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Are we Ready to Return to Face-to-Face Training?

Face-to-face training classroom empty

Empty classroom – what is the future of face-to-face training? (Pexels)

Before lockdown face-to-face training was thriving – but in an uncertain future the trend for e-learning is on the rise in the United Kingdom

Her Majesty The Queen, when addressing the nation in May, quoted the late, great Dame Vera Lynn. “We will meet again,” she said – a reference to the anthem that provided hope to the British troops during World War II. Granted, the Queen might not have had face-to-face training in mind, but her optimism was apposite for the industry.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us all into lockdown, physically isolated from one other, our social bubbles shrunk to those we live with.  For many living alone, the past few months have been an unwelcome test to the human spirit and mental health. Reports of rising depression, loneliness, anxiety and other mental health troubles have been regularly in the news.

This week, as the strict social distancing rules begin to relax, we have seen people out in their droves desperate to socialise and enjoy the physical companionship of others. Despite pleas from the authorities, people have flocked to the beaches and national beauty spots, many breaking the new one-metre rule – and without facemasks – seemingly happy to risk their health in order to see friends and family. 

Looking down from above, from a helicopter view, across the globe people have crawled out of the safety of their homes and rushed to be with others. The pandemic has reaffirmed the need for human socialising. 

As Vincent Nichols, Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, once said: “Simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.” 

Our species, homo sapiens, is a social tribe based on community. We are not biologically wired to be hermits. Humans fundamentally need face-to-face interactions with others to survive both physically and mentally. 

As many also return to work, the next question is are we ready to return to face-to-face training and learning?

Online Learning: The New Facebook?

The online learning market has had an unexpected boom this year, as millions have logged on to learn new personal and professional skills from the myriad of online training courses now available. At The CPD Standards Office we like to say “online learning is the new Facebook”, as even those that were technologically deficient have studiously grappled with online course technologies and apps to learn new hobbies and skills. 

For many involved in face-to-face training, coaching and education businesses, the lockdown in the United Kingdom, on March 23, spelt disaster as countless courses, conferences and meetings were cancelled indefinitely.

The industry is now taking tentative steps to resurrect face-to-face training sessions. Yet the current government guidance for businesses seeking to deliver lifelong learning and professional development is woeful.   

Where education is concerned, the main focus has been on reopening schools and further education colleges and getting young people back into the educational fold. 

Many sectors have already begun tackling the challenge of delivering face-to-face training courses safely. We have seen examples within healthcare, defence and education, where vital skills and knowledge updates are desperately needed, training businesses are experimenting with new delivery techniques to meet the urgent knowledge needs. For example, teachers have been receiving training in playgrounds, with trainers carefully delivering “sanitised social distancing sessions”.

For professions such as nursing, ongoing face-to-face training and continuing professional development (CPD) has also been mobilised. Healthcare training providers have delivered critical information around care, medicines, techniques and practices for those tackling COVID-19 on the front line. However, these professions have – sadly – become used to personal protective equipment (PPE) as a daily uniform, and are happy to train together socially taking great care to “stay alert, control the virus, and save lives”. 

Preparing For The New Normal

But where does this leave training businesses and conference event companies?  

For providers who have, pre-COVID-19, offered face-to-face training in what might now be considered as “non-essential” subjects such as presentation skills or digital marketing the playing field has now become uneven. 

Not only are there serious health and safety considerations for every provider to consider, many of whom are seriously considering their instructors delivering in PPE and taking extreme measures to keep their colleagues safe. Especially as many of the public (and would-be delegates) are carelessly flouting the social distancing measures, and likely to put training business colleagues at risk.

As well as the upheaval in face-to-face delivery, many individuals have a newfound joy in learning online, topping up their knowledge sets and skills from a virtual platform while in self-isolation. Even those furloughed have been allowed to undertake training online for their employer, and so the online learning market has seen entrants from lonely individuals, furloughed colleagues and those remote working. Hence the market has swelled considerably. 

In the example for improving presentation skills, over the past few months, many individuals without the option of a face-to-face training course have learned these skills using a virtual concoction of online courses, youtube videos, blogs and scrolling through social media. 

Admittedly, one might question if a skill such as presenting can be truly improved using online learning materials versus face-to-face instruction. But you could also argue that with all of us becoming avid Zoom presenters and attendees, improving one’s presentation skills is now applicable to both virtual and face to face situations. 

Concerns For The Future

My concern for the longer term is this: will people want to return to face-to-face training and learning, either as an instructor or delegate? The crystal ball is unclear. While people are rushing to the beaches, this is for personal enjoyment and socialising. The return to a face-to-face training classroom may not be so attractive, considering that there will be strong demands on delegates for undertaking learning in larger rooms (or outside, weather dependent venues), wearing facemasks with strict rules for social interaction. Traditional training may not be as appealing as it once was – at least for the time being, until we are free of COVID-19.  

Yet for some subjects, face-to-face training is vital and the only option for learning updates or new skills in certain professions. Training and education businesses will need to consider carefully how they can make their face-to-face courses, conference events and symposiums appealing again, while taking into account the changing government social distancing guidelines. 

The new normal for training will certainly be increasingly more “blended learning” – a term fondly used in the learning and development (L&D) professions describing face-to-face training and online learning combinations. However, the extent of the blend and what it contains is yet to be seen, particularly with our newfound bond and engagement with online learning. 

Despite concerns of a second wave of coronavirus, training and education businesses are a vital component of the economy, ensuring the educational advancement of our workforce, preventing brain drain and enabling businesses to advance competitively on the global stage.  Many have pivoted to online delivery temporarily, but the doors to the adult classrooms, and conferences, will need to be opened again (albeit safely) in due course.

“People need people,” sang Barbara Streisand. Let’s encourage training, coaching and education businesses to return to face-to-face delivery in a careful fashion, ultimately satisfying the human need for social interaction, but with the wider positive impact that will have on our recovering economy. 

Our workforce needs sharp, updated and agile thinkers and updated skill sets to face the undoubted challenges ahead, and we instinctively will want to be with others to achieve the new normal.

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