March 2020 was a watershed moment for McCrudden Training. As the country went into lockdown and businesses had to ensure their teams could work from home, I faced the prospect of delivering training programmes online.

How could a training provider possibly deliver the best learning experience if we weren’t there to deliver it in person? I had seen it done badly before and had found it boring – the complete opposite to our ethos. I asked myself, how could I continue to deliver fun, enjoyable training that we are renowned for?

As it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere soon, I had to re-evaluate my assumptions about online leadership training. I had clients who still needed their crucial leadership and management training courses to be delivered; now more so than ever as they had to learn to manage their teams in a completely different way.

The first step was to watch an expert at it. One of our gurus, Emanuela, had delivered internationally for years so had delivered online management training before. When one of our clients asked about training for how to use Microsoft Teams, I had the opportunity to watch a master at work. It was then I realised that online learning could be done well, and it could be fun too.

Re-writing the training plans

The way we deliver training in a room is completely different to how it is done online. I had seen many providers simply deliver the same content online with just a camera between the trainer and the learner, or just try to or revert back to ‘chalk and talk’ – no two-way interaction with the learners.

We know this doesn’t work effectively and the trainer inevitably loses their learners to distractions, so we rewrote our training courses specifically with online delivery in mind. In a classroom for example, I wouldn’t have a slide explaining breakout exercises, but online I do. And I have exercise instructions on sheets now – something I never used before. I also allocated time in session plans for people to get into and out of breakout rooms.

I had to make sure the courses catered for all technical capabilities. For example, organisational security settings restrict access to some features, some organisations don’t allow certain sharing platforms such as Google docs, but there is very little that can’t be worked around. With this in mind, we have created an audit with new clients to check what can and can’t be done before we write their courses.

The challenge of breakout rooms

I need to make sure information is available front and centre, especially for the breakout rooms. In a real room I can scan the room, and see where there are issues, whilst eavesdropping on other tables, all at the same time. When we moved online, I couldn’t do this anymore. Initially, in Microsoft Teams we had to create small group discussions by running multiple meetings simultaneously and that was an exercise in trust – trusting that learners were doing the exercise! Even now it’s not possible for me to be in all the breakout rooms at the same time, so I have to jump in and out of the different rooms.

Breakout rooms were probably one of the areas I was most anxious about. The fact I couldn’t be in every room at once, combined with my concern that those who attend the training wouldn’t build as effective bonds as they do on an in-person course, was especially worrying. However, this anxiety was short-lived. As we’re continually switching breakout rooms around, I witnessed groups build relationships every bit well as they do in a training room.

Camera or no camera

Speaking of building bonds, right from the off we had the challenge of camera use. When you deliver training in person you can see the whites of people’s eyes, you can read their expressions – lost, confused, determined, excited. Then boom, overnight this was gone. We never force anyone to use a camera for online training, not least because there may not be an option to use a camera for some people – they might be on secure sites that do not allow cameras, others might be using older computers without cameras, some in an open plan environment and others simply uncomfortable.

The gurus and I had many a debate about this and came to the conclusion that as a trainer you need to get on with it – simply assume they are on hanging on to our every word. That said, we do encourage everyone to have cameras on in small group discussions in breakout rooms whenever possible – to help connect with their fellow learners.

Realising the benefits of online learning

I had been adamant that training could not be done as well online. However, the more we used it, the more I realised there are actually benefits for both the client and McCrudden Training.  The training we deliver online is as impactful interesting and varied as it is in person. The training itself is no different, but for slightly different processes. But what is better is the efficiency and ease of access of online training.

By far the biggest benefit of online training is accessibility, and not just in the sense that it can be accessed by anyone anywhere in the world, but also for people who may have hearing impairments (and can use the caption/subtitles function on screen) or other issues that mean they might not be able to travel to an in-person course.

As we are based in Eastbourne, most of our clients are in the southeast, with a few a bit further afield. As online training took off, our reach spread and we were able to offer good value for money to organisations based much further away. One classic example of this was when a client in Heathrow asked me to deliver a programme of half day training sessions, but the distance I would need to travel to deliver the course meant that I would have to charge for a full day, significantly increasing the cost this course. By delivering the training online, I was able to offer much better value for money.

This value for money in terms of the cost of the course can also be seen when you consider the time teams spend away from the office to attend courses – the travel expenses of getting there, and also the greater risk of drop out from courses versus the number of staff who attend an online training event.

Best of both worlds

I still believe there is a need for in person training. Team away days, or times when you need collaboration, for example, still tend to work best in three dimensions. When you have a team dependent on each other, trust needs to exist, and this is easier to build in person. If something involves creativity it can be far more effective when you are in a room together.

Many of my clients like to take a hybrid, or blended approach which can work very well – a mixture of online training with a day based on site somewhere for the more collaborative work.

Who knew three years ago that we would be working so very differently? I certainly didn’t think we would be really enjoying delivering online training as a primary service.