The three paradoxes of virtual training

Last Friday we gathered together three wise heads: Wilhelmina John, L&D manager at PepsiCo; Ann Bridges, head of L&D at Marks & Spencer; and Trina Smith, whose job is to get the whole of HSBC around the world communicating in a more human way (and who’s responsible for lots of training).

We asked them what they’d learnt about training people in a lockdown – apart from how to change their Zoom background – and how it’ll shape the fabled New Normal. And it struck us that there were some interesting conundrums.

Is virtual more interactive, or less?

Everyone’s big worry about virtual training was that it wouldn’t be as engaging as face-to-face. Or that Zoom fatigue would make people tune out. So all our experts have been busy shortening day-long sessions into bite-size chunks. (Wilhelmina admitted to happily cutting some of the more self-indulgent theory from their sessions to focus on the practical stuff.)

But some surprising stuff has been going on. Trina has been making some pre-existing virtual training longer, as demand and appetite for it goes up. And we heard that some people interacted more in the virtual environment. One of our audience participants, George Ward-Kozera from E.ON, said that some of her colleagues who often stay quiet in face-to-face situations have been unshut-uppable on Zoom.

Our panel thought a couple of things were happening. First, us introverts might be feeling more at home because we’re, er, at home. Tools like chat let you chip in without having to muscle your way into a gap in the conversation, too.

And there’s the democracy of the rectangle. On video, everyone gets the same amount of space. There’s something egalitarian about it: maybe some of us finally feel we’re just as entitled to contribute as the loudmouthed senior person in the rectangle next to us.

Virtual’s different. And it’s not.

While virtual might be forcing us to switch things up – like shortening sessions, and interacting differently – our panel agreed that it was also reinforcing things they were doing anyway.

Blended learning has been an L&D buzzword for a while, and coronavirus has just accelerated it. With people working different hours, in different places, and not likely to meet up for a week-long conference any time soon, we need a buffet of videos, podcasts, short workshops and coaching sessions (and much more) for people to snack on. That gives people the chance to ‘learn in the flow’, as Wilhelmina put it.

And just as great trainers can run brilliant, engaging workshops in a room, they can do it on Zoom too - with the same tricks. You still need a great icebreaker, for instance. (I loved taking part in a session where we all had to pick our own Zoom background at the start, and then explain it.) The panel pushed us to trust the hard-earned skills that got us where we are today.

Do we have more time, or less?

There’s a lot of talk about people using their ‘extra’ time constructively (though some people should really shut up about their sourdough starters now). And that’s true if you’ve saved yourselves hours of commuting; some of those people are spending that time dipping into all the snackable stuff we’ve created for them.

On the other hand, try talking about extra time to the parents who’re simultaneously trying to work and stop children killing each other. For them, the loss of their commute might mean they have less time to listen to a podcast, for example. It also means that if you set people pre-work before a virtual workshop, some will turn up beautifully prepared, while others will still be wiping porridge off their clothes.

Learning these lockdown lessons matters, because with the prospect of tightened budgets for years to come, all of our experts thought virtual training was a likely to be a big part of business as usual from now on. So here are a few really practical nuggets from our three gurus.

Get yourself a co-pilot

They can look at the chat while you’re leading the training. And they can take over when your internet, inevitably, goes down for five minutes.

Make the most of being OOO

If you’re training people in their homes, you have a beautiful opportunity. Get them to talk about an object in their house, or introduce their children. It’s a shortcut to a more personal relationship with your participants.


As we’re all getting used to these new tools, your audience will forgive you a tech meltdown or two. You can even get the door mid-workshop when you get a delivery!

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