Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person community building has hit a roadblock, and the future appears to be leading in the direction of increased virtual interaction. In this article, we’ll look at the process of creating a virtual learning community at your organization.

Creating a Virtual Learning Community

3…2…1…fall! Ever experienced a trust fall countdown? Some years ago the Obsidian Learning team participated in a three-day team-building retreat, and memories of the trust fall remain vivid. At the end of that three-day period, after a multitude of activities, discussion, and interactions, what had previously been a group of 15 strangers was transformed into a unified team. We created a community.

The definition of the word “community” comprises two equally important aspects:

  • A group of people having a particular characteristic or place in common.
  • A feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

Neither place nor feeling should be neglected when attempting to establish a community.

As social animals, humans more easily create effective groups, teams, and communities in person. Personal interaction, and all of its associated elements (sight, touch, hearing) help speed up the process of bonding, trusting, and collaborating. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person community building has hit a roadblock, and the future appears to be leading in the direction of increased virtual interaction.

The drafting of this article is a case in point. There were no in-person meetings, no happy hours, and no doors to close to ensure privacy when providing personal feedback. The goals and objectives of the individuals, teams, and our organization, however, remained unchanged, and it was our duty and desire to maintain our efforts on all possible fronts. The end result (if we do say so ourselves) is a polished, professional, informative product. We got the job done.

Modern humankind has so many tools at its disposition to maintain connection and create thriving virtual communities. Cellular networks, computer networks, video conferencing tools, social media….the list goes on. In this article, we’re going to look at the process of creating a virtual learning community at your organization, taking into account both the place and feeling facets of community that we discussed above.

Aspect #1: Creating a Communal Place

In this digital age, the virtual infrastructure is already in place. From email to public drives, most contemporary employees, teams, departments, and organizations have a strong sense of the abstract infrastructure that facilitates and enables their daily tasks and interactions. The challenge associated with the transformation from an in-person to an almost fully virtual learning community is three-fold:

Awareness of Existing Infrastructure

Everyone on your team should be aware of all of the organization’s digital assets, their intended purpose, and functional understanding of their use.

  • Create a simple one-page infographic mapping out all the software being used and for what purpose. This would include Zoom for meetings, SharePoint for file storage, Gmail for email, and whichever solution your organization uses to facilitate operations (SAP, custom software).
  • If your organization relies on a comprehensive software (e.g., Microsoft Teams), create an infographic that clearly details its functionalities.
  • For complex, high volume or complicated processes create a learning video or animated sequence that provides a clear explanation of how the digital asset operates.

Knowledge of How to Use Existing Infrastructure

Ensure everyone on your team knows how to use each component of your digital asset network. This shouldn’t require a robust change in how you train your employees on how to effectively use MS Office or any other software your company uses. The difference here is that you must ensure a minimum level of knowledge for each tool you will be using extensively to compensate for the lack of in-person feedback or support and create a big picture view of how all these tools work together synergistically.

Tip: Based on the one-page infographic of all your digital tools, apps and software, create a corresponding microlearning (an interactive pdf or even an email) which includes links to the most effective learning assets you have available for each tool, app or software. This will not only create a robust and very useful training module, but can also serve as performance support at the time of immediate need.

Create Opportunities for Social or Soft Interactions

Specifically identify and create rules of engagement around tools and applications that will substitute for physical interaction. The process is simple:

  • Make a list of all the events that can no longer be held in their original form (meetings, brainstorming, mentoring sessions, client visits, workshops, team building, performance reviews, etc.).
  • List the tool, application, or software you’ll be using to maintain each interaction remotely. Note that for many organizations this might be a single tool such as Skype or MS Teams, but for others it might include a variety of distinct solutions.
  • Develop simple guidelines for each type of virtual interaction.
  • Select a separate, dedicated tool for third-party meetings and carefully train your staff in its use. This will help prevent data privacy and intellectual property issues that might crop up due to a lack of in-depth knowledge when it comes to proper use of an internal tool exceptionally applied for external use.
  • Guidelines should include the type of interaction (e.g., brainstorming or creative meetings), recommended number of attendees (e.g., 4 to 6), recommended duration (e.g., 45 minutes or two 30-minute sessions with a 15-minute break). Provide tips/resources on effective facilitation (e.g., “How to Run an Effective Online Brainstorming Session”).

Aspect #2: Creating a Feeling of Fellowship and Belonging

Once you’ve equipped your employees with the information they need to best leverage your virtual system (or as we like to call it, your “virtual learning community hangout”), you can start looking at how to recreate feelings of connection, fellowship, and common goals—the feeling of belonging.

Creating a sense of belonging is a complex endeavor that does not necessarily follow a predetermined set of steps. Community is developed, rather, through a series of soft-skill actions, activities, attitudes, and enablement. For obvious reasons (lack of physical presence, limited ability to read body language, etc.) this process is more challenging in a virtual environment. For you virtual community to thrive you will need to:

Be Honest, Frank and Always Clear and Constructive

In insecure times, it might be tempting to sugarcoat harsh realities. Don’t fall into that trap; employees will much prefer assertive frankness to a false rosy picture. Always clearly describe and communicate the circumstances, situations, and challenges your team, department, new hires, or workshop attendees may face.

Also be clear and constructive when addressing or resolving issues. If you experience overwhelm during a 20-person WebEx workshop (it should have been no problem, that’s how many employees attend in-person sessions…), it might be wise to pause, describe the situation to your trainees, and seek their feedback. It may be necessary to split the audience and reschedule the training, but this type of action will more often than not be appreciated, as opposed to gritting it out and slogging through with something that is obviously not working.

  • During virtual training sessions make a point of pausing (within the first 10 15 minutes) to ask your learners what’s working and what’s not. Encourage them to report any sort of difficulty (technical, instructional, or pedagogical) to ensure the quality of the learning experience.
  • Create a channel for eLearning courses and programs in which your employees are explicitly encouraged to share their feedback. Depending on your organization’s culture, commentary should be both anonymous and social (feedback is visible to all) to ensure transparency and honest opinions.

Create and Encourage the Right Environment for Social Interaction

There is no watercooler, and therefore there is no watercooler chat. While unnecessary office drama might taper off, feelings of friendship and camaraderie might do so as well. Employees may encounter new challenges associated with limited social interaction.

  • Allocate a few moments before each meeting/training session for participants to share personal updates, frustrations, and challenges. Sharing such experiences can remind employees that “we’re all in the same boat” and can help reduce feelings of isolation.
  • Many of our clients that previously kicked off their training sessions with health and safety moments related to office or field safety have now shifted to addressing subjects related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on workplace interaction.
  • In your operations/collaboration tool (such as Teams) create a COVID-19 channel and invite your coworkers to share anything related to successfully dealing with this trying external circumstance.

Challenge Your Learners

Specific and attainable challenges can do wonders for unmotivated individuals, and if done right can uplift the whole team or community. For your virtual learning experience (be it a virtual workshop or an eLearning) you should:

  • Curate challenging content which will stimulate creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration among your learners. This is a universal learning principle. You must strike the right balance; content that is too easy may create a false impression of proficiency and can detract from the learning experience, while challenges which are too difficult may create frustration and despair. Know your audience and find the middle ground where your learner can confidently build on what they know while simultaneously acquiring new knowledge and skills.
  • Apply principles of gamification to your virtual in-person training as well as to your virtual learning program. Competition, rewards, and collecting points on a virtual scoreboard can be huge motivating factors for continued engagement with virtual assets.
  • Just as people want to be heard, they also want to be recognized. Acknowledge those who genuinely perform well, and always provide ways for others to catch up.
  • Never publicly call out weak performers. If you think it appropriate, reach out to personally to those individuals. Don’t focus on their performance; rather, ask if they are well and if you can assist in any way.

Connect People and Ideas

Virtual learning environments can feel isolating, especially to those who are new or not as familiar with the organization. This applies to new hires, new teams, reorganized departments, or even to individual personnel changes. No one wants to be the person asking the “stupid questions”. As a learning professional, if you sense insecurity, make it a point to address it. A private note or a short one-on-one talk is ideal for this circumstance.

Tip: If during your virtual learning experience someone asks a specific question which is outside of the scope of the current training, ask if any attendees would be willing to connect with this individual after the training to discuss this issue in more detail. This applies to ideas, suggested improvements, etc. If fellow attendees aren’t the right resource, direct them to other individuals, teams, or online resources that might be helpful.

Despite some inherent challenges associated with virtual environments, applying these recommendations will help your organization create a flourishing, vibrant, and productive virtual learning community for your remote workforce. Above all, remember that you must:

  • Provide a virtual collaborative space.
  • Create (and provide opportunities for) fellowship and belonging.
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