Remote staff training – lessons from Covid-19

Jennifer Hamrick
Thursday 14 May 2020

When lockdown hit the UK in March 2020, I had to quickly transform the Digital Visa staff training programme to work remotely. Rather than cancel all sessions, I wanted to make sure we continued to offer training for two reasons:

  • To enable staff to progress work in other areas (for example, attaining moderator access to update the website).
  • To give staff something new and different to focus on during a stressful time. For many, learning new skills has played a key role for wellbeing.

To date, I have conducted three training sessions through Microsoft Teams. Here are the top five lessons I have learned about training staff remotely so far.

Keep it short

When trying to figure out how best to rework my lessons for remote training, I got in touch with a colleague from Organisational and Staff Development Services (OSDS). She shared a lot of useful tips and tricks for remote teaching, but one of the best pieces of advice was to keep lessons short.

People’s attention spans are greatly reduced on video calls, and video chat is much more tiring. Therefore, remote training sessions should ideally be kept under an hour.

This is a big ask when one of your training sessions normally fills three full hours. To shorten my lessons, I did the following:

  • Assign pre-reading. For example, I asked participants to complete a task to familiarise themselves with the University’s house style ahead of time rather than doing it during the session (which would have been five minutes of awkward silence in remote training).
  • Assign homework. For example, one exercise asks participants to spend 20 minutes editing a paragraph of text for the web, during which I normally walk around the room and provide guidance and feedback. This set-up doesn’t work remotely, so instead, I asked them to email me their edited paragraphs after the class, and I provided feedback and suggestions through Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature.
  • Cut out introductions. I love learning about my participants in a classroom setting, but cutting out intros and icebreaker activities saved a lot of time during remote sessions.
  • Turn small-group discussions into whole-class discussions. For in-class sessions, I often have participants break into small groups to discuss a topic or work through several problems together. However, this takes time and is more difficult to do remotely. Instead, I asked the whole class to collectively discuss their ideas about a single question or topic and cut down the number of planned discussions throughout the session.

Keep it small

Another useful tip from my colleague in OSDS was to reduce the number of participants for remote sessions to around 10.

One of my sessions normally has 16 to 20 participants; this many people would have made it hard to keep the lesson short (more questions and discussions means more time) and get engagement (I’ve found that the larger the group is, the more people don’t participate, especially online).

Ask for engagement, but don’t expect it

Speaking up during a video call is intimidating. Therefore, I give all my participants the option to type their ideas, thoughts and questions into the MS Teams chat field instead. I have found that most participants prefer this over speaking out loud, and it gives them a chance to formulate their ideas over time without having to think on the spot.

I will sometimes ask for ideas or input and be met with crickets. This happens during in-class training sessions too, but it happens more frequently for remote sessions. Despite this, I believe it’s still good to take pauses and ask for discussion because it brings up new ideas and questions that the whole group benefits from.

If I am met with silence, I will try to prompt the group with a potential answer or ask a different question. For remote training, I will give a little more time for that awkward silence as participants may need a second to unmute themselves or type in their responses.

If the silence continues, I will simply move on. Don’t plan your lesson around engagement (or be disheartened by it) – it’s just more difficult to generate the same level of excitement for participation when teaching remotely.

Don’t panic when things go wrong (and they will)

For each remote session, I create ground rules for remote learning. One of these rules is:

If you have connection issues and drop out, don’t panic! If you can’t get reconnected during the session, send me an email and we will set up a one-on-one meeting.

This has been a useful rule as I’ve already had a couple of participants lose power or internet during a session.

However, don’t forget to set up a similar rule for yourself! In the middle of one of my sessions, my own internet cut out. I managed to rejoin the call through my phone, but I no longer had my slides and had to ask participants to use their imaginations (which they very kindly obliged).

Create a contingency plan that will work for you and communicate this to your participants ahead of time. For example, if you drop out of the call, how long should participants wait for you to reconnect before getting on with their lives? If your equipment fails, will you set up a new session at a later date? Or will you get on your phone like I did and try to muddle your way through the rest of it?

However, if everything does fall apart, don’t panic. I have found that remote trainees are very understanding and forgiving. It’s stressful for everyone, so be kind to yourself and just do your best.

Remote training is not always possible

Although myself and the other digital communications trainers are doing our best to convert our sessions to work remotely, sometimes a course doesn’t lend itself to remote learning.

One such course is Advanced Writing for the Web. I designed this course to be highly interactive, and learning relies heavily on discussion, debate and feedback. Trying to force this session into a remote format would damage its integrity and not provide participants with a useful experience.

I have, therefore, cancelled all sessions of this particular course until the lockdown ends and I can provide it in a classroom setting.

Let’s all hope that we are able to safely return to the classrooms soon.

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