Training after Covid-19: will we remain online?
Many of us are drawn to the world of training because of the opportunities it offers to interact with other people in a positive and rewarding way. Until recently, the majority of those interactions were always ‘face-to-face’. Yet with the arrival of Covid-19, the traditional classroom training format was rendered impossible, or even illegal, almost everywhere around the world. As we move through the current calendar year, a return to face-to-face learning looms on the horizon again. That makes the present a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned over the past 12 months, and to start thinking about the possible transitions that lie ahead.
Had you heard of Zoom before 2020?
It's amazing to think that Zoom was only founded in 2011, when CEO Eric Yuan had the bright idea of incorporating video into telephone-based conferencing systems like Cisco. Legend has it that he got the idea while trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend. He pitched to Cisco, his employer at the time, but they turned down the idea, so he decided to set up Zoom himself. Needless to say, Cisco soon came to regret their decision!
Had you ever heard of Zoom or used it before the pandemic hit? I hadn’t, and neither had some of my colleagues at LDL. Face-to-face was always the default option for learning, with preparation and follow-up often conducted via telephone. This was the way it had always been, and it seemed to work very well. But like many training professionals, we faced an existential dilemma when the first lockdowns were announced: adapt, or die.
Like other businesses, we did our research, and discovered platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams and Webex. But there was some concern – shared by a number of clients – about whether the experience of virtual training would match-up to the experience of face-to-face classroom learning. Wouldn’t something be lost in the transition to virtual delivery?
Aren’t there reasons to prefer face-to-face?
Sales skills, leadership skills and presentation skills among others are not the kind of skills which can be learnt simply by reading a book. These are embodied, performative skills, and we learn them not simply by reading about them but by watching other people – ideally our trainers – do them well.
Some of these skills are possible to communicate by video call, but others, such as eye contact and body language for example, are more difficult. We humans are social animals: won’t we miss the three-dimensional textures of our interactions with others in the classroom? Networking is certainly more difficult in a virtual meeting, plus there are the perils of digital exhaustion. Surely a virtual learning experience just won’t be the same?
As it turned out, many of these concerns were overdone. Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom are actually a pretty good substitute for classroom learning, and there was already a shift to remote learning underway before 2020. Platforms such as Zoom are equipped with polling functions and breakout rooms. The learning can be broken into manageable 60-90 minute chunks, and virtual training even comes with certain advantages: notably with regards to accessibility and logistical costs.
Virtual learning has been surprisingly effective
One of my colleagues, Nick Evans, a specialist in presentation skills, was initially a little concerned about how successful a presentation skills programme delivered via Zoom might be. But his virtual programmes have been extremely successful, and Nick confessed to me that he had even been a little surprised at how well they have been received. “Very engaging, even via Zoom” reported one client by email, “the team all really enjoyed your session and found it immensely valuable” wrote another. “I’ve always enjoyed our sessions and this one was very useful once again”, etc.
Nick has been developing a virtual presentation skills programme specifically tailored to the challenges of the virtual environment. And yet while many of his clients have been more than happy to organise virtual programmes, he told me that some of his clients remain determined to wait until their staff return to the office and face-to-face training becomes possible again. Is there a chance that we will, he wonders, be going full circle in the years ahead?
Remote learning is here to stay
Nick is fascinated to hear from smaller companies who want to get back into the office with their people. But he also recognises that many companies will instead be making the decision to keep their staff working from home, and over the last six to twelve months, many organizations have in fact already announced that they will continue to operate in a completely remote working environment.
According to LinkedIn Learning’s annual ‘Workplace Learning Report’ for 2021, that means the pivot L&D made to blended online learning in 2020 “will remain the status quo” moving forward. According to the report, 73% of L&D professionals in 2021 expect to spend less on face-to-face classroom learning, and 79% expect to spend more on online learning in the years ahead. “Compared to instructor-led training,” explains Samit Deb, CHRO at Airtel, “a robust online learning solution would provide far superior coverage in terms of reach, accessibility, and learning content.”
For those of us involved in the world of B2B sales training, a recent article on the McKinsey & Company website offers interesting reading on this subject. The article claims that the pandemic has cemented “omnichannel interactions” – including in-person, remote and e-commerce channels – as the predominant path for B2B sales. “As B2B buyers flexed to remote and digital ways of engaging”, write the authors, “they found much to like… Buyers also moved easily between in-person and remote sales as quarantine restrictions shifted, with the choice of channel coming down to practicality and timing more than efficacy.”
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan almost never took work trips, insisting instead on taking Zoom calls with his clients so that he could spend more time with his family. Whether we are fans of Zoom or not (and whether we enjoy spending time with our family or not!), this is likely to be a logic that will continue to affect all of us in the world of training for some time to come. Face-to-face is likely to make a comeback, but virtual training is also here to stay.