I find training people in UX, research and digital design skills both a rewarding and fascinating part of my role at Clearleft.

Chris How
Chris How
4th August 2020

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of remote training sessions. However, my preference has always been for delivering in-person classroom-based training. Well, times have changed. For me, this has been an opportunity to reconsider the best ways to run training at distance.

I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques. Beyond having a great search engine that puts privacy first, they are also a really interesting team that has always been distributed. The training sessions were attended by 10 people, in 4 continents, across 8 timezones.

As with the best training sessions, as a facilitator, I learned some new things from the attendees. In particular, I got their tips on maintaining engagement and energy when working apart.

With training in mind, here are three differences to consider when going remote.

Less attention and more disruptions

In a training room, you have a high level of control of the environment. You can arrange the seating, lighting and equipment to best suit the activities you have planned. As you move from one activity to the next you can switch the room around to meet your needs.

Going remote requires letting go a little. Rather than trying to control every aspect of the environment, learn to embrace more chaos. Being more on the edge and improvising when needed adds positive energy to the sessions.

Even with everyone in front of a screen plan for breaks in attention. Audio will drop out, the live stream will freeze, someone will have a knock on their door and their cat will be making an unscheduled appearance. Build in some time for all of these occurrences and more.

Instead of beating yourself up for the few inevitable technical glitches reframe around the positives. After your session, make a list of what went well before thinking about the ‘even better ifs’.

Ice breaker remote training activity where we asked people to pin their mugs to the Miro board
Finding remote ways to get to know your attendees

Getting comfortable with deafening silences

As a facilitator, there is a loneliness to remote training. In a physical setting, when the attendees were heads-down in an activity, I’d prowl the room and pick up on how people were getting on with the task at hand.

No more. Now I set up an activity and then … nothing. With people muted or working away in breakout rooms there is an unnerving silence.

The same happens when you’re giving information or instructions. In a physical space, you can feel if what you are saying is making sense, if people have questions, and how engaged they are.

When you are training in a virtual space it’s hard if not impossible to accurately read the room. You have to put more faith in your material. Trust yourself that you are making sense and your gags are getting a response.

If the people you’re training are heads-down in an activity, don’t fill the void by chattering away. It’ll break their concentration. Equally, resist the temptation to fill the time by looking through Slack or social media. Stay present, just quiet.

Countering the energy drain

Concentrating on a computer screen for an extended period of time is hard. Being static, sitting down, headphones on and staring into a panel of glowing glass is exhausting.

Facilitating and attending remote training drains a person’s battery more quickly than being in the same space together. For the training for Duck Duck Go, we deliberately broke the sessions into smaller chunks and spread them over 3 days with none of them longer than 3 hours.

Remember to be kind to your participants. Make sessions shorter. Switch between different styles of activities. Vary group sizes (the breakout room feature on Zoom is excellent for this). And include more frequent breaks.

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started planning coaching sessions was to start with the breaks and then add in the activities around these. Even if you are the most compelling tutor, people who are tired, thirsty and desperate for the toilet just can’t concentrate on what you have to say.

Having the team at Duck Duck Go span so many timezones presented an unexpected concentration-sapping challenge. Running the training during the early evening (at least for the timezone I was in) left me spending the last hour of each session catching tantalising smells from the food my partner was preparing. You don’t have to deal with that situation when coaching in a training room!

It’s the same but different

The good news is most of the skills you have as a facilitator and most of the material you use for face-to-face sessions easily translate for remote training. It’s more of an evolution of the activities, resources and ideas rather than a revolution.

The more I do online training the more I think there’ll be a time in the near future when I’m writing a companion article to this one. But next time it will be on new things I’m learning when readjusting to coaching in a classroom in front of attendees.

If you run remote training sessions I’d be interested in hearing what you think the key differences are and what changes you have made to deliver successful learning outcomes.