Setting the remote scene
I have been doing remote compliance training since March 2020. I rather like it as a trainer. At home, the coffee is much better and I don’t have to wear shoes and socks. From a professional point of view, I can dig up examples off my computer broadly on request. I have the option of showing people the actual rules involved. So long as I am using zoom, I have all the fun of using polls to discover stuff, advance the programme, assess the level of participants and generally make things happen.
For in-house courses, going remote makes it easier to access the company’s examples, procedures and website. If you are sitting in front of a screen, you can read and appreciate small print far more easily than having the same material presented on a projection screen. I can easily email a handout of key materials without having to worry about the planet’s future or just flick to the key items using screensharing.
At a recent public course on financial promotions, two participants had attended the face-to-face version of the same event. Afterwards, I asked one of them which was better. He said that marginally the face-to-face one was.
The obvious reason is that even with breakout groups, it is very difficult to chat informally with the other participants and the trainer. Most people spend breaks sensibly away from their screens. Imposing a five minute early return after one without the trainer is too artificial. Participants still attend with inadequate wifi and laptops with non-functioning cameras and enormous time is wasted while we sort out technical problems that would normally be spent sharing (not great) coffee and sticky buns.
If a participant decides to disrupt a remote course, it is very difficult to fix the problem. Normally, over a break, the in-person trainer can have a private chat that can smooth over the problem. Remotely, this does not work. It is also much more difficult for peer pressure to kick in and stop an out-of-control individual from ruining things by their attitude or by just doing something else in the course room. While the pandemic has brought out the noble side of many people, it has also produced in some a strangely destructive streak of angry out-of-control behaviour that resulted notably in my first remote course taking place without a single camera being switched on – horrendous for everyone. This is the equivalent of having a social interaction in pitch black.
One suspects that Covid-fatigue may also now be affecting participants’ responses to remote training. People have handled the social isolation of the pandemic with varying success. Some just want to shake hands and shoot the breeze with people in person. The clear technological advantages of computer training (along with the huge environmental plusses of not having to print out books of handouts and examples) have started to give second best to an almost primeval urge to share physical space, human twitches and dare one say it smells.
Grown-up thinking required
However, before we all start organizing face-to-face training, we need to some grown-up thinking first. Covid is still very much with us and apparently growing since the general relaxation of rules. Trainers and participants must not feel under any pressure to attend when less than well. The ongoing pandemic will result in plenty of last-minute cancellations, wasted travel costs and people perhaps with vulnerabilities or close to those who do, catching what is still an unpleasant virus. The idea of putting on a financial services training course that could kill is too horrendous to contemplate. Yet, the UK financial services industry now puts on mass-attendance events without seemingly much thought to this.
Recent travel chaos emphasised the value of the remote option for an in-house course. Instead of a company trying to bring its staff into work during a major rail strike, they organized their team into attending some in-house learning using about 35 of their own examples beamed into everyone’s homes.
Return to the past or the future?
At some point, we are going to have to road test a return to face-to-face learning at least for open courses. Experience of University teaching tells me that this, much longed for by many, will not work as smoothly as we expect. We cannot impose a US and Australian Open style ban on the unvaccinated despite the greater risk they impose to others. People may find that social mixing indoors with strangers is much more scary than they think. Initially, at least, people will not interact as smoothly as they did before 2020. You cannot tell people to go off into a corner and sit closely with each other to discuss a problem the way we did before and can currently do remotely using Zoom breakout rooms. Hopefully, we can counteract some of the interactivity issues by having participants still wired up to Zoom for polls and perhaps even writing on white boards and breakout sessions.
The return to face-to-face is much less appealing currently for in-house sessions. People in a company have an opportunity to meet and cope with their primeval stuff in the workplace or local park. Someone with Covid can easily attend a remote session. Nobody wants him or her in a crowded conference room.
None of these questions is straightforward. The false relief that the pandemic is over may result in an orgy of highly ineffective learning where people prefer a form of emotional physical proximity over actually acquiring the knowledge, insights and skills that remote teaching is far better at delivering. Will we forget the real intellectual and presentational gains of remote teaching in favour of this often fake intimacy? Will we lose the dream (that proved annoyingly elusive during the pandemic) of cross-border learning? I hope not. However, never underestimate the ability of the financial services industry to forget the learnings of the past in favour of something which superficially feels emotionally more comfortable.