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2020: The Year Learning Professionals Went Back To School: A Lessons Learned Series

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Never has the expression “Hindsight is 20/20” felt more appropriate. Not only was 2020 a meteoric year of disruption, for many, but it was also the worst year ever. Not to quibble, but historians will tell you that 536 was worse. In that year, a volcano erupted in Iceland, and the sun dimmed for a year and a half, leading to a catastrophic global cold spell.

Volcanos aside, 2020 was a year where everyone was blind-sighted, or to paraphrase Judith Viorst, “it was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.” And. yet….

For those in the learning and development field, it was a year to test our mettle. It was a year that we had to walk the talk—a year where we had to practice what we preach.  We had to learn.

“Of the many qualities T & D professionals have two stand out, that might have blinded our vision in 2020. 1) Our belief of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” We have many real organizational issues to fix and many of us didn’t see face-to-face training as something that was broken. My thinking was just flexed to “blended learning” and that would work for now. 2) We pour much of our energy into developing others and sometimes forget to develop ourselves. Learning to be expert online designers and facilitators was something I would do “someday,” said Donna Steffey, Senior Leadership, Emotional Intelligence & Executive Presence Consultant.

As Donna added, “Fortunately, T&D professionals possess a drive to be life-long learners when we have the time.” 2020 was a year that, for many of us, time was on our side.

So, what did we learn?

“Never thought the comment, “I wouldn’t touch him/her with a 6-foot pole,” would become a national policy, but here we are!”

One of the first things learning professionals observed is that teaching online requires taking on the mindset of being “camera-ready.” In many ways, teaching online is like being on TV, and our audience watches TV professionals who know how to wear makeup and use lighting to their advantage. Anyone who has participated in a school play or spent any time in a television studio knows that makeup and lights can either be your best friend or a very mean girl.

When you want your audience to have confidence in your professionalism and expertise, it’s essential to look the part. Bad lighting and no makeup is like showing up for an in-person workshop in your sweatpants.

Cynthia Manika, Senior Instructional Designer & eLearning developer, says she learned three key things working in a TV-style environment.

  1. Place your webcam eye level or slightly above – more flattering  – remember to check what is behind you that can be seen
  2. Ladies of a certain age – wear a scarf around your neck and 3/4 or long sleeve
  3. Smile while you talk – it changes the tone and modulation of your voice. 

We also learned we had to change how we communicate before, during, and after training.  Christine Itano-Cosner, Senior Performance Management & Organizational Development Consultant said her biggest takeaway is that it’s not enough for the trainers to be on camera, but it’s imperative that the participants have their cameras on as well.  Christine says she needs the camera on to read non-verbals. “It provides me with information that allows me to gauge their level of frustration, enthusiasm, and candidness that guides me in the type, depth, and breadth of questions to ask. Many clients prefer not to have their cameras on, so asking in advance and explaining why is helpful.”  

Another way to explain the importance of having participants’ cameras turned on is to share this analogy: when your camera is off, it’s as if you have your back turned to us. The camera is no substitute for in-person experiences, but it does afford a way to engage, connect, and reduce the isolation that so many are currently experiencing.

Christine’s other major takeaways from transitioning from an in-person trainer to a virtual one: 

  • In Sync: added importance of sending follow-up emails summarizing discussions and decisions to ensure we are on the same page.
  • Piggybacking: Online collaboration tools (e.g., google sheets) or old fashion email cc’ing to allow for piggybacking on each other’s ideas.
  • Cancelling Meetings: If possible, do so as early as possible. It is frustrating for staff to have rushed to prepare for a meeting and then have it canceled last minute.

According to the Association for Talent Development, learning agility is learning how to learn in a rapidly changing world. Learning agility reminds us to challenge the status quo, discard old ideas and ways of doing things, take risks, say YES to new opportunities, get out of our comfort zone, and develop new skills at the rate of change. It is a big challenge.

In the early days of the pandemic, a group of about 60 facilitators started meeting once a week to discuss how to adapt to this new virtual culture. In one of those sessions, the group was tasked with challenging every element of traditional training, including PowerPoints.

It was during that hour meeting that senior consultant Elana Centor, Senior Leadership, Customer Service & Communications Consultant said she had an “AHA” moment. 

“PowerPoint can be very useful when you are presenting in a live environment. It’s typically behind the trainer and serves as a type of wallpaper. If people get tired of looking at it, they just look around the room, at other participants or the trainer.

In a virtual session, the PowerPoint, when used, is front and center. It dominates the space. The trainer and all the participants become the wallpaper. And for what? A bunch of bullet points?”

Elana has started putting bullet points and keeps the virtual space in a gallery view so that participants can see each other and the trainer – simulating more of a face-to-face type of experience.

While adjusting to these new platforms was not what many of us thought we would be doing last year, Del Black, Senior Human Resources Consultant

summed it up the best, “I still love in-person best, but virtual training is really fun and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to learn this new way of reaching students.”

Del also shared this message of hope. “We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new. Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to the voice saying to us: “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it! Imagine.” Henri Nouwen

In our next post in this series, we’ll share what our team members learned about managing work when family members are all around.

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Leslie has over 25 years experience in the training industry. Her responsibilities have included sales, hands on management and software training, curriculum development, needs analysis, usability testing, and project management. Her strong training background, organizational skills, and exceptional development expertise, augment her extensive sales and marketing abilities.