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Will face-to-face workshops be a permanent casualty of coronavirus?

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The demise of classroom-based learning for corporate training has long been predicted. As technology-based learning has become more established, it has been anticipated that online training would replace traditional face-to-face workshops.

After the 2008 financial crisis, it was expected that the desire by corporations to reduce costs, especially travel costs, would accelerate this shift. More recently, growing concerns about the dangers of climate change have prompted some companies to consider more virtual approaches to learning. Despite this, many, if not most, learning programmes still take place in a face-to-face context.

Fears about the coronavirus, Covid-19, however, may change this.

Across the world, training is being postponed or cancelled and both suppliers and organisations are rushing to explore alternative ways of working. Assuming and hoping that the coronavirus is a temporary phenomenon, the big question is whether 2020 will see a permanent shift to virtual learning, or whether learning will revert to being largely face-to-face?

As a computer-based simulation company that works both face-to-face and virtually, Ososim can take a fairly objective assessment of the benefits of both delivery environments.  Human beings are social animals and most people enjoy working and learning alongside others. Organisations themselves benefit from the networks and relationships their people form and consolidate when learning together. However, the reality is that much work now takes place virtually. We have learned to build strong virtual relationships and need to learn how to work together effectively virtually.

Building “soft-skills” and changing behaviours would appear to be more obvious in a shared physical environment, where behaviours can be observed more easily. Our simulations are often used not only for the learning that happens within them but also for the situations, often stressful or unexpected, they trigger for individuals and teams. This is particularly powerful when combined with actor interventions and when observed by coaches. Yet behavioural change is rarely embedded and sustained as a result of a one day or even one-week programme. A longer, structured experience, including simulation as well as coaching, action learning and other activities, most of which can take place virtually, will often have a much greater impact.

We believe strongly that people learn better when they learn with others, as well as when they learn by doing.

Virtual learning has often been discredited because of the poor levels of interaction and engagement that exist in many e Learning courses, videos and webinars. Interaction with teachers or facilitators and with other learners is critical. Virtual classroom and meeting technology is increasingly able to deliver this. For many individuals, coaching is as good or even better when it happens virtually. And of course, interactive team-based learning through tools such as simulations can be a very powerful way for people to learn with others in a virtual environment. These learning experiences offer multiple layers of learning, as rich when run virtually as they are face-to-face. There is learning from the actual simulation and also learning from how the team works together during the simulation, for example, their communication and decision-making processes. The virtual experience is different, but often even closer to real-life application.

Over the last six or seven years, we have gained wide-ranging experience in designing and delivering virtual programmes. Setting clear expectations, boundaries and time schedules is even more critical in a virtual setting. The added flexibility that a virtual environment provides can be used to allow groups and individuals to experiment with what suits their own learning needs best, assuming that the content delivery can also flex with these needs. We have found that key success factors include a dynamic team structure, quite different from the classroom set up, and a more “intimate” debrief approach, to give airtime to everyone involved.

Once the coronavirus crisis is over, there will be a revival of face-to-face learning, but the balance between virtual and face-to-face may be changed permanently.

Organisations and training companies have been forced to try virtual solutions and will no longer be afraid of deploying them. They will discover what works and what doesn’t work. They will uncover which aspects of learning need to be reserved for the classroom, and which skills and behaviours can be built as or even more effectively out of the classroom.

For those of us working in the world of Learning & Development, the world may never be the same again.