Holding onto the way things have always been done can prevent you from seeing new opportunities and growth.
Before I could embark on transforming in-person courses to virtual, I had personal barriers to overcome.
In March 2020, the pandemic forced my employer to face a business dilemma that would affect the learning function, our clients, and our bottom line. COVID-19 catapulted on the scene, and the 27-year-old interpersonal skills training company I work for was placed on a shelter-at-home basis.
The company trains people in skills such as leadership, professional presence, and outcome-driven selling—all via face-to-face classes. We had several 120-hour leadership academies in the middle of their programs, and we could no longer host people in our facility to train them and still be safe. Yet, our clients wanted their employees to continue learning.
We did not believe virtual interpersonal skills training could be as effective, engaging, and interactive as our in-person classes were. However, to serve our clients, we had to at least try to see whether we could transform the face-to-face curriculum to virtual offerings.
We needed online classes that could meet our standards as well as our clients’ expectation of our learning experiences. As chief learning officer, it was up to me to figure out what classes we could transform and then start the process. But before I could embark on the task, I had personal barriers to overcome.
A bias against virtual training. As an interpersonal skills training company, we didn’t value online learning for developing interpersonal skills. We knew that the sets of skills and tools we taught were best learned in person.
Yet, like many other things I have learned to value differently during the pandemic, I began to value the learning more than the delivery platform. If clients desired to use this time to upskill their teams, we had a responsibility to make that happen. In-person sessions were not an option, so I had to challenge my assumptions and biases.
Open mind to innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention, but invention usually comes to make things more convenient. We did not innovate and turn face-to-face curriculum into virtual offerings for convenience.
Rather, it was inconvenient both in the process of reimagining curriculum and in the new form of delivery it required. The pandemic made me re-examine our values and open my mind to ways of doing things that I had never considered
Tiered approach. It is challenging to pivot and turn on a dime. I found myself in the early stages of this transformation experiencing feelings of insecurity, incompetence, and frustration that we couldn’t move faster. To do things right, we had to be swift, but we also had to ensure quality.
To address those feelings, I settled on a phased approach—both for the transformation and for training the trainers to present virtually—that enabled me to garner small wins along the way and not get lost in what seemed an overwhelming process.
Redesigning the training
Relevancy always matters when designing a curriculum. The program must meet learners’ needs for them to receive it well and implement what they learned from the training event.
During these challenging times, when people’s lives have changed overnight, relevancy has become an even higher priority. I knew that whatever we offered had to provide the skills that learners could implement immediately and that would be meaningful in this new environment.
The first course we modified was about professional presence. In light of the pandemic, the class—originally based on face-to-face networking, handshakes, and professional image and dress—was irrelevant.
People are doing business from home over virtual platforms. They are not in in-person networking situations, and they were not dressing the same for business.
Most professionals are behind a screen, often not in business attire. How could we transform this curriculum to be relevant to the situation at hand? People need to present themselves professionally, but the context has completely changed.
Further, based on my own experience attending virtual meetings and being on virtual platforms, I know people are struggling. They are observing professionals daily on these platforms and forming perceptions of them and their leadership capability.
Most are unconscious of what they are communicating from their home environments. Eye contact, backgrounds, lighting, and dress seemed like afterthoughts and yet are powerful players in diminishing perceptions of credibility and competence. And many virtual meetings are unplanned and do not engage or create the kind of interaction needed to accomplish tasks and keep teams and individuals feeling supported and motivated.
A learning course focused on how to present oneself professionally while virtual and conduct an interactive, engaging online meeting would benefit our clients and provide a safe starting point for us in transforming the curriculum. The next component was determining how to translate in-person training practices to a virtual setting and ensure they would meet our standards.
In the process of transforming the in-person curriculum into virtual interactive sessions, I learned some things that will stay with me well past the pandemic.
Cultivate client relationships before a crisis. I couldn’t believe the partnership and trust our clients exuded by stepping into this virtual space with us when what they really wanted was the face-to-face experience we had been delivering. We had established their trust in good client relations well before the pandemic, and that trust carried us into a new space in which we both saw evidence of engaging and interactive learning happening.
Seek new experts. Through association membership, I quickly learned of authors like Kassy Laborie and others who were in the virtual realm. I learned from their work how to create engagement and interaction on a virtual platform. I was not familiar with their work prior to the pandemic due to my bias about virtual interpersonal skills learning, but their ideas have now influenced our virtual delivery of interpersonal skills and will affect our instructional design following the pandemic.
Look for the unintended consequences. When I saw participants able to meet, interact, and learn virtually in this time of isolation, I realized being in class provided them a way to connect personally in ways they otherwise would not have access to during the pandemic. That was a significant benefit they noted.
I also learned how important both good leadership and a strong team are. My leader, the company president, was hands on in working alongside me to transform the curriculum and support every innovative step. The learning team stepped up to the challenge of learning to produce workshops via an online meeting service and train virtually.
Our work and success was because of sound leadership and a collaborative team. Our transformative work to create virtual classes will continue—it is safe to project we will offer both virtual and in-person learning experiences in the future.
There are so many devastating downsides to the pandemic. It will be a time of circumstance and loss we will never forget.
However, it will also be a time I will remember as challenging me to think differently and do better. This is a silver lining that will positively influence my work as a learning professional.
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