4 Tips for Taking Your Professional Development Sessions Virtual

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to take their operations fully remote — Influence & Co. included. As a result, we’re adjusting to a new normal when it comes to daily workflows, team collaboration, and even professional development.

One of the first effects this crisis had on the United States was the cancellation or postponement of large-scale gatherings like concerts, sporting events, conferences, and training sessions. As of early March, according to McKinsey & Co.., about half of in-person business meetings scheduled before July were already canceled. So even though our quarterly Professional Development Day wasn’t scheduled to happen until late April, my team started discussing contingency plans in the middle of February.

I’ll be honest: It wasn’t easy to decide how to move forward. We place a high value on our ability to bring the team together for a day of in-person professional development sessions once per quarter, and we love heading home after each event with a renewed drive to build great things together. Could a virtual event facilitate the same professional development activities for employees? Would it even be worth it to hold these professional development sessions?

After some thorough discussions, we came to an answer: Yes, but it would need to look a lot different than what we’re used to. From there, we got to work.

If your company is facing the challenge of shifting in-person professional development activities to a virtual environment, don’t stress. You’re not alone. Here are the steps we took to ensure our team would still find value in our virtual professional development sessions.

1. Determine each session’s main goal

Before you can identify the right format for your virtual professional development activities for employees, you need to understand their main goal. Consider a webinar or pre-recorded message to simply provide information to team members, for example, or break into small virtual groups rather than meeting all together to brainstorm solutions to a problem.

One of the staples of our Professional Development Day is a company updates presentation. This quarter, we’re having each department head record any updates in advance and circulating those videos via our learning management platform.

The same day we send out the updates, we’re hosting an optional “Ask Me Anything” session via Zoom so employees can ask questions about the updates. This strategy allows us to respect our employees’ time while upholding our commitment to transparency.

2. Take an inventory of resources

You don’t have to default to a teleconference for every session that requires folks to attend. Dive into the features your platform of choice offers, and learn how to make the best of them. Use learning management software like Lessonly to assist.

And don’t feel like you’re the only person who can lead these professional development sessions — tap internal experts for help. If you want to outsource your training and you’ve got the funds, look to a vendor like Udacity, just like Royal Dutch Shell did to train employees on artificial intelligence.

Like many teams, we use Zoom, so we’ll be leaning on its features to help our sessions run more smoothly. We’ll have the ability to mute all participants during large sessions, use the chat function to take questions, split up into smaller breakout rooms, and ask questions with the polling feature. We also have a number of employees hosting sessions in their areas of expertise to help their co-workers grow.

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3. Consider breaking up or shortening an event

Asking employees to attend an eight-hour event in your office or a convention center is much different than asking them to attend an eight-hour virtual meeting from home, where they might be dealing with connection problems, homeschooling children, and myriad distractions.

Take advantage of the flexibility that comes with working from home and consider dividing your event among multiple days or shortening lengthy sessions. A webinar from management consulting firm Korn Ferry suggests paring a three-day seminar into three half-day virtual meetings, for example.

This is one of the biggest changes we’ve made to our Professional Development Day. Rather than a full-day event, we’re hosting one 60- to 90-minute session block every Wednesday for five weeks. We determined that the majority of sessions we had initially planned would still be valuable but that adding one meeting to everyone’s calendar per week would be far more achievable than asking everyone to spend several consecutive hours on Zoom.

4. Offer support to your session leaders

If you’re in our boat, this is a totally new frontier for everyone involved. Follow up with your session leaders regularly to ask if they need help with technology, materials, or even brainstorming session content. Remind your participants that this is new for everyone, including session leaders, and that a little extra grace goes a long way.

I’ve been following up with our session leaders on the reg, and I’m hosting a trainer workshop for them ahead of their scheduled sessions. I’m also offering “office hours” of sorts — a block of time on my calendar every Friday where session leaders can invite me to a Zoom meeting to test out features, run through their presentations, and troubleshoot problems to ensure a solid session when the day comes.

Instead of viewing a virtual professional development session as a subpar plan B, try seeing it as an opportunity to try something new and see what sticks. Use these steps to optimize your virtual professional development activities for employees, take note of what works and what doesn’t, and you’ll be able to look more confidently toward the future and your company’s new normal during and post-COVID 19.

Emily Datz is the professional development coordinator at Influence & Co. She's passionate about helping her co-workers grow personally and professionally through training programs and ongoing education initiatives.

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