Being Prepared in a Virtual World

Maintain your organization’s preparedness during COVID-19 by training in an online environment

By David Waldman and Nick Matthews

Virtual training and exercises are valuable tools for weathering this crisis and preparing for future ones.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, organizations must take time to think about how they will train and test staff in a virtual environment. Many organizations are revising current plans and developing new policies and procedures, all while trying to gauge what the “new normal” will look like. The time to plan for a return to “normal operations” must happen now. But once you develop or revise these plans, how do you communicate these changes with your staff? How do you train staff now so when your office reopens your staff is ready to work on the first day back?

Moreover, many organizations are considering, or certainly should consider, what happens if they must deal with more than just COVID-19. What if we must react to another major issue during the response to this pandemic? Hurricane season is just around the corner. What happens if we experience a major earthquake or other severe storms that cause tornadoes or flooding? Are we prepared to address multiple issues at the same time from dispersed locations?

Now more than ever, it is critical that organizations invest time to plan for what comes next. How you train, test, and evaluate your organization’s ability to address mission-critical tasks can directly impact your financial bottom line. Rigorous training and exercise programs are often indicators of a mature organization’s preparedness posture. The unprecedented global impact of COVID-19 only reinforces the need to examine and refine how your organization responds to and recovers from any type of emergency or potential disruption to your organization’s operations.

Working in a remote environment, along with the prolonged duration of this crisis, should not be viewed as a barrier to continuing your training and exercise program. Now is the time for organizations to consider a mounting list of questions.

Does your organization have the knowledge, resources, and leadership to recover from the current state of affairs? How and for how long can your organization continue to maintain business operations during this crisis? How does a dispersed workforce impact your ability to successfully meet your organization’s responsibilities and goals? These are complex questions and understanding the answer to each one is vital to your organization’s success in this environment. Your organization’s training and exercise programs are powerful tools for ensuring your workforce is equipped with the knowledge to effectively respond to this crisis, understand how your organization can recover and return to normal business operations, and examine relevant questions for any type of scenario.

Training and exercise activities range widely in scale, scope, and complexity. All elements of an in person event cannot be fully and faithfully replicated in a virtual environment. For example, a full scale or functional exercise that requires in-person, physical gathering, actions, and movements may be difficult to emulate virtually. But training sessions, practice drills, facilitated discussions, workshops, tabletop exercises, rehearsals of concepts, and even certain aspects of a functional exercise can be very effectively adapted and successfully executed in a virtual setting.

With an understanding of available virtual meeting technology and some considerations for building an effective online learning environment, your organization will be better prepared to handle this emergency and any that come after it.

Considerations for conducting an effective virtual training and exercise program.

Successful training and exercise events always require thoughtful planning. A virtual environment is no different. Trainers and planners must understand technology—take advantage of it, not fight it—to create effective learning environments. The following suggestions and considerations can help your organization apply remote meeting technology to advance its training and exercise program in these changing times.

Create an Effective Online Learning Environment

Creating a setting where your participants feel engaged has always been an important aspect of designing any training or exercise. When participants are joining remotely, it is even easier for everyday distractions to disrupt their attention. These few simple things can foster an intent and receptive audience during your virtual training and exercise event.

  1. Focus on maintaining the attention of your participants: Active participation in your training or exercise event doesn’t just happen. It must be considered from the very beginning of the design process. Recognize that an already short attention span will be even shorter in a virtual environment. Be cognizant of the myriad distractions presented by working at home and incorporate elements that force players to come off mute. Don’t be afraid to call on participants to bring everyone into the conversation. Minimize the time a facilitator speaks—spend less time facilitating and going over slides and more time in collaborative discussions, activities, and multimedia. Well before the event, provide detailed materials about the topic and set expectations for review, preparation, and conduct. This saves time on introductions—and also respects the player’s time—so everyone is productive.
  2. Use a dynamic agenda: Craft an agenda that mixes discussion with activities. Perhaps begin with a succinct introduction. Then introduce some topics through multimedia, facilitate an interactive discussion, and work through an interactive activity all in short order. Deliberate pivots in the agenda encourage active participation. These rapid-fire sessions—known as “chunks” in the online learning community—can be very effective in maintaining the participant’s attention.
  3. Encourage the use of web cameras: Being able to see the facilitator and the other exercise players creates a more personal experience and leads to greater engagement. Broadcasting live can also help keep your audience focused and reduce any tendency to multitask.
  4. Use multimedia and other interactive elements: The use of engaging videos is a great alternative to lengthy presentations. If videos are not available, consider using other collaborative elements, such as interactive polling, to keep players active and engaged. Encourage chat functions in the virtual meeting platform, if available, as a secondary channel for discussion, feedback, and active input during your training or exercise event.
  5. Consider the length of your virtual training or exercise events: What may be an appropriate length of an in-person course or exercise might not work in a virtual format. Consider limiting events to no more than half a day. Plan for breaks and conduct interactive sessions. These considerations will ultimately result in more information being retained.

Rehearse logistics, contingencies, and meeting platform configuration

Training and exercises have been characterized as half creative design and half wedding planning. Taking care of the logistical elements of an exercise is key to a smoothly run event. The most well-designed and facilitated event can easily be derailed if the logistical details are not adequately addressed.

  1. Attendee management: Some exercises examine sensitive information. How will you ensure only the appropriate individuals are present in your virtual room? Do you have the ability to kick out individuals who should not be present?
  2. Background setup: Is the camera on you? Many articles about today’s telework environment detail various ways to adjust your web camera, declutter your background, and use proper lighting to make your screen as professional as possible. Are you sharing information on your screen? Ensure only relevant material is loaded before your group sees your screen. Participants will perceive greater professionalism of your event when you consider details that improve the viewing experience.
  3. Rehearsals: An experienced facilitator understands how to manage a room. In a virtual environment, it is equally important that a facilitator or moderator understand how to use the technology platform and its different features. Are you switching between a presentation, your video camera, and a video? Test the technology ahead of time and make sure you are comfortable making the transition to the next part of the exercise. Practice dry runs so the event runs smoothly and professionally and is considerate of everyone’s time.
  4. Plan for the unexpected: Think through different contingency plans because any number of technical difficulties could arise when conducting a virtual exercise. Consider having a “MiFi or hotspot” available should your internet connection be disrupted. Are you having multiple speakers present during the event? Make plans for what to do if a presenter gets disconnected, such as having a two- to three-minute video on standby. Some platforms include a phone bridge, which may be interrupted if the host platform loses connectivity. Consider having a stand-alone or backup phone bridge so discussions can continue. Make sure you have thought through the different possibilities so you can readily adapt and overcome these challenges and continue presenting.

Considerations for choosing a virtual meeting technology

Dozens of technology solutions allow you to conduct your training or exercise event in a virtual environment. Understanding your organization’s information technology environment and the functionality you require will help in selecting the best options.

Consider security risks

Training and exercises often examine sensitive or even business-confidential topics. As with implementing any information technology, ensuring the security of networks and data is critical. It is always a good practice to engage your information technology staff as early as possible. Share your vision and plan for using virtual events so they can help resolve any decisions from a technology and risk perspective. Understand what resources are available to help your organization become more informed on the latest cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and other agencies often post bulletins highlighting security risks and vulnerabilities.

Consider the features necessary to make your training or exercise event successful

As mentioned above, creating an interactive environment helps foster a more dynamic experience for your participants. When selecting a technology solution, consider which features would help you achieve your goals for these events. These are just a few of the features often found in virtual meeting technology that could help inform your selection of the right platform.

  1. Bandwidth and Capacity: How many individuals will likely participate in your event? Some technology solutions have limits on the number of attendees in a given virtual room. Make sure you understand these and other bandwidth limitations when researching different solutions.
  2. Administrative Features: Compile a comprehensive set of room administrator functions so you can monitor and control the event for any potential disruptions. As we know from large conference calls, it takes only one person not muting their phone to derail a meeting. Many technology solutions allow you to mute the entire room and mute individuals, a necessity for effectively running a virtual event. Will you have multiple presenters in different locations? Some platforms also come with multiple meeting codes or PINs. While your players receive a generic meeting code, moderator or presenter codes allow you to give select individuals different administrative rights. Other helpful administrative features include pulling meeting metrics, such as the total number of attendees, posting documents, and removing unwanted attendees from the meeting. Brainstorm with your team to designate the most important features to run a productive and efficient virtual event.
  3. Platform Functions: Virtual training and exercises are much more than a remote meeting. Consider which functions in a technology solution allow you to create dynamic learning environments. Though chat and file share functions are universal on most platforms, consider other features your event requires. Some platforms have built-in recording functions so you can share your exercise with others. Others have built-in polling functions to add an interactive element to your virtual event. A few technologies even allow you to move participants into different breakout groups.

The many benefits provided by virtual training and exercises

Through training, exercises, and crisis simulations, organizations can unlock their ability to think creatively and resolve complex challenges. Implementing a plan for conducting your training and exercise events in a virtual environment offers many benefits.

  • Flexibility: Finding a time and place that works for everyone has always been a challenge when scheduling a training or exercise event. It’s often easier to arrange an accommodating time in a virtual environment.
  • Cost Savings: Without the need for conference space or other amenities necessary for in-person events, virtual training and exercise events offer cost efficiencies. Eliminating travel time and other costs create further savings.
  • Inclusiveness: The size of in-person training and exercise events are often limited by a room’s seating capacity. Conducting virtual events allows organizations to offer training and exercise programs to a large audience, particularly advantageous if staff is geographically dispersed.

Working in a remote environment does not have to put a stop to your training and exercise program. Virtual training and exercises means your organization can continue to be prepared and to train and test your plans and staff even under the remote work conditions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Organizations have a fiduciary responsibility to their staff, clients, fan base, vendors, partners, and investors to plan and prepare now for getting the economy open for business. A virtual training and exercise program is but one facet that will help shorten the timeframe for getting business operations and our lives back to some semblance of normalcy in the fastest manner possible.

If you’re interested in exploring virtual training options for your organization, please reach out to us.

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