I had a unique opportunity in September of this year. I was hired as the facilitator for a particular training curriculum, which required that every single employee (of a 300 person company) complete an 8-hour day of training. The training was originally scheduled for spring, but things had to be postponed due to COVID. By late summer, we had a solution: I flew to the client’s site and conducted in-person training for their employees.

In. Person. Training. IN 2020. *HOME ALONE FACE*

But that’s not the only reason this engagement was so unique. The employer secured a comfortably appointed converted barn as a venue. Employees were scheduled to attend a dozen at a time, allowing plenty of room for social distancing and ventilation. I relocated myself to this rural county for six weeks. There were masks, distancing protocols, and lots of sanitization...and also beautiful weather (we were usually able to spend at least half the day outside), live laughter, and no screens.

This experience was sandwiched between the rest of my “pandemic normal” 2020, which has largely been characterized by Zoom, more Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, an occasional Blue Jeans, Zoom, and we mustn’t forget that other platform, Zoom. We have been busier than ever with communication and inclusion training this year, and I have been surprised at how successful these intimate, sensitive conversations can be over virtual platforms. Virtual training certainly saves time, costs, and carbon footprint. So why go back to in-person training at all? Is there anything that gets lost in translation?

My six week country adventure in the barn, with an ever-changing group of total strangers, was a stark and immediate contrast to our current mostly-virtual realities. As the COVID vaccination begins this month, we’re all wondering what life will look like in 2021. What will we go back to? What new ways of working, learning, and communicating have we learned in 2020 that are worth keeping? Here are some conclusions I was able to draw from my two contrasting experiences:

Virtual training is here to stay

In early spring of 2020, I wondered along with so many others in so many industries: can this kind of work be done online? As a facilitator, a trainer, someone who teaches about tricky topics and leads group exercises, I wondered if the same intimacy and safety could be created online. By late spring, we already had requests from clients who were willing to try. My assessment early on was that while virtual training doesn’t quite have the same satisfaction as learning together as a group in-person...it is about 90% as good.

90% is a very compelling number when you consider the gains in scheduling ease, cost reduction, and environmental impact. In 2019 and pre-pandemic 2020, it was normal for me to fly halfway across the country to deliver a single 2-hour workshop on a client site, then fly home the next day. Travel could add as much as 20-30% to the engagement cost for the employer. Ensuring that all employees were physically in the room for the training session required incredible scheduling resources from the project manager. 

While I am someone who misses my travel days, the notion of spending significant money and time for a 2-3 hour activity seems simply ridiculous in a post-2020 world. Designed correctly, virtual training is meaningful, instructive, and just as functionally impactful as old-fashioned IRL training. 

Virtual training is also more accessible and inclusive for companies with satellite workforces. In situations where everyone is in the same room except for a handful of people (if they are invited to join remotely at all), in-person training activities favor those in a certain geographic location. As distributed workforces become more likely in the 2020s and beyond, geography no longer needs to impact training attendance.

Virtual training has an experiential ceiling

One rule I instituted for 2020 virtual trainings is a two-hour maximum for any activity that requires people to be logged into a screen. Zoom fatigue grows exponentially after a certain amount of time and begins to interfere with the level of engagement needed for true learning and change. While most working adults can push through more than two hours of focused screen time—we shouldn’t.

The human body’s inherently limited capacity for screen focus places a hard cap on the kind of experiential learning and conversations that can occur in a training. We’ve done a lot of serialization for our clients this year: what was formerly a two-day offsite became 4-5 days of 2-hour trainings, spread out over a few weeks. 

While this works fine, there is a kind of intimacy momentum that is lost when we leave our group activity and sign off from the conversation. The value of this was crystallized for me during my autumn in the barn. COVID IRL is not the most pleasant experience. Each day’s attendees had to sit six feet apart and wear a mask (hampering facial expressions and non-verbal communication); we were distanced physically and visually. Despite all of this, the end of the eight-hour day was always marked by a bonding, a comfort, and a degree of communal pride that was a direct result of spending so many hours together, in one space, for one shared purpose.

Virtual training, learning, and conversation activities are ideal when the time allotment is under three hours, but communal bonding and shared change experiences require a few more consecutive hours. Physically, we simply can’t access that on a screen.

Culture requires space

We had a lot of space in that barn. 

On the one hand, it was too much space, an artifact of COVID. It was harder to get conversations going with everyone “hiding” behind our masks. Yelling through a mask across to the other side of a barn is not the most enjoyable way to have a conversation. 

But we also had space to ad-lib side jokes. Two people could slightly talk over each other for humor, and it didn’t derail the conversation with four rounds of “You go - no it’s alright - you can go - oh I wasn’t saying anything important anyway.” Listeners could verbally and audibly assent to support a speaker, without having to hit the unmute button. 

During breaks, we could wander the grounds and talk about anything, without worrying about being “off topic” due to time constraints or the *intent purpose of this meeting.* We were able to relate non-verbally, by taking in the shared views of the agrarian landscape or eating our snacks outside. 

It was these moments, as much as the intentional facilitated learning activities, that created trust and warmth and stronger relationships between colleagues.

2021 and beyond

Thanks to 2020, experiential learning and training activities have been made more accessible than ever before. Employers can invest in employee growth for less cost, with better convenience, and maximize inclusion for scattered workforces. 

In a world where scattered workforces are likely to become more normalized, in-person gatherings are going to be more crucial than ever. If commercial office leases dwindle, the multi-day in-person offsite will become a necessity for any company that cares about culture and employee integration. As the rare occasion when employees are physically all together, these will require a mindful blend of facilitated learning and conversation (shared challenge and growth experiences), and space to simply be human beings together. 

I’m looking forward to a world where we have both of these. I’m excited for continued opportunities to teach, present, and engage on my favorite communication-neuroscience-diversity-equity-inclusion topics while wearing yoga pants. I’m always humbled and grateful to spend a few special days with a team of people who share a purpose and are intentional about creating stronger community. 

And I’m optimistic that employers and business leaders will care more about culture and relationship than ever before because we have all had a deeply personal exposure to the same world-altering phenomenon. We understand the importance of being together and the importance of giving each other space. 

We’ve learned a lot this year. In 2021, we’ll get to put it to use.

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