Well, the 2022 ATD International Conference & Exposition is a wrap, and this gathering of around 8,500 talent development professionals (comprising in-person attendees in Orlando, Florida and virtual attendees globally) was certainly one to remember. As I reflected on these three days in mid-May, I was struck by the parallels between the conference and what we are seeing in client workplaces and learning experiences. So, I wanted to share some realizations and lessons learned during the course of this three-day experience—as well as what it means for talent development professionals.

It’s so, so good to reconnect in person.

I work from home and, despite spending many years as a frequent flyer, hadn’t traveled in over two years. Suffice it to say I was ready for some face-to-face interaction, and I know I wasn’t alone! I heard so many stories of colleagues who had never met or hadn’t seen each other in over two years. I myself met in person with colleagues and clients whom I’d only ever seen previously via Teams meetings. I reconnected with former classmates and coworkers, and even met some favorite authors and thought leaders. However, the impact of COVID was still present: many still wore masks, on-site testing was available, and hand sanitizer was a hot giveaway item in the expo hall.

Implications for talent development: If possible and safe, consider an in-person gathering and maximize every moment. In doing so, however, consider the possible risks related to COVID exposure and outbreak and how the virus has changed the way we connect with others. Be respectful of the needs and preferences of others when it comes to health and wellness protocols.

And yet … Hybrid is the new reality.

Reduced in-person attendance and a strong showing for the virtual option mirror what we’re seeing in work environments. It was almost as if two parallel events were happening at once. Virtual and on-site attendees were linked through hashtags, video feeds, and a conference app—allowing us to share the experience simultaneously. The technology that enabled the virtual experience also adds value to me as an in-person attendee. In the past, if there were two sessions I wanted to attend scheduled for the same time, the best I could do was divide and conquer with a colleague then share notes afterwards. With slide share and on-demand recorded sessions, I’ve been able to extend my conference experience by catching up on what I wasn’t able to attend live while in Orlando.

ATD social media posts during the conference were intentionally inclusive of virtual attendees.

Implications for talent development: What are we doing to create effective hybrid learning experiences for those who travel and those who don’t? Is the experience equitable, and is that even a realistic goal? How are we using technology to elevate and enhance our learning experiences—yet, how can we be sure we aren’t leaning on it too heavily?

Inspiration abounds both inside and outside of our field.

Whether it’s flipping your script to overcome failure like Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, or incorporating mindfulness practices like author and former monk, Jay Shetty, many transferable practices and behaviors were shared that can impact learners and talent development professionals. I certainly felt inspired and appreciated the reminder that professionally applicable insights exist in many areas of life and work that I hadn’t previously considered.

Implications for talent development: Can we sometimes be too insular, taking lessons only from those within our field? How can we continue learning from other fields? What can we do to translate lessons into actionable practices for ourselves and our learners?

Investing in yourself is critical.

As talent development professionals, we often give our all investing time and effort in others—but not so much in ourselves. It was uncomfortable to leave my day-to-day work behind for a few days, and coordinating work coverage, childcare, and home logistics was no easy feat. But I’m so happy to have had the time and space to learn, connect, and share. I returned to work a bit tired but reinvigorated and inspired. Now the challenge, just like many of our learning experiences, comes in ensuring we apply that motivation to our day-to-day work.

Implications for talent development: Have you filled your own cup lately? What have you done recently to develop, challenge, or educate yourself? How can we keep learning and motivation alive after inspiring experiences?

It’s important to have fun.

Plinko in the expo hall. Informal team dinners. Networking happy hours. Even a day trip to Universal Studios. No, I’m not trying to make anyone envious, but the fun side of ATD22 definitely added to the experience. On a personal level, seeing people outside the usual business setting helped us get to know each other better and deepened existing connections. I definitely worked hard and learned a lot while I was away, but the ability to decompress and build relationships in the process was a huge bonus.

Implications for talent development: Informal experiences matter. What fun can we build into our events and our day-to-day work environment? How can we infuse some lightness and connection into our learning experiences?

Take a moment to reflect.

When you invest the time and effort to take part in a conference or multiday learning experience, it’s so easy to fly home and immediately dive back into your normal routine, addressing your neglected inbox and playing catch-up. Heck, that’s what I did. But at some point (the sooner, the better), you have to make time to give thought to your experience: appreciate how out of the norm it was and what inspired you, and note which aspects you want to start incorporating into your own work moving forward. That simple practice of reflection will carry you through to the next big event—and make your work life better in the meantime.

In the early parts of 2020, companies around the world had to rapidly shift their training plans away from in-person delivery, and some had to abandon plans altogether. Whether part of an existing plan that needed to be escalated or a brand-new plan, the learning industry grappled with enthusiastic and skeptical questions about the efficacy of 100% virtual learning. Can the virtual learning experience be engaging? Are people going to tune in and tune out? And in hindsight, what have those teams learned?

From both learners and developers alike, a majority of the stories are positive. Many companies and learning teams were surprised by the ways training could be delivered, by the way skills could be practiced, and by how technology could facilitate some of those practices.

As companies begin the return to in-person training, business and learning leaders need to incorporate lessons learned from virtual programs of the past two years.

In-Person Training vs. Virtual: The Battle of Benefit

As in-person training programs begin to reappear, the question most companies are asking themselves is how it compares to virtual training?

In-person training usually requires bringing a group physically together and pulling them offline, often multiple days at a time, and that system has worked well. These types of programs have since been separated into segmented virtual sessions, offered in smaller chunks of time, and can be less disruptive to the business environment and day-to-day needs.

Even though this approach has benefits for busy work schedules, shortening attention spans, and logistics budgeting, there is still an important need for in-person training. When learning new concepts and processes, there seems to be something magical about bringing people together to share the same physical time and space.

And people still crave in-person experiences. In some of our evaluations at GP Strategies, we’ve received feedback that various virtual learning programs were excellent, but the participants also wished they were offered in-person sessions. Learners still crave the informal learning experiences and connections that come with in-person training.

There are priceless moments of learning instructional designers can’t plan for, such as when participants are sharing a cup of coffee or heading to a meal after hours. The connections made can translate to coaching and mentoring moments or building a professional in-house network for future troubleshooting and ideation.

In short, virtual training does certain things very well, and in-person training does too. It’s now time for learning teams to examine the benefits of both and develop criteria for the right blend and when to use them.

Balancing Cost and Value

The cost for virtual training can be lower than in-person training in many cases, but it’s important to consider the concept of cost and value. In-person training can incur costs associated with bringing people together, from the logistics of travel to lodging, food, and time away from their duties. But it can be argued there is a value of bringing people together.

As an example, one of GP’s customers had teams that had never met each other in person because they were all hired within the past two years. GP delivered a cohort-based learning program over a few months. Bringing them together helped to amplify their learning experiences and build interpersonal connections. It also built rapport, relationships, and positive experiences within the company culture that continued throughout their learning experience.

It’s also important to understand that each company is different. Some companies and industries are more on-site-based than others, and in those situations, a fully digital or virtual solution may end up costing more because the technological capabilities don’t exist.

What Learners Need

Instructional designers need to keep the learner at the heart of every program and module. At the moment, learner needs and preferences differ greatly. The learning industry is entering an era of great capabilities and opportunities, but people have been impacted in vastly different ways. Instructional designers and business leaders need to understand that not all learners and not all people are ready to return to in-person experiences. They may not be comfortable, they may not be able to, or they may have a situation going on both in and outside of work which may impact their willingness or ability to participate in an in-person training experience.

Learning and business leaders need to be mindful of these situations and think about ways to be more inclusive in those experiences. When designing training experiences and bringing people together, it’s critical to be as safe and practical as possible in the classroom. This may include distancing, minimizing the use of shared materials such as whiteboard markers, and being considerate.

Leaders also need to consider ideas for virtual participants to be included in those experiences, such as having one or more cameras on the facilitator and in turn having the facilitator be mindful of those cameras.

Facilitating Hybrid Learning Experiences

Learning leaders need to examine their facilitator pool because it has most likely changed in the last two years. Like participants, facilitators are at different points in their journey in their comfort level and their willingness and ability to travel and come back from their pivot to virtual training delivery.

Virtual facilitation and in-person facilitation are similar in some ways, but also require distinct skillsets. Some facilitators were adept at making the shift to virtual learning while others are leaping at the opportunity to go back to in-person learning. It’s up to the organization to recognize that and structure their facilitator pool around those mindsets.

Planning for In-Person Training Events

When planning for in-person training events, there is local variability when it comes to COVID-19. Rates of infection are different, and the rules and regulations have varying requirements. Learning leaders must be aware of those differences in where people are coming from and going. If the venue is off-site, there may be additional rules as well. Also, airlines may have an increased number of delays and cancellations.

These protocols and other variables add an extra layer of logistics for training coordinators. Learning leaders need to build an agile and flexible mindset into training events.

A Transitional Period for In-Person Training

The learning industry is in a transitional period and one that will fluctuate. Learning leaders need to cultivate an experience that is inclusive and build flexibility into learning programs for a large variety of mindsets, comfort levels, and logistical challenges. Creating a safe work environment with built-in flexibility for both participants and facilitators is crucial for success during the transition.

Recent research from GP Strategies identified communication as one of the critical stumbling blocks of leaders, and one of the factors most directly attributable to leadership success.

Today’s increasingly remote and hybrid workplaces make effective communication skills more important than ever. When time and distance separate employees and their leaders, it can be more challenging to build and maintain trust. Key managerial tasks like delegation and giving feedback are often more complex. Critical conversations related to performance, career development, and engagement tend to look different—if they’re happening at all. And not addressing those potential pitfalls can come at a high cost—from lack of morale to diminished trust to staff turnover.

Thankfully, our research and practice indicate it’s not necessarily that managers need different communication skills to thrive in a hybrid environment, but rather a nuanced application of those skills which takes into account the shifting situational context. Those nuances include leaders demonstrating increased empathy, equity, intentionality, and clarity in their communication.

Empathy

Being a great leader has always required an understanding of self and others. But the events of 2020 brought an increased focus on holistic wellness and unblurring the lines between work and home lives. As a result, leaders need to demonstrate increased empathy, both as they speak and as they listen to their employees. Give grace when allowable and provide time and space for small talk and celebrations, both in and out of the office setting. From acknowledging milestones like work anniversaries and birthdays to checking in on weekend plans, taking time to connect on a human level builds the trust, psychological safety, and connection that are critical for sustained team success.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for empathy include:

  • Do I have an understanding of the benefits and drawbacks to each employee’s work setup and situation?
  • Am I balancing the need to get things done with the human needs of my employees?
  • Have I checked in on my team members outside of just their work contributions?

Equity

Having employees working in different physical settings can create inequity on a variety of levels. In leading your team, tap into your inclusive mindset as you strive for equity in opportunity (including stretch assignments and career development opportunities), participation (having visibility and a voice) and the sharing of resources and information. With remote employees, be sure you are creating opportunities to get the same “small talk” benefits as those you see in person more often. As a leader, your work to ensure equity is critical—it sets the framework for the trust and psychological safety needed for relationships and teams to thrive.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for equity include:

  • Am I aware of all available technology to assist with creating a level playing field with my team?
  • Do I share the same information with team members, regardless of where they are located?
  • Is there equitable acknowledgment of milestones, accomplishments, and occasions, regardless of where my team is located?
  • When meeting with my team, is there balance between who is speaking/not speaking? Does the physical setup provide advantages to some and not others?

Intentionality

Great communication in the hybrid world requires leaders to apply intention in terms of how, what, and when they communicate. In our virtual communication course, we give leaders four main tips in this area: to open up, be transparent, mind their modality, and multi-task with care. Opening up means taking the time to share more about yourself—who you are, what you value, and your life outside of work. Transparency comes into play when communicating context and rationale, often behind changes or decisions, which can help build more buy-in and support. Being intentional about modality is important because, depending on the message, it may be delivered more effectively in certain methods than others. Finally, being intentionally mindful and focused on the task or conversation at hand can be hugely beneficial in building trusted relationships with your team members.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for intentionality include:

  • Have I given thought to how, why, and when I am communicating with my team?
  • Am I utilizing the proper modality for the message being communicated?
  • Do I prioritize synchronous touchpoints with my team whenever I can?
  • Am I tuning out distraction as I interface with my team members?

Clarity

When you don’t have the luxury of seeing your team members every day, clarity is key. As a leader, you can mitigate misunderstandings and maintain morale through being clear in the messages you are delivering, as well as the channels you choose for delivery. It is critically important for leaders of hybrid teams to be clear about individual and team goals and objectives, to link the team’s goals to the larger organizational strategy, and to explicitly state culture and expectations. Checking for understanding of these key elements is an important step for leaders to take so that they can ensure their team is on the same page.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for clarity include:

  • Do I have a consistent communication schedule with my team?
  • Does each person understand their specific role on the team?
  • Is there a consistent and accessible source for key foundational documents and information?
  • Have I created an environment where team members can seek clarity if it is not provided?

While it’s true that the shift to hybrid work has created challenges for leaders, when it comes to communication, those challenges are easily addressed. Remember, it’s not necessarily about developing and deploying new communication skills, but rather, the nuanced application of existing skills. If leaders apply empathy, equity, clarity, and intentionality in their communication, they will set the stage for successful working relationships in the hybrid world of work—now and in the future.