The Virtues of Virtual

I got dragged into the virtual world kicking and screaming. Well, maybe not literally … OK, fine, literally.

Sitting through webinars and Zoom meetings left me cold. It was like I was settling for the junior varsity version of team. I sat checking my email as faces on the screen fiddled with their camera tilt and, mostly ineffectively, with their speaker settings. I yearned for the human interaction I had built a career on – Management By Walking Around (MBWA), learning about teammates from the family pictures on their desks, the synergy and smiles of lively executive team meetings – these were things even the broadest band couldn’t replace.

So when widespread organizational response to the COVID-19 Pandemic began forcing every job into cyberspace that could possibly fit into cyberspace, I knew some very important team elements would be lost; and they were.

But the reality was that reality had changed, and we had to keep pace to stay afloat. We all had to adjust and modify our behaviors and our expectations. Virtual meetings became the standard format and remote work was thrust upon us without an instruction manual. Ugh. This was THE WORST!

… or was it?

… the jury is in – virtual workshops enjoy some significant advantages over traditional ones.

Like every other company that’s still around, Simple Leadership Strategies planned and pivoted. Several months after everyone began working remotely, we began asking area leaders if working remotely caused a reduction in productivity; a question we all thought we knew the answer to.

But every single person said productivity had actually increased.

Maybe it’s due to less stress from commuting, or maybe people are happier being able to spend more time with family; and we know happiness leads to success. So, if people produce more remotely, why wouldn’t they learn better remotely?

Excited to adjust to the new environment smartly, we started with our most popular workshop – Transformational Leader-Manager, or TLM. We reformatted it into a virtual offering and immediately launched it. In its virtual format, TLM-V, the workshop is now in its 9th cohort and the jury is in – virtual workshops enjoy some significant advantages over traditional ones.

Here are eight ways our TLM-V participants benefit from the virtues of virtual training.

1. Microlearning and the Magic Timeframe

TLM was designed to be presented face-to-face (F2F) over two consecutive days. With this model no longer practical, the team reformatted TLM, eventually presenting the workshop in seven virtual sessions of 70 minutes each. Since this change, we’ve learned the power of microlearning – small, bite-sized pieces that enabled people to reflect afterwards, where the real learning occurs.

In addition to micro-learning, SLS had discovered something else – the magic timeframe. It turned out that 70 minutes was the optimum amount of time for significant learning to occur in this environment without overload and within the human attention span.

2. Instant Accountability

In its F2F format, TLM takes two full days. After the workshop, participants are charged with finding an accountability partner and meeting with them periodically to discuss how they’re living up to the change behaviors they identified during the course. It’s a formula that works, but it’s not the only formula that works.

TLM-V participants identify an accountability partner after session one, meeting consistently with them throughout the remainder of the workshop. By the time a manager has completed TLM-V, they’ve already met with their accountability partner about six times, reinforcing new habits even as they establish newer ones.

So, why not conduct F2F TLM the same way? While certainly possible if everyone, including facilitators, lives and works in the same zip code, it’s not very practical otherwise. Returning to a common location once a week for 7 weeks, only to stay for 70 minutes, would result in a pretty hefty travel budget for the company, the facilitators, or both.

Which leads us to another virtue of virtual

3. Greater Affordability

The per-participant investment in TLM-V is comparable to the F2F TLM, but it can be conducted with zero travel expenses. No airfare, rental car or hotel expenses for either the team or facilitators. There’s also no need to supply meals, snacks, coffee, soft drinks or water for sessions – a situation that not only makes the training more affordable, but also leaves participants with more time to participate and interact.

4. More Participation

In its F2F format, TLM might include a whole room full of participants. While this can offer some attractive efficiencies in terms of cost, opportunity for participation and shared learning – key to what a person get out of TLM – is diluted across the entire room.

By comparison, a TLM-V session has a maximum of 10 participants. On the face of it, this 10-1 participant-to-facilitator ratio provides twice the time for people to engage compared to a room of 20 people; but it’s even better than that. We’ve seen an increase in willingness to speak up and engage during TLM-V sessions, perhaps because the stage fright associated with opening up in front of a group is removed by the virtual interface.

The virtual format also lends itself to silent brainstorming, the sharing of a Google doc or other form of online-access file with the group for entry of anonymous input during a group session. This is a good way to draw out more quiet team members and really get the full benefit of the group’s brain power.

Of course, if an organization has more than 10 people to put through TLM-V, we build a second session, and a third, and whatever it takes to train the whole group. The options for constructing sessions are broad – by office, by seniority level, by function, by geographic location, etc.

We’ve seen an increase in willingness to speak up and engage during TLM-V sessions, perhaps because the stage fright associated with opening up in front of a group is removed by the virtual interface.

5. Broader Perspectives

While many organizations like to fill a TLM session strictly with members of their own team, some companies with smaller management teams may not have this option. While these small organizations can still schedule a specific session just for their folks, they can also enroll their one, two or three managers in a TLM-V General Session. These sessions are offered to individuals wanting to become transformational leaders, but who may not be attending on the company’s dime. The advantage these General Sessions offer is exposure to management perspectives from other industries and even other economic sectors. In this way, TLM-V serves as a quasi-mastermind group for the participating manager – a huge fringe benefit.

6. Better Breakouts

Breakout sessions in the TLM-V format are exponentially more efficient, eliminating the need to walk to and from separate rooms (and the additional stop to get coffee) and limiting the time spent in breakouts to a standard number of minutes. When a breakout is called, participants simply show up in a new virtual “room”, conduct a short conversation, lasting about as many minutes as there are participants, then are magically whisked back to the main room to report out. TLM-V breakout sessions are programmed into the Zoom or Teams client, so they’re a lot easier to control than breakouts at F2F sessions. No more yelling down the hall or knocking on doors to get everyone back in the main room!

7. Replay For Review and Catchup

With the proper permissions and notifications, virtual sessions (including breakouts with Zoom) can be recorded, allowing participants to review the material, critique their participation or refresh their memory about a quote or a follow-up assignment. One of the coolest advantages of replay is that absentees can catch up on what they missed between sessions and instantly be on pace with the rest of the group at the beginning of the next session.

8. Convenient Time Management

It can sometimes be a challenge for a company to give up its management team, or even a large portion of it, for two consecutive days. With TLM-V, the weekly time commitment is only a little over an hour. If the manager group is large, requiring more than one session, that time can be scheduled not to overlap between groups, ensuring that some managers are always available to keep the wheels of progress turning. This format also allows participants themselves to effectively and efficiently manage their time between sessions and other duties. We’ve seen how well TLM-V participants respond to this more convenient time commitment, with a peace of mind that yields better preparation and engagement during sessions.

SLS facilitates TLM-V primarily with Zoom, but can also use Teams if the client prefers.

In terms of the learning accomplished through our Transformational Leader-Manager workshops, we’ve found TLM-V sessions work every bit as well as their F2F counterparts. Not better, but just as well.

What is missing by NOT getting together? A few things. The friends we asked told us productivity had increased since remote work kicked in, but something was missing – collaboration, brain-storming, teambuilding and other human touch stuff. When people are together, some kind of electricity happens.

While the robust virtual interface necessary to generate that kind of electricity isn’t yet commercially available, we’ve seen our current remote sessions offer some real learning and productivity advantages, advantages that make workshops like TLM-V worth considering, now and into the foreseeable future.

– TD & John

TD Smyers recently joined the Simple Leadership Strategies team as Chief Executive Officer. A retired Navy Captain, he has led a squadron of Combat Aircrews and a joint air base. After hanging up the uniform he served as a Regional CEO at two national nonprofits. He’s also a certified speaker and coach.

John Wright is Founder and President of Simple Leadership Strategies. He established SLS in the oil & gas industry, and has since expanded it across sectors. He’s been perfecting and facilitating Transformational Leader-Manager, and the associated Continuing Growth sessions, for over 17 years.

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