Remote Training: Lessons Learned in 2020

When the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were first being recognized in early 2020, much of the business world focused on the economic impact and the sudden changes in work-related activities. Work-from-home became a buzzword; teleconferencing was normal. New words entered the conversation around the now virtual water cooler: Zooming, Skyping, social distancing, and others related to remote work. Home workers found themselves with company, as schools and care centers closed, restaurants and clubs shut their doors in response to government mandates, and even groceries limited the number of people allowed inside at one time.
People were categorized as essential workers … or not. Construction, in most locations, was considered essential work and yet contracts were cancelled, or projects were delayed. Repair and maintenance continued but infrastructure projects and new buildings were slowed down, postponed, or hampered by a growing lack of workers as families responded to the need for stay-at-home parenting because schools resorted to distance learning instead of face-to-face classrooms.
Companies that were able to maintain their workforce found they needed to improvise, especially with new hires and others that needed additional training. According to the results of the ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors) 2021 Workforce Development Survey, ABC contractor members invested $1.3 billion in workforce development initiatives in 2020, providing craft, leadership, and safety education to 500,000 course attendees to advance their careers in commercial and industrial construction.
Safety education accounted for 71% of the total workforce investment as per-person spending doubled, revealing an elevated focus on worker education, safety, and total human health during the COVID-19 pandemic. ABC members invested an average of 8.4% of payroll on workforce development in 2020, up from 7.9% in 2019. Approximately 70% of contractors reported partnerships with high school and college career and technical education internship programs.
Throughout 2020, companies explored new technology approaches to maintain employment and complete projects. Whereas pre-pandemic, it was typical for trades to meet in a trailer onsite to discuss activities for a given day, contractors have come to realized it can be just as efficient to act virtually for planning, organizing, and coordinating daily activities. In fact, virtual gatherings, via Zoom, Webex, or Microsoft Teams, have been an effective method for hosting remote meetings by avoiding having to meet in person, while also eliminating wasteful travel costs.
Virtual inspections have been implemented to meet social distancing rules because the technology has shown to be effective in relaying images and audio in realtime to multiple parties. Thermal imaging and wearables for construction workers have been used to encourage physical distancing and to automate contact tracing between workers.
Similarly, many of these same technologies can be used for remote training. But to be effective, the users and those who are implementing them must gain a higher level of digital capability. According to McKinsey, basic digital skills have become a clear priority for companies since the pandemic began; the share saying so is 16 percentage points larger than in 2019.
Digital learning feels ubiquitous now, especially during the pandemic, and the McKinsey survey suggests that it works: respondents who say that digital learning is suitable for their employees, or who say the same for sessions that combine in-person and virtual learning, report a higher overall rate of success for their companies’ skill transformations.
Many companies are now at a critical juncture when it comes to talent development and skill building, and it is clear that changes are needed to thrive—or even survive—in the future. To emerge stronger from the pandemic, now is the time for organizations to invest in skill transformations and apply the lessons of the past year to crystallize their current and future skill needs.
Organizations must take a holistic approach to skill transformations and not fall into the trap of focusing only on “hard” technological skills or digital-only channels for learning. Business leaders, especially in the “physical industries,” including construction, can find ways to employ the tech and tips developed in distance learning in 2020. Remote training, still necessary in many areas due to the pandemic, can be done with success if we apply what we learned about learning last year.
Michael Page, a professional recruiting firm, found five key considerations for running a remote training session. While not focused on construction, these can be generally applied to setting up and running any remote training opportunity.
1. Maintaining engagement 
If you would normally conduct a full-day classroom course, you cannot replace this with a full-day virtual training session. In a virtual setting, it is much more effective to cut training into bite-size chunks, so you are running a course that is a maximum of two hours long.
The adult attention span is 10-14 minutes. Considering this, think about how you can layer up your content as you go through. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • What it is that I am trying to achieve?
  • What do people want to get out of it?
  • How can I break this down into components?
Engagement is key, so it is also important to think about how you can introduce some questions to generate discussion and ensure you are not talking about a topic for too long. You might want to use online polls or a group chat function, just to break up the content a bit.
2. The four learning styles 
  • Activists – These individuals just want to get up and do something. So, you might want to think about doing role-play or some exercises that enable them to try out what you have demonstrated.
  • Reflectors – Individuals who prefer to take a step back. They enjoy more reflective questions and might want some time to think about how they are going to implement some of these techniques into their day-to-day role.
  • Theorists – They have a thirst for knowledge and love theories, concepts, and design models. They will want a session that provides a lot of information.
  • Pragmatist – Once they have learned the skills, how can they put these into play? How can they put these into place in their roles?
3. Technology, setting up, and accessibility 
First and foremost, limit distractions. Host the session from a quiet room with a plain background to help keep the focus on the training and to facilitate conversations among delegates. Turn your cameras on and think about how you can do some introductions with the delegates, especially if they do not know each other.
It is important to use the system that’s going to work for you, but also is going to be easy for your delegates to be able to join as well. It has to be compatible with the system that your company is using to make sure that’s quite seamless.
4. Soft skills vs hard skills
Hard skills tend to be linked to specific roles and are related to technical knowledge, which also makes them easier to assess. When we look at soft skills, we are talking about leadership, communication, and time management, and this means they can be more difficult to assess.
However, while hard skills training is key to getting employees up to speed on processes and systems used, soft skills training is fundamental in helping create new habits and can significantly improve an individual’s overall performance.
5. Extending the learning 
The shift to remote learning has presented an opportunity for businesses to revive and refresh their approach to development. You can use different forms of media to engage with delegates both before, during, and after a training session. Think about how they are taking this knowledge in and how they can implement it into their role. How can learning be extended beyond that one training session?
While these five keys can be applied generally, there is often concern that remote training can’t work for various reasons. Certain types of training lessons require wholesale changes to adapt them to a remote setting. To figure out how best to redesign, you must ask two questions: “What is the learning outcome we are aiming for?” and “How can we make this as engaging as possible and as close as possible to participants’ daily activities?”
McKinsey isolated six misconceptions about remote training and clarified them.
Misconception #1: People must learn by doing, which can only happen in person.
There’s no question that for adults, learning by doing beats learning by listening alone. Adults can recall almost seven times more content by doing than listening. However, a good deal of the simulations and interactions that make in-person learning valuable can be recreated through internet-based videoconferencing.
Web-based videoconference applications—with their screen-sharing, whiteboards for collaborating, annotation functions, group chat, and breakout rooms—allow people to carry out realistic learn-by-doing tasks in group settings that heighten engagement and reinforce skill retention.
Misconception #2: Intensive, immersive learning experiences are hard to create through a computer screen. Physical meetings offsite may have an advantage—no barking dogs or other home distractions—but through careful design, companies can achieve strong engagement levels that foster intensive learning in a virtual setting. And, yes, videoconferencing fatigue can be a real occupational hazard in the COVID-19 era, but that is no reason to abandon intensive learning sessions.
To start with, be mindful of the flow of a course. Vary the pace. Alternate between passive and active participation; for example, instead of clustering exercises, scatter them throughout. Break up presentations; ask questions through the chat function; use on-screen annotation and the whiteboard just as you would use a flip chart or sticky notes on a wall. The goal is to reach participants through as many human senses as possible.
It’s also important to alternate facilitators, in order to provide (or elicit) varied perspectives (including from peers who have already gone through the learning journey), and to prevent monotony. Different voices and delivery styles change the energy level and help maintain engagement, especially with content-heavy courses.
The more that people participate, the more immersive the experience can be. Inviting discussions and questions is important. Initially, participants may hesitate to join in, but by crowdsourcing responses (via polls and whiteboards) you can break the ice.
Misconception #3: With remote learning you can’t simulate a risk-free environment, which is essential for learning from mistakes. Simulations allow participants to comfortably make mistakes without risk and, indeed, it is possible to create simulations in a remote environment.
Perhaps the best example is in flight training where simulators are used for pilots. By setting up a realistic environment and realistic situations that resemble day-to-day work, participants are better prepared to respond effectively on the job and when back in the real world.
Virtual learning, with realtime and interactive videoconferencing capability, is the next best thing. Participants can engage virtually with the facilitator or instructor, interacting with operators and with each other through the platform tools such as annotations, whiteboards, and post-its.
Misconception #4: Collaborative learning can only really happen when people are in the same room. Collaborative learning offers many proven benefits and people can collaborate when physically separate and in different time zones—and even at different times, where they work at their own pace.
The creative use of technology and careful course design can go a long way toward fostering a social, collaborative experience remotely. In fact, remote courses offer an advantage over in-person learning: people who are less comfortable with public speaking or group activities—or who may be wary about broaching a sensitive but important issue—may be more comfortable participating at a distance.
Indeed, once companies experience the benefits of remote learning programs, they may see the value of combining remote and in-person workshops after the pandemic winds down. By encouraging lively interaction during training, companies can foster strong remote communities that continue past the training program.
Misconception #5: You can’t effectively practice and reinforce lessons remotely. Practicing lessons—at progressively more difficult levels—and providing feedback is at least as effective via remote learning, and possibly even more so.
Research shows that breaking up extended learning sessions into increasingly challenging modules enables better retention. Moreover, learning that is spread out over several weeks or months, where the content is repeated in different contexts, has higher retention rates.
Remote learning allows companies to confine sessions to more digestible three- to four-hour blocks, a practice that doesn’t sap people’s energy, attention, or retention levels and that minimizes work disruptions. Companies can combine facilitated courses with self-paced modules for the entire learning journey.
Misconception #6: Motivating people to learn and change is hard and harder still without the behavioral influences and context of the conventional work environment. However, people will willingly engage when they believe the program is relevant to them personally, will fulfill their needs, and will enhance their self-confidence—regardless of how it is delivered.
We know that learning programs that confer autonomy and give people the wherewithal to sense their progress—through personalization, assessment, and self-inquiry—build motivation and ultimately have more impact. But it’s not enough to embed motivation and mind-set elements into the programs; these elements must also figure into the design of the steps participants will carry out after the course.
For example, at the beginning of a remote leadership-training program, participants wrote down their reflections on each program topic, noting how they wished to use the tools to become better leaders. At the end of the program, these statements were returned to participants so that they could write a personal “vision statement.” In this way, each participant left the training with a tailored action plan for how they would incorporate the tools they had learned into their normal routine.
Digital adoption platforms or solutions have the purpose of guiding a company through digital transformation, the use of new technology to meet a company goal. This type of software should integrate with the web-based applications that employees use daily and should help guide workers through any new processes in real time.
While remote learning may seem like it is only good for “soft” or office skills, digital transformation, and project management, that’s not the reality as many unions can affirm. Take the IBEW and its JATC (Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee). Virtual learning has been making inroads at many JATC training sites for several years.
Increasingly, apprentices work on real-world simulations looking at a computer screen, often modeled with situations seen on a jobsite. What began to change recently, however, was how remote learning had become so advanced that many instructors could work with apprentices without them even coming into the training center. They could stay home in front of a computer and learn the skills of the trade while getting feedback from an instructor—who could be across the street or hundreds or thousands of miles away.
“We had started in the last couple of years to move our curriculum over to computer-mediated learning,” notes Todd Stafford, executive director of the Electrical Training ALLIANCE, the educational partnership between the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Assn. “The idea is to use the hours at the JATC as hands-on training as opposed to lecture-based training. It makes it a better learning experience for the apprentice. He or she can go back and review content, lecture materials, all the different tools, and a student can see it and view it multiple times.”
The transition to distance learning was well underway at places like Pocatello, Idaho, Local 449, which draws apprentices from all over the state. Now, apprentices don’t always have to drive several hours to attend class, especially after a long day on the job.
For San Francisco Local 6, the challenge is different. About 440 apprentices were taking classes in its training center, a former Catholic school in the heart of the city, when the pandemic struck. Space was at a premium and holding classes while following social distance guidelines was impractical. Moving them outside—as some local training centers did—was impossible because there was just a small parking lot.
That forced the training director and an instructor at the training center to become proficient in Zoom videoconferencing. They also installed Enos interactive whiteboards with overhead projectors, which allowed instructors to observe and grade apprentices on various tasks, whether it was bending pipe or working with conduit.
Even the best infectious disease experts have a hard time predicting how long the pandemic will last. That makes predicting the impact it will have on construction and apprenticeship education difficult. Many instructors, however, believe virtual learning will increase due to the pandemic and the aftermath. That’s good in one sense because it will increase time apprentices can take part in hands-on work by reducing the lecture time to remote access.
Other organizations are ready with advice and material. NCCER, the National Center for Construction Education and Research, is a not-for-profit education foundation created to develop standardized construction and maintenance curricula and assessments with portable, industry-recognized credentials including transcripts, certificates, and wallet cards that are tracked through NCCER’s National Registry. NCCER develops training in more than 60 craft areas, offers more than 70 assessment exams, and has more than 4,000 training locations.
NCCERconnect provides instructors with a full suite of course management features including email and chat features, document uploading, and announcements. Instructors can create their own tests in a variety of styles or choose from multiple-choice, true/false, matching, fill-in-the-blank, and many other templates and styles.
And even the government gets involved in distance learning for construction professionals. The OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Admin.), in cooperation with the American Safety Council, offers several training programs that teach basic safety and health information to entry-level workers in construction as part of the OSHA Outreach Training Program.
The 100% online OSHA-authorized courses provide 24/7 access to vital workplace safety training. Enrollees can complete the course at their own pace and earn an official OSHA from the U.S. DOL (Dept. of Labor) — a common requirement for employment in construction.
OSHA 10-hour construction training is appropriate for workers who perform new construction, alterations, or repairs. OSHA 30-Hour training is appropriate for supervisors and workers with some safety responsibilities.
While most distance training is focused on computer-access to the internet, more advanced technologies can also come into play. The adoption of digital tools including AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) can accelerate the digital transformation journey. According to ABI Research’s Virtual Workforces: Recruitment, Hiring, and Training using AR and VR report, by 2025 there will be close to 60 million active users of AR for expertise and training applications across various verticals, such as AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction).
Other technology areas will also bring opportunity: advancements in AI will empower AR/VR learning and training, with more accurate data analysis and insightful metrics regarding user’s performance, skills, and behavior. 5G will also bring greater connectivity to both AR/VR and mobile devices, keeping users connected to high-quality networks when required.
According to Italian firm Kiber, with the rapid rise in the number of users of digital devices, many of those users already have AR-ready devices and in some cases are already familiar with the world of augmented reality through apps that are available to the general public.
For example, if training is required to operate machinery where error could be costly, the ability to use remote training using 3D objects in AR makes for a safe and cost-effective alternative. This allows the user to obtain maximum experience and competency before using these skills out in the field.
Remote training using AR training apps provides companies with the ability to provide training and employee development anywhere in the world or, in the case of construction, in various locations within a city or across states. As most apps use virtual assistance, training apps can use the same technology to provide virtual trainers out in the field.
The ability to provide training for employee’s off-site and yet in a virtual environment mirroring the work environment is particularly good for those working in the oil, gas, and nuclear industries where one mistake has the potential for a huge disaster.
While employees are returning to offices, warehouses, jobsites, and all other locations, remote work and remote learning will continue to offer benefits, both to the worker and to the company. Learning from those who have been teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic will make the internal trainer a better teacher. Remember, it’s not all technology, apps, and Zoom that make digital training successful; it’s the plan, approach, and execution of the program.