Virtual development – this much I have learnt in 2020…

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Simon Bird


It is March 2020. I am having breakfast in a Glasgow hotel with a colleague. We are three days into a four-day stint of delivering two leadership development programmes for doctors in Scotland. I (really) enjoy working on face to face development programmes – and at the same time, find it totally exhausting.

COVID-19 had arrived in the UK but was simmering – and I vividly remember the tickertape of news going along the bottom of the TV screen in the lounge announcing that the 5th person in the UK had died with Covid-19. No-one really understood the scale of what was about to happen – and I’d had my head down all week in ‘delivery mode’ and had missed some of the latest developments. Only when I boarded my flight to London on Friday evening, and seeing just 10 other passengers, did I finally clock something big was about to happen.

The following week, my diary for the next 4 months was pretty much cleared of all my client face to face work as the UK went into full lockdown.

After a mild(?) panic which lasted a few days, cautious conversations began to emerge about what – if anything – could we switch to ‘virtual’ – you know, on the computer….?

That was 9 months ago – and it’s reasonable to say that I – and the different communities of which I’m a member have been through the washing machine as we scrambled to understand what might be possible, what it would take to be successful – and what success might even look like in terms of meaningful and impactful development for professionals.

This much I have learnt in 2020

So, as we reach the end of 2020, here are some of the most important things I have learned in terms of design and delivery of development:

  1. Don’t just transfer a whole day of face-to-face work to online – and expect it to work. A 30 minute ‘input session’ in a room where you’re talking with a group and taking questions, doesn’t transfer neatly online. I’d suggest no more than a 10-15 minute ‘input’ spell at any point online
  2. However great a facilitator in the room you are – don’t expect to be able to replicate that in the online world. Throwing a question into a virtual room of 30 and being met with silence and 30 people ‘on mute’, is a challenging experience. You will need to rely less on you – and your charisma and intuition – and more on a very structured session which maximises on engagement/touch points
  3. Most people in your group are doing some other things, some of the time. Not all of the time – but some of the time. You can only invite them to turn off their email or their phone – and encourage them do their best to really work with the time they’ve kept carved out for themselves here. It’s our ego that is tweaked when we see people doing something else – and that’s for us to manage.
  4. Don’t be seduced by lovely tools  like Mural, Miro, Jamboards and the rest – until you have accurately understood the capability of a group and the IT permissions they have. For example, Jamboards (a Google collaborative whiteboard option) – works like a dream in some places – yet if your client won’t allow access to any Google apps – it’s a no go. And actually – check your capability as well!
  5. Embrace the upside of doing two shorter sessions a week apart – rather than a single long session. I’ve used this opportunity to get groups to read an article between sessions, ready to discuss when we come back together – or another short ‘homework’ task. Having 2 opportunities to see people over a week (for example) is almost certainly going to be more effective from a development perspective than a single session.

This only scratches the surface of things I’ve learned this year about virtual development – it’s been quite a year. My most significant learning though has been about the nature of what is possible, and how important it has been to me to hook into different communities to keep learning about it.

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