During quarantine, companies of all types had to rapidly shift operations online. Employees returning to work are increasingly prioritizing hybrid work arrangements where they can return to the office in a part-time capacity while still spending some work hours at home.
Hybrid work offers great opportunities for flexibility and employee satisfaction, but it also can create challenges as businesses consider how best to collaborate, train employees, and reach prospective customers, all in a virtual capacity. This makes online learning and outreach that much more important in 2021. In fact, some experts say this is the year of the Learning Organization, a model that relies on continued active learning as a basis for a productive workforce.
In order to maintain a learning culture in a hybrid work environment, virtual facilitators must be at the top of their game to ensure participants in online events get the most out of their learning experience. We’ll take a look at how facilitators can maintain engagement in a virtual setting to the benefit of attendees and businesses.
Efforts towards Collaborative Learning have not slowed down during the pandemic—they've just gone virtual. This offers great opportunities to expand reach, as virtual learning sessions can be accessed by users independent of geographic location. It also offers the potential for increased efficiency for businesses looking to train employees and reach brand followers.
But virtual learning can also make it more challenging to keep audiences engaged, and technical challenges with online platforms add new complexity. You may be a business looking to incorporate ongoing learning into your business culture. Or you might be looking for ways to reach more customers like starting a blog for your business or reaching prospects through a podcast. Either way, facilitating and engaging virtual experience is crucial for success. We'll share some tips for success below, and you can also check out our on-demand webinar on blended learning that covers how to balance virtual, synchronous events with self-directed learning.
There are a number of common mistakes novice virtual facilitators (the individual who ensures the virtual learning session runs smoothly and who actively engages the participants) make that you will want to avoid.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you plan and execute your virtual learning or training sessions:
You may think facilitation is all about what happens during the event. But a big part of pulling off a great event is the clarity and organization of the planning beforehand. A first key step is to know the main goal of your event so everyone on the team is on the same page about your specific purpose.
You likely have only one or two hours to make an impact, so you need to be clear on what points you definitely want to hit and in what order. Similarly, there may be additional points you include in your itinerary with the understanding that those parts will be cut if time is an issue.
Do a few dry-runs of your content so you have a realistic estimate of how long it will take. This way, you are less likely to run over time and risk having to cut the core points. And during the event itself, avoid the temptation to go on tangents at the risk of meandering away from your main purpose.
It’s unfortunate but true that technical difficulties can completely derail a virtual event. This means you must be prepared to respond to technical issues both before and during the event.
For one thing, you may be well-versed in your platform, but that doesn’t mean your users are. One way to minimize tech issues is to provide clear instructions in advance for how attendees can access the event. Be overly specific here. For example, if you tell them to use a password to log in, tell them again where that info is—in an instructional email sent the day before, perhaps.
On that note, if you're hosting a ticketed event, you will need to anticipate possible login or payment issues leading up to the event. You should look for invoicing software that comes with crucial features like free, customizable templates so you can put your event info and access instructions all in one place when they check out.
Even if you do this, you should still send follow-up announcements and repeat the access instructions so nobody gets confused. You might even consider releasing a teaser video before your event that reminds users when and how to access and what topics will be covered. This makes it more likely that attendees will be prepared come event day, and it also gets people pumped and reduces no-shows.
This may seem like a contradiction to the above practice, but a strong virtual facilitator should be able to do both. While you want to have a concrete plan and timeline in place, you should build in room for flexibility.
This might mean blocking off the first 15 minutes for socialization or icebreakers, depending on how well the participants know each other. You will also want to build in time for questions. Some facilitators say at the beginning that they will take questions at the end, but people still might ask for clarification or go off on tangents, so you need to anticipate this and plan accordingly.
The opposite situation may also occur: you may ask for audience participation and receive complete silence in response. This is particularly common with a virtual instructor-led-learning approach or when leading a large event with participants who are not already acquainted. Consider preparing games or breakout group questions as a backup plan if people aren’t talking to each other.
Be sure to get to know your platform of choice well in advance to avoid technical difficulties. And knowing your platform isn’t just about knowing the basics, like how to log in. It also means acquainting yourself with the particular features which could improve your facilitation.
For example, most virtual platforms have functions for polls and quizzes, which could be a good learning tool to keep your audience engaged and measure how well they are paying attention. You should also use the features available to prevent attendees from interrupting you or each other such as hand raising and muting.
Just because your event is online doesn’t mean you should forgo all attempts at human connection. Your attendees will be more engaged and feel more comfortable speaking up and asking questions if they get a chance to get to know one another first.
What’s more, active learning boosts engagement, and it’s easier to learn actively when you’re not just listening to one person drone on for hours. Consider small group breakout sessions to get participants talking to each other and engaging with your materials.
Studies show that the biggest barrier to attendee retention is a lack of post-learning support. In other words, virtual event attendees are learning less when there is no follow-up for check-ins or practice of the skills learned. To avoid falling into this trap, you should make sure you have a strong online presence where you can direct attendees for future events and to continue the conversation through a blog, quiz, or some other call to action.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever before to build a website for your business without advanced design or programming skills. According to web developer Gary Stevens of Hosting Canada, with today’s web builder, you can build a website quickly and easily and get busy increasing traffic to your site:
“When we talk about website builders, we’re essentially discussing any software app that does just that — builds a website for you,” says Stevens. “These often differ from content management systems” in that builders do 90% of the heavy lifting for you: design, hosting, layout are all handled as part of the app.”
Before you get into hosting virtual events, you should make sure you have a strong website so attendees know where to go to follow up on what they learn and interact with your brand.
Virtual facilitation can be challenging, but it can also be an effective, scalable learning solution to keep learners engaged. When properly executed, virtual learning sessions will be a great addition to your L&D program. By following these tips, you help ensure your virtual, synchronous events are a success.