Ten Best Practices to Empower Virtual Learning

September 28, 2020

Before COVID-19, I was one of those people. I was resolute that most innovation teamwork could not be accomplished using a virtual platform (whether Zoom, WebEx, Hangouts, or something else entirely). I had definite ideas about the topic that I gently imparted to clients and colleagues, principled in my knowledge of how virtual teams work. All that changed with the global pandemic.

As every innovator knows, the COVID-19 pandemic changed every aspect of facilitating innovation teams, forcing us all to go virtual. The conversion from 100 percent in-person work to 100 percent virtual work happened for me in a time-starved, 12-week period earlier this year.

From my intense and successful experience, I offer 10 lessons for facilitating virtual innovation teams.

1. Innovate Every Aspect

You can’t get there from here. I saw so many facilitators and instructors take their in-person content and just record a video of it. It wasn’t terrific. Rethink every aspect of the content and how you will deliver it. Some information can be time-optimized by moving it to eLearning. The rest of your content can be candidates for innovative delivery techniques that make the most of your virtual platform.

For example, use your time during a virtual event to introduce or recap content, and then use varied participation techniques to enable dialogue in small groups. For virtual breakouts, give participants a clear, straightforward question to answer, and post the question in the chat so they can refer back to it while in their breakout room. Set a time limit of about 20 minutes for breakouts. If, as a facilitator, you wish to visit breakout rooms, let participants know so they won’t be startled when your head pops up in their room!

2. Use It All

Learn and practice all of the tools at your disposal from your chosen virtual platform. Whatever platform you use, spend time getting to know all that it is capable of, even the functions that you don’t think you will use. As an example, we stumbled on the ability to change your name below your video frame, and for one breakout, we asked participants to rename themselves based on their customer persona.

3. Find a Virtual DJ (VDJ) 

Get help from a VDJ. You may need to create the role. This person should know the virtual platform inside and out. The VDJ should also be familiar with your content and what you are trying to do. Introduce them as your VDJ and provide them five minutes at the start of each session to explain to participants how the session will work, and how to get help with technical issues during the session.

4. Adjust

It used to be that one hour of workshop time required three hours of prep—or if you are like me, five to eight hours of prep. That ratio is not holding up for virtual events. For a virtual offering, add 30 percent to your standard prep time. Also, think about the duration of each session. I recommend that no session be over two and a half hours, and should include a 15 minute break in the middle. It’s better to break your workshops into several two-hour events rather than host one six-hour slog.

5. Build Layers and Textures

Enliven your delivery methods to include layers and texture—a cadence of breakouts, polls, word clouds, expert keynotes, report outs, and external ideation apps, to name a few. Keep it moving and vary the delivery vehicles. Another thing to consider is how you start meetings, and what is on the screen when you are on break. We often create short videos to play while participants are in the waiting room before the event begins. These can be beautiful pictures with a musical background, cartoons, pictures from the last virtual meeting set to music. We have also created countdown videos to play during breaks. Be creative.

6. Don’t Record Your Workshop

I know it’s hard to buck this trend, but I firmly believe that you should not record innovation sessions. It allows for more freedom of expression. I feel that innovation sessions happen in a sacred time and space; if you weren’t present, watching it on video is not a stand-in for being there. Let people know upfront that the sessions will not be recorded. This creates a safe space that helps you build community. I firmly believe that you should not record innovation sessions. It allows for more freedom of expression.

7. Set Ground Rules

I like to start the session with a couple light ground rules. A few to consider: Keep your video on, mute when we ask you to do so, stay within the frame, don’t multitask, and use your computer rather than a smartphone or tablet.

8. Understand the Chainging Role of the Instructor 

The best part of the participants’ experience will likely come from their work with each other. Your lectures or new information should be minimal. Think of your value-add as how you design the session for optimal interaction and outcomes in a virtual format, how layered and textured you can make the experience, and how to get the post-event content ready for next time.

9. Faciltiate Discussion and Community Building 

One of the critical opportunities for virtual teams is to engage in real discussions, not a virtual staccato of activities. If your design plays out like “Stand up. Sit down. Fight. Fight. Fight,” you might have a problem. There are a few ways you can build community. For example, if all the personal frames fit on one screen, make sure that the team is in the gallery view that allows them to see each other. If only a few people are talking, move the group conversation to the chat feature, and ask everyone to add a short comment. Use their comments as a springboard for discussion.

10. Be Fun and Make Fun!

We are all stressed and out-of-sorts in our COVID-19 world. Until this changes and our stress levels lessen, why not make the virtual innovation experience fun and memorable? Think about how to emit feelings of fun and ease, whether that involves starting with a personal story, having everyone post their baby picture, conducting a poll on everyone’s best quarantine hack, or creating a word cloud using words of encouragement received from your customer-empathy engagements.

I started this essay by saying I was “one of those people.” I had a firm belief that innovation team sessions were not as valuable when using a virtual platform. Then COVID-19 changed everything, and I quickly adjusted my perception of what is possible on a virtual platform. The technology is outpacing our virtual facilitation creativity. We have yet to stretch and bend virtual platform technologies to their most creative heights. Why not use our innovation skills to leapfrog the technology and prepare the workplace for innovation teams in the post-COVID world?


Nancy Tennant is an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She was previously the Chief Innova!on O2cer at Whirlpool Corporation.


This article is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.