What inspires me to stay and contribute in the people development space is this enduring image of a learner’s eyes lighting up with new insight and understanding upon arriving at his or her own ‘a-ha’ moments in the learning process. This, oftentimes, leads to a powerful personal transformation.
When COVID-19 hit, prompting many training providers to take their offerings online, my team and I did the same with our workplace coaching programme. In the process, I realise that the principles of designing an engaging course, whether it be onsite or online, are essentially the same. And it is surprisingly easy and fun to adapt these facilitation principles for online sessions.
In this article, I share 3 practical strategies for designing online learning experiences that my team and I have personally applied in a number of webinars offered in the past two months to over 300 leaders and managers. The positive success we have had encouraged us to curate and share these strategies in a how-to article:
The 50:50 Rule: For Supercharging the Online Learner’s Experience
The extent to which participants speak up, contribute views through the chat screen, and do so freely – is the simplest, clearest indicator of how engaging an online course is. It is a good rule of thumb to design a learning experience with the facilitator and participants each having 50% of the airtime. Even better if participants can have more, because engaged learners are far more likely to put what they have learnt into action. The following are some easy-to-implement strategies for facilitating engaging 2-way online learning experiences with others:
Pose Questions, Acknowledge Contributions, Do Breakouts
Make it standard practice to ask a relevant and thought-provoking question every 20-30 minutes. For example, “Recall the best performance conversation you have had with your manager. What did he or she do that made that great?” It is not uncommon to have a quieter audience online. Get them to head over to the chat window and share their responses there. Combine this with a quick, running acknowledgement of participants’ contributions – by name, if you can – and your session’s engagement level just got turned up a notch.
People also tend to feel safer and speak up in smaller groups. Break them into pairs or small groups to work on a task together. Keep it tight and focused, say 10-15 minutes. It is always refreshing to see the high degree of energy participants exhibit when they return from breakouts to the main session – the chatter, affirming ‘thank-yous’ whispered by participants to one another, and the positive relationships that quickly form.
Engage Participants Through Live Demos
If you are running a soft skills training, try showcasing these skills through a live demo conversation with a volunteer from the audience. Authentic conversations always spark interest. For example, in one of our programmes, we wanted to show that 10-minute coaching conversations are possible, and proceeded to demonstrate this with a live, timed demo. Seeing is believing – One participant said: "I am fascinated that a powerful performance conversation that leads to action can be facilitated in 10 minutes!" If you are not quite ready to go live yet, try using a scripted demo for a start. It will still work wonders in engaging your audience.
The Virtue of ‘Bite-sized’: For Supporting Participants to Immediately Apply New Learnings
It is far more effective and engaging to run a course through multiple shorter-duration sessions, compared to lengthy, one-off webinars.
Boosting Learner Accountability through Multi-sessions
This is a HUGE one. A course delivered over 2 sessions or more allows for learning assignments to be given and completed between sessions. This encourages participants to practise new skills right away. Encourage accountability by inviting them to come to the subsequent session ready to share their experience and feedback. The insights and evidence of learning transfer shared here would usually be amazingly rich and momentum-creating.
From Passive Participants to Active Learning Community
In multi-session courses, be it public programmes, or in-house runs participated by employees from across the organisation, we see participants warming up to each other when they meet again at subsequent sessions. We run our coaching programme over 3 sessions – an initial webinar followed by two group coaching sessions. In the subsequent sessions, participants almost always connect on a deeper level, and by the end of the programme, they have formed a shared vision of powerful workplace coaching cultures, and are excited to move forward as change agents, and in some cases, even business partners!
The Secret to Making Training Stick: For Sustaining the New Behaviours and Mindsets
The return-on-investment (ROI) of training programmes is perennially low across the board. The Association for Talent Development (ATD) indicates that training makes marginal difference (15%) in job behaviour. The oft-quoted research paper by Olivero, Bane & Kopelman (1997) on training ROI reported that training, supported by coaching, increases employee productivity by more than 300%. Subsequent published reports have corroborated and affirmed the compelling value of augmenting training with coaching.
Every Manager a Confident Coach
Therefore, the most strategic action an organisation can take is to equip their line managers as workplace coaches, who can effectively support employees to grow and perform. No need to put these managers through long, elaborate courses designed to train professional coaches, but impart a version of coaching fit for the workplace, which managers can easily apply at conversations with their staff. Equip managers with a core set of performance or growth coaching questions of no more than 5-6 questions, and as they become conversant with coaching, they can learn more advanced asking techniques. For example, coaching a team member to set learning goals upon returning from a workshop can be as simple as asking these 3 questions:
- What were the three most important insights and skills gained from the workshop?
- Which one are you keen to put into practice right away?
- Turn this into a specific, actionable goal.
If we want to achieve greater success in helping busy managers to embrace coaching, teach them to coach well in less time (Think coaching under 20 minutes).
More than Training, a Tool is Needed
Beyond coaching training, give managers a ‘daily tool’ to help them keep up with coaching and not revert to the default of ‘telling’. It can be as simple as a pocket-sized card with a set of key coaching questions, or digital tools such as productivity and collaboration apps that can facilitate ongoing virtual check-ins between managers and employees.
In a few short months, COVID-19 has disrupted the world of corporate training, significantly accelerating digital learning adoption across all sectors and organisations. Delivering learning online has gone from the periphery to mainstream. I hope the tips and strategies shared here can help you in practical ways to design online learning experiences that truly engage your audience and help them translate learning into action at the workplace.