 Also, I think developing a sense of ownership with leadership involvement. Ideally, if leaders, as part of the team that's being trained, can be involved to transfer that sense of ownership that this is important and this isn't just a training endeavor, but this is a business commitment that we're making to get better at what we're trying to accomplish.

In addition to leader ownership, it's really critical to have the facilitation of peer to peer learning. There's some great tools that many of the platforms have that allow peer to peer learning, and you could also use chat capabilities, other tools that really enable peer to peer learning. Also, there's just a plethora of tips and tricks that facilitators could use.

Janis Lipsitz: 07:43 I won't cover all of them, but ideally we always recommend 15 or fewer participants to ensure that engagement occurs. Susan,  I know you're really great in partnering with our clients to make sure we help educate them on making smart decisions of how many people join.

You could use tools like polls and chatting capabilities to draw the group in, breakout room technology.

Also, a really important tip is to be really clear on timing that you spend on each slide. There's best practices that say no more than 45 seconds or a minute on each slide, and no more than a minute and a half between the time that you speak and your learners contribute something, whether it's a poll or add a chat or contribute in some way so that we're always soliciting active engagement of the learners.

Susan Hall: 08:38 Yes. I've seen you keep the sessions we've done virtually really fast paced and interactive and they're always engaged. They're always doing some kind of an activity so it is difficult to hide, which many people tend to do on virtual. They're fully diving in with their sleeves rolled up. That's the kind of energy that you want to create on a virtual session, and you do such a good job with that.

I know we had talked, Janis, about the second best practice, and behavior change doesn't happen as a result of a one time event. It takes a very well thought out process in terms of what we do before, during, and after the learning to make sure that people are comfortable and practicing and using the skills.

Can you talk a little about the process you've seen succeed with virtual development?

Janis Lipsitz: 09:35 Yes, absolutely, and I agree wholeheartedly. Whether it's live instructor led in a classroom versus a virtual, this principle applies, and so launching the learning in the context of a process where people understand that we're going to be endeavoring on an on-the-job action learning type of effort where there is manager support involved.

For example, sending pre-readings to prime the pump and show up contributing when you do come into the virtual learning event is one best practice where you would do before, as well as having some sort of a context setting on why we're doing this.

Ensuring real world application is so important. So in that before, really guiding learners through a communication to bring real world experience, real world scenarios into the learning environment so when they do come onto the training, the virtual call, that the skills they're learning, they can apply real time to that scenario that they're faced with.

Janis Lipsitz: 10:50 Also, another best practice is to mix that virtual with instructor led. You might do some pre-reading, you might have virtual and then come into a face to face.

Also, coaching as part of the process to ensure adoption. So ensuring that if your learners are learning a new skill, that managers are brought into the fold, they understand what those skills are and they can set expectations and coach to those new behaviors, because these days we're usually not training to anything that's useless, right? We're very targeted in the skills we're training to.

We want to make sure that managers understand what their teams are being taught so they can coach and support and ensure the adoption of those new skills into their real world every day and people feel supported.

Susan Hall: 11:41 Right.

Janis Lipsitz: 11:42 Susan, I think our work together last year with a global client is a really good example. Maybe you could walk through specifics of how we took that one on?

Susan Hall: 11:53 Yes, that was really cool, and this was with a global tech company that had a business imperative to move from a tech focused to more of a customer focused type of an organization, and their participants were from all over the world, all different time zones, so it was certainly impossible to bring them together.

A lot of them worked virtually, so we laid out a process that evolved over time. It was about a six month process starting with the pre-reads, as you had discussed, some pre-work, and then bringing them together virtually. We had some very engaging breakouts where they were having discussions about their pre-reads and about what was going on in the marketplace. They then came back, shared them, we captured them all on a virtual whiteboard, and then they would walk out of the first virtual session with some very specific action items so that they could take their learning and apply it on the job.

Susan Hall: 12:55 So there was the on-the-job component. We brought them back to a virtual. This particular organization did have an instructor led part of the process, but I think there were three or four virtual components all with on-the-job, all with pre-work and action.

As a result of this, they built their collaboration globally and shared insights and best practices that they adopted, not only internally but from the marketplace, and as a result saw their customer satisfaction scores sore from the 70s to the low 90s within a very short period of time. So that was a true testament to the impact of what can be done virtually when you've got a well thought out process. It was pretty cool.

Janis Lipsitz: 13:46 You know, it was. It was exciting to see those results, and I just want to add again, back to that leader manager involvement and ownership. It was so present there, which really added to the outcomes.

Susan Hall: 13:59 Yes, they were very committed, definitely.

We've talked about three best practices. One is engaging your audience, your participants. The second is having a well thought out process in place, ideally with some sort of blended process. What about the third best practice?

Janis Lipsitz: 14:17 So Susan, the third best practice was the one that was most painful in the story I told earlier, and it really helped me get clear on some best practices around creating a productive and comfortable online learning experience, and that means just making sure the learners can contribute comfortably.

Some examples of that are, first of all, you've got to have a professional facilitator who really knows how to communicate effectively with virtual learners to help stop participants from checking out. There's lots to unpack underneath that concept, but it's things like you've got to be confident as a facilitator with the tools, first of all, so that you're not distracted with the technology and you could really focus on the content. Ideally, having a co-facilitator who's responsible for managing the technology allows, again, for the facilitator to really focus on the content and managing the people side of the training.

Susan Hall: 15:30 Yes. Can I add something to that, Janis?

I know when I work virtually with the client that is always my number one concern. I'm usually working with their platforms, and even though I practice it, I get online initially before all of the participants are there, but have a tech person on standby to be able to help you.

I remember one time I was giving a virtual presentation to a group of 14 senior executives and it was on their platform. I was all set to go, and partway through, one of the participants put the call on hold and we were listening to hold music for a good five minutes. It was painful. The CEO was livid.

Remembering to remind people how to use the technology, not to put on hold, et cetera, just handling the technological piece of it so that as a facilitator and participant, you're all comfortable.

Janis Lipsitz: 16:35 Absolutely, and I won't go into details, but I've heard other disruptive sounds that could really doom a call. So really good point.

Confidence with the tools also is critical for the learners, and that was something we really learned in that doomed call I told you about, the training where we lost 25% of the time. We underestimated the discomfort that people had with the tools, and things as simple as answering a poll, typing into the chat, writing on a whiteboard. All of those are skills that not a lot of people have experienced, even today with ILT, virtual ILT or Instructor Led Training that's been in the works for some time. Being able to spend some time up front educating the learners on how to use the tools, let them practice it a little bit so that they feel really confident when it does come time for them to go ahead and contribute using the tools. So that's really key best practice.

Janis Lipsitz: 17:39 In addition to confidence in the tools, you want to be able to have a facilitator who can identify disruptive behavior.

There's tools and ways to see if people are checking out, and you want to bring people back in and really facilitate that peer to peer learning. There's tips and tricks to do that, that a professional facilitator really needs to have.

Also, things like reading the virtual audience to make sure that different styles, different learning styles, different communication styles. Some people who are less comfortable contributing, where you've got that person who initially is very comfortable diving in and contributing, you've got to be able to read and bring those people in with some virtual facilitation skills that are a little different than when you're face to face and can see somebody firsthand checking out, on their phone or something like that.

Susan Hall: 18:46 Absolutely, just to make sure that you're getting everybody's contributions, and not just their communication styles, but also cultural differences as well. I noticed on our global calls, and most virtual training is global these days, that Americans tend to think that silence means acceptance, and that's certainly not the case in a lot of cultures. I've seen you do this Janis, just really being masterful at drawing people into the conversation of different cultures. Maybe English isn't their first language, as well as different styles in a very respectful way.

Janis Lipsitz: 19:24 Absolutely. It's so important. I was on a call recently, and there were I'd say four or five folks who had English as a second language, and the best practice we applied was to make sure we touched in with the client ahead of time to make sure we understood who those participants were. They gave us a list of all the participants and we always ask about language issues, because if English is not native or whatever language you're in, if many of the participants are not native to that language, you want to understand that those learners might be withdrawn. They will be a little less comfortable contributing. There's facilitation tools to pull them in and make them feel comfortable, like using the chat capability and just having awareness of the different styles that come into play.

Susan Hall: 20:16 Yes, that's a great tip. Janis, we're talking about the third best practice, which is creating a productive and comfortable virtual experience for participants. What about the technology itself? Anything else that you might add there? Because it's so critical.

Janis Lipsitz: 20:30 Yes. We talked about some of that, but a couple of key points here.

First of all, you want to make sure that you have the right tools and technology platform for the need at hand. Some of the more sophisticated learning, for example, you might want to have breakout room technology, and not all learning platforms allow for that.

From a training perspective, you'll want to make sure you've got the right tools, and then being able to ensure, as I mentioned earlier, that learners are ready and feel comfortable. We want to help them overcome that fear of the unknown, and so having the support readily available we mentioned.

I just want to give a couple of additional tips that really came out of that really bad experience I had when we got slammed by the business for a highly ineffective training.

The best practices that came out of that were developing pre-work and explicit checklists to ensure readiness for the training. For example, we send out messages ahead of time to learners that say, "Make sure you join, come prepared to join on your laptops or desktops versus your phone. Make sure that you don't join the call with somebody that sits next to you, because we're going to be using technology where each individual needs to log in on their own."

So often you have learners chiming in together, two or three people sitting around a computer, and then they don't get the benefit of all contributing. That's an important one to make sure people come each individually signing in. They can do breakouts, they can poll, and it increases engagement, also ensuring the ability to globally mute.

Susan Hall: 22:29 Boy, we could have used that one on the call I mentioned, right?

Janis Lipsitz: 22:32 Yes, absolutely. Always ensuring, as we mentioned back, that in some of that pre-work, in addition to the technology pieces, ensuring there's a leader message always connecting back to the why and the relevance. That's not necessarily a technology tip here, but we always want to bring it back to that message of tying it always to the why are we doing this and how is it relevant to my day to day?

Susan Hall: 23:03 Janis, thank you so much. I just always appreciate your generosity of insight, and I know that we love working with our clients and are certainly happy to talk with them about virtual design and facilitation as well as how we might help develop their team's ability to effectively design and facilitate, and I think this is a really great start.

In summary, virtual training, it's not ideal in every situation, but especially as part of a blended approach, it can be extremely effective, especially in situations where people can't travel or for whatever reason are geographically dispersed and can't come together face to face.

Also, the design and facilitation of virtual require a very specific skillset, which is different from in person training.

Then we discussed three best practices.

1.  How to engage your audience, keeping your session size small, using polling, chatting, shaking things up, keeping people on their toes.

2. Have a good, well-thought process in place, whether it's instructor led or virtual. You need to consider how you're engaging people before, during, and after the training, including coaching them.

3. Creating a productive and comfortable experience for the learners, making sure that not only your facilitators, but your participants are comfortable with the technology and they know how to use it. They're coming prepared and know what to expect.

There's no one size fits all solution, but if it's an issue for our clients right now, please give us a call. We certainly love to strategize with our customers to come up with creative quality options that can achieve their objectives. Please feel free to reach out to us with any of your questions, comments, or tips that you've learned as well. Thanks for joining us today.

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Published: March 25, 2020

MEET THE AUTHOR

Susan Hall

Vice President- Business Development & Performance Improvement

Susan brings over 20 years of experience working with global markets and organizations, helping them navigate through tough economic challenges while maintaining their margins. Since joining SEG in 1995, she has had the privilege of working with organizations that truly value the development of their employees and recognize the impact their people have on their bottom line results. Susan graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a double major in business management and speech communication. She has also completed course work toward her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University.

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