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Mind the gap: The need for human connection in virtual learning

Mind the gap: The need for human connection in virtual learning
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This year has seen a revolution in working styles, with millions of people working from home at the height of the lockdown, and many of them planning to make this permanent. With video call technology and online collaboration tools, learning facilitators have been able to pivot their programmes to online delivery within days. But what are participants missing out on? What exactly is it about a face-to-face learning experience that can’t be easily found in a virtual equivalent?  

When we bring people together for face-to-face learning, we are also bringing them together for all the extra learning and interaction that takes place between the structured inputs and activities: during coffee breaks, over lunches and dinners, and whilst moving between rooms and sites. We miss out on all of this when we deliver virtually. For some people, the most impactful learning from a programme might be the skill sets around networking and relationship building that are gained from these informal interactions. These intangible learnings may never have been explicit objectives – and indeed they are often taken for granted – but they can be hugely powerful nonetheless. Indeed, much of the feedback on our recent virtual programmes, whilst very positive, points to a desire for increased connection to people. Clients want more access to supporting facilitators, rather than just the lead facilitator, people with whom they would normally interact naturally by sitting together at dinner or chatting over coffee.  

The importance of investing time in creating more of these conversations and interactions is a big learning we have had this year. The truth is that such organic connections won’t happen on their own in a virtual space. We need to structure them back in, with breaks that are designed to replicate informal conversations, utilising breakout rooms of small groups and structured conversations. Furthermore, a critical part of this is psychological safety, which is more important now than ever. In this strange world we currently inhabit, there are so many more barriers to psychological safety and so many more reasons for people to be anxious. Ensuring that participants feel that they are in a safe space in order to show up as themselves is paramount.  

In order to create virtual learning experiences that can provide participants with the human connection and interaction they would normally receive on a face-to-face programme, we need to be intentional. We need to strip the design of the programme back to basics and incorporate this objective at every level. There is so much we take for granted when delivering face-to-face. When we deliver together in-person we are usually laughing and joking – and that’s contagious. It sets the tone of the room and invites people into our space. That fun and banter may happen naturally when we’re together, but when we’re not we need to be mindful about creating it.  

On a virtual programme, participants don’t have as much exposure to us as people, they don’t see how we move around, how we speak to others, how we take our coffee – they don’t even see our feet! So we have to be purposeful about presenting ourselves and building rapport with each other. We have learnt to build two facilitators into our designs so that there is always someone for you to have a conversation with, to seed that rapport. It’s very difficult when you’re on your own, looking at an array of blank faces with no response. Having said that, silence is also an important part of our new designs, when it’s intentional. Long pauses can be uncomfortable, but we need silence to ensure that everyone is engaged and that there is appropriate space for all questions to be asked.  

When this all began back in March, we assumed that online delivery would be faster, because you are not spending time on physical movements between rooms etc. Participants don’t have to walk down a corridor; you just click a button and they are instantly back in the main room. But what we’ve discovered is that we still need this transition time. It takes as long for our brains to disconnect and reconnect as it would for us to actually walk down the corridor. So you still have to allow time and space for moving. 

In fact, virtual delivery requires that we slow down in general. Things move faster and more fluidly when we are face-to-face. But when we are working virtually, people can’t perform as well or for as long – we just aren’t designed to interact in this way as often as we do right now. In light of this, it’s important that we incorporate more breaks, shorter inputs, and repeat instructions to allow for reduced attention spans. We need to provide demonstrations and examples for any activities we ask participants to do. We need to build an extra 20–25% of time into any input, because it can take longer for people to reach the same depth of learning when it’s done through a screen.  

So, is it still possible for participants to have powerful experiences through virtual learning? Yes, it definitely is. People can still walk away (or shut down their computers) with their lives changed. Organic interactions may be hard virtually, but we can create them, if we are purposeful. Delivering successful virtual learning experiences full of meaningful human connection and interaction is achievable, but we need to approach them as a different kind of experience altogether, which calls for an alternative design and intentionality at every stage.  

Maggie Pearce is a senior consultant and head of design at Impact UK.  David Cooper is a senior consultant at Impact America.