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The Hybrid Hurdle: Lessons Learned from Virtual and In-Person Training

This past January, I celebrated seven years in my current role as a systems trainer. I began this role ready to take on the new challenge of training clients in how to process personnel actions, fill out timesheets and run various types of reports. The best part about this position? The travel. I adored seeing new parts of the country and eventually adopted Washington, D.C. as a second home. I never wanted it to end.

Well, you probably know where this is going. COVID reared its ugly head, and travel for my job became a distant memory. Enter providing virtual training. It was something my team had discussed for some time, but never really took the time to sit down and figure out. We knew a handful of clients were interested, but it just didn’t seem feasible at the time. Once we realized that COVID wasn’t going anywhere, we knew we had to expedite it and figure it all out.

Now we have been conducting virtual training for almost two years. A looming return to the office raises the question of how we are going to proceed with our training offerings. Are we going to stick to virtual, begin offering in-person, or somehow incorporate the two? While I by no means have all of the answers, I’d like to share my own observations in how effective both methods can be, and how they might shape the future of work.

In-Person Training

The Pros

  • You just don’t get the same energy as you do when you’re all together. It’s one of the biggest arguments against remaining in a virtual environment. I loved greeting students as they entered the classroom, connecting with them on something as simple as a cool sticker on a water bottle. I was able to gauge their energy and excitement for the class based on their body language. Class discussions were much more fluid, and breakout groups were much simpler to throw together.
  • Immediate feedback is a huge factor for me when it comes to how I handle my training. I could tell if I needed to elaborate on a concept more based on confused looks in the classroom. I could see if a student was dinking around on Facebook instead of following the exercise. Heck, I could even see if my terrible dad joke landed!

The Cons

  • While travel was definitely high on my list of benefits, it may not be on others. Travel costs agencies money, whether it was for us or for the students. Some organizations simply couldn’t afford to send people to class. Travel can cut into your personal time as well. I definitely had to miss some important events back home because I was away on business.
  • In-person training can eat up more time. I would carve whole days out of my schedule to train and not be able to accomplish anything else. If I did need to address other things, I would end up working well beyond my normal eight hours. Not necessarily conducive to work-life balance! (That’s not to say folks don’t do this working in a virtual environment anyway …)
  • In-person training also relies on the mercy of one location versus several. This could be considered a pro as well, but if the internet goes down? If you have a snowstorm and have to cancel training? Commuting? The horror!

Virtual Training

The Pros

  • Virtual training can be done just about anywhere so long as you have an internet connection. Even if your internet goes down, chances are you have a secondary location you can fall back on. In addition, you don’t need to worry about travel logistics. You can reach a much wider audience than you could in person. And let’s not forget the telework couture of sweatpants and fluffy slippers! I definitely don’t take my students’ comfort for granted!
  • There are other engagement tools available besides just, well, talking. I also train in soft skills, and it wasn’t uncommon for my questions to be met with crickets in person. I’m a very extroverted person, so I certainly don’t mind raising my hand and providing feedback. However, I recognize that others may not feel the same way. My soft skills training actually saw increased engagement as students were able to use virtual tools such as chat, polls, etc. Introverts rejoice!
  • Work-life balance is more easily supported with virtual training. It’s much easier for me to hop on a call with someone who missed part of the training versus trying to coordinate with them in person.

The Cons

  • To go hand-in-hand with the in-person pros, virtual training can be difficult to gauge understanding and participation. If someone was confused in the training, I would often not know. I understand that folks may not necessarily ask questions all the time, even in person, but I could get a vibe from the room if I wasn’t getting my point across, usually with body language or tone of voice. I can’t do that with virtual unless someone actively comes off of mute, is on camera, etc.
  • The environment isn’t nearly as controlled. I can certainly minimize my own distractions and be in control of how I operate, but I cannot have others do the same. I can’t tell if they are checking their email or watching TV. If the student is having technical issues, I cannot sit down with them right there and help them out. Sure, they can do a screen share, but what if they can’t get onto the webinar platform? What if they only have one screen and are trying to look at both the training materials and the system? What if their own internet connection is unstable and keeps kicking them out of the training? It can lead to an inconsistent, and sometimes frustrating, training experience.

Is Hybrid the Future of Training?

My team has attempted hybrid training to a small extent before the pandemic. I’ve had one-off sessions where the client requested (often last minute) that a remote employee could attend the training. We would have to scramble to figure out a webinar platform for them to join, ensure that they could hear us and see us somehow, and conduct check-ins to see how they were doing. My own experience with hybrid training was quite negative, as we could not gauge how well the virtual student(s) was paying attention and would often run into technical issues.

Nowadays, we are more prepared and have much better tools to accommodate a hybrid environment. Zoom is part of the general lexicon, and I don’t have to catch myself saying “You’re on mute” nearly as often. However, we still have not had the luxury of making sure that both in-person and virtual participants are engaged together during the same session. This dilemma plagues future of work as a whole; how are we going to manage hybrid teams and meetings?

Training may not necessarily be on the front of everyone’s mind in this dilemma, but it’s safe to say we are going to try it out in the future. We will need to make sure we have forward-moving technology when it comes to audio and visual needs, stable internet connections, and constant engagement and check-in tools with individuals who are not in the same room. It’s even possible that hybrid offerings will require a facilitator who is both in-person and virtual to ensure everyone is getting the most effective training experience, even if it isn’t exactly the same.

So while I cannot say for sure whether hybrid trainings will be successful any time soon, I’m hoping that our lessons learned from both virtual and in-person training will allow us to determine what works, what doesn’t, and how we can efficiently marry the two.

Myranda Whitesides is a Performance Support Specialist for the Interior Business Center, the Department of Interior’s Shared Services Center. She conducts personnel and payroll systems training for over 50 federal agencies, as well as providing training in Diversity and Inclusion for her peers. Myranda also volunteers for the Mile High Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), working with the chapter to provide educational content for Human Resources professionals in the Denver Metro area. Myranda also enjoys singing, camping, and exploring local breweries and restaurants with her husband, Daniel.

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