The events of 2020-21 helped to normalize attending and conducting meetings and training online for many workers. Things are changing again, as many employees who had shifted to remote work have started to return to offices, albeit often intermittently—with starts and stops and starts again, due to safety concerns about the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19.
The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has conducted a wealth of research on the shift to remote, hybrid, and flexible approaches to work, starting with our From Cube to Cloud: The Next Era of Work study published in early 2021 and continuing with other studies and pulse surveys.
As part this ongoing work, i4cp conducted a survey of over 300 learning leaders in October 2021 on virtual classroom training to determine the current state, what is working well, where there are opportunities for improvement, and what is coming next. (See the article “Optimizing Virtual Classroom Training: What the Research Says” for some of the key findings from that survey.)
Traditional in-person classroom training has a long history, with well-known best practices that remain relevant to consider. In the spring of 2020, many learning and development teams mobilized to start converting programs from in-person instructor-led training to the virtual classroom. Trainers were upskilled, producers were hired or developed, and programs were redesigned for the virtual environments of Zoom, Teams, WebEx, and more.
At this current point, similar to how some executives have described work more broadly, L&D professionals can generally say they know how to handle training when everyone is gathered together, and they know how to handle training when everyone is online. But how do we handle the hybrid scenario, in which a cohort of learners is split between in-person and remote?
Three Approaches to Hybrid Training
In the October 2021 survey, i4cp asked how participants’ organizations plan to handle hybrid learning scenarios. Although nearly one-fifth admitted they didn’t know yet, it’s clear that not all organizations will take the same approach.
All virtual. The most common response (38%) from survey participants indicated that they will most often hold a virtual classroom event for all participants, with everyone attending individually via their computers even if some people could have gathered in a classroom or other physical event space. Comments from survey participants make clear why this is often a strong approach:
- It equalizes the experience for all learners, as everyone is a name or webcam box on the screen. This has been a recognized benefit of the recent shift to online meetings and training, often allowing more voices to be heard than before.
- Trainers can stay focused on one audience type, one set of best practices for interactivity and engagement, and avoid the costs of attention shifting that a truly hybrid approach demands.
- All virtual allows for the unique benefits of a well-designed virtual classroom program, such as the use of the chat feature—something missing from in-person classrooms, or often distracting for in-person attendees who can become more focused on their laptops and phones than the instructor and their peers.
- Programs, and specifically activities, won’t need to be designed twice—in one way for those gathered in-person, and another way for those online.
- Any other time and cost savings from online training (e.g., training space savings) will still be achieved.
Two versions. Staying all-virtual was far from a universal response, as 19% of survey respondents said their organizations’ primary approach will be to offer two versions of the program, one for the in-person participants and one for the online participants. Splitting the training cohort allows for the strengths of both modalities to be leveraged, especially if you already have both versions designed and trainers with experience delivering each.
Having to deliver the program twice does have obvious downsides to consider, such as increased cost from delivering each session twice, some loss of peer-to-peer learning by splitting up the learner cohort, and the risk of inconsistent experiences and learning results.
Organizations might take this new hybrid work moment as a reason to do some A/B testing on the effectiveness of the in-person and virtual versions of a training program. Doing this would require keeping as many factors constant between the two learning cohorts as possible (e.g., using the same trainer, the same objectives, and similar basic materials and activities for each). While this could produce some interesting data, 54% of participants in the October survey said that a primary driver of their organization’s use of virtual classroom training is that they have by now proven the effectiveness of virtual classroom training at meeting their objectives, while only 14% said that a lack of evidence of effectiveness remained a primary barrier to achieving optimal effectiveness of their organization’s virtual classroom training.
Pursuing the hybrid classroom. While less common than the above two approaches, 16% of survey participants said their organizations will most often hold a truly hybrid learning event, with some people gathered in a classroom or conference room, while others attend the same session remotely. In the past, this has often led to one group or the other having a sub-par experience. Usually, it was the online participants who were frequently ignored/etc., but given the experiences of the past two years, we might see the in-person participants feeling they are missing some of the benefits, such as peer-learning from the chat or other digital components. While challenges are significant and there will be a lot of trial and error, as technology continues to improve so too will the ability to deliver effective hybrid learning events.
The following considerations and leading practices assume a common scenario in which a group of learners and the trainer/facilitator are gathered together in-person, while another group of learners are attending the same session remotely. Somewhat different considerations would be needed if the trainer/facilitator is also remote.
Equalize the attention. Hybrid training program design must be very intentional in treating both in-person and remote learners equally. Make sure that learning objectives can be met by members of both groups and that everyone has equal opportunity and voice in the sessions. If the in-person participants receive physical manuals, make sure the remote participants do as well (or at least have a fillable PDF to use). If possible, do the same for any other swag or learning materials that are part of the program, otherwise remote participants will feel left out.
Use producers. Have someone in the role of producer (an assistant to the lead trainer/facilitator) in the physical room, and preferably another that is remote. Such producers should be experienced with the technology being used for the event, both the physical hardware in the room (e.g., cameras, audio controls, laptops, etc.) and the online platforms involved (i.e., the video conferencing and/or audio dial-in systems).
Test the audio ahead of time. Audio issues remain perhaps the most common challenge for hybrid meetings and training events. Too many people leave this setup and testing until the last minute, but the challenges that can arise are so diverse and harmful to a good experience (e.g., competing audio, feedback, volume levels, recording needs, and more) that they should be considered and dealt with well in advance. Muting everyone’s in-person laptops or phones is a start, but then making sure all participants’ voices will be heard clearly by everyone through the room’s advanced audio setup requires expert attention.
Display remote participants. If possible, have a big screen in the front of the room with as many of the remote attendees showing on video as possible. Alternately, use several smaller screens to represent each online learner. If video is not enabled, or if some employees don’t want to be seen on webcam, even displaying their static photos or names is a good way to constantly remind everyone gathered that the remote folks are out there.
Display the trainers/facilitators. On the flip side, make sure the in-person trainers/facilitator are included in the main visuals the remote employees see. After all, that is where the attention of the in-person attendees is focused, so provide the same experience for the remote attendees. Displaying a view of the in-person audience is nice if you have a second camera, but not if it means giving up seeing the trainer. Avoid displaying an audience looking at a disembodied facilitator voice off camera.
Consider pacing and check-ins. Even with the fast internet connections available today, some lag for remote learners is likely to occur for online learners, at some point in the program if not throughout. Trainers should slow down slightly and be intentional in their use of pauses—both in their speech pattern and to allow for questions, hand-raising, etc. from the less visible remote learners.
Enable chat. When appropriate, ensure that the chat functionality is turned on in Zoom, WebEx, etc., for those who are remote. Having a chat backchannel is a constructive way to keep virtual attendees engaged. If in-person attendees are using laptops as a natural part of the training, then it will be easy for them to participate in the chat as well. Otherwise, a good approach is to display the online chat in the front of the room on a large screen so all can see it without diverting attention far from the trainer and any other visuals being used. If that is not possible, then participants will need to use their smartphones to lightly monitor the comments of their peer learners online, while not letting this become a distraction from the trainer and their peers in the room.
Include everyone in activities. Ensure that remote learners are included in all training activities. If there is a moment when in-person participants break into small groups, use your platform’s breakout functionality for the online attendees. If flip charts are used to brainstorm, leverage your platform’s whiteboard/annotation tools, or a third-party application, to do the same online. Polling is a fairly easy way to bring everyone together to provide input, especially when in-person participants can use their phones to do the poll.
Leverage blended learning. The best training programs are often those that leverage a blend of modalities, both synchronous and asynchronous. This is because not every learning objective is best accomplished together, whether in-person or online. Design training programs to include reading or videos of some material ahead of time and the use of digital discussion forums between sessions for additional peer-to-peer learning beyond the time spent together. This allows the live workshop segments to focus on clarification, addressing questions, deeper dives, and so on. Using a blend will also help lessen any remaining inequities in the hybrid sessions, even after implementing all of the leading practices in this list.
Consider a platform upgrade. The online meeting and training space was already a competitive technology arena, but it was turbo-charged by the work-from-home needs driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Be sure to fully Investigate and explore all the options your provider has and the latest advances, such as Zoom Rooms Smart Gallery, for hybrid events.
Survey everyone about their experiences. Employee experience is at the top of everyone’s list these days, and one aspect of it is how people experience meetings and training events, whether in-person or remotely. Be sure to note how each participant attended so that their input can be filtered to identify differences. Were those attending in-person more engaged, or did the online cohort have a better experience? Who performed better on knowledge-check quizzes or skill / behavior change assessments? Also be sure to ask questions about each aspect of the training described above (audio, video, the producers, etc.) as this will help you continuously improve any elements that are lagging.
Review recording(s) to further improve. Professional athletes watch game video to improve their performance. Trainers are performers too, so record your sessions and review them later to gain insights on what went well and what went wrong. If possible, record both the in-person participants’ perspective (the in-room experience) and the remote participants’ perspective (the experience in Zoom, Teams, WebEx, etc.)
Making predictions today seems particularly fraught; only time will tell how popular and effective these approaches to hybrid training cohorts will prove to be. Regardless of the approach taken, organizations certainly need to leverage known leading practices such as using producers, providing time for practice and coaching, and intentionally designing all training events to take advantage of the environment and technology available, whether in-person, virtual, or a hybrid combination of the two.
Tom Stone is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp, and co-author of Interact and Engage! 50+ Activities for Virtual Training, Meetings, and Webinars (second edition coming in 2022 from ATD Press).