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Delivering quality and value from hybrid learning

By Dr David Mathew
20 December 2021

Leadership training should be a priority, especially now, and can be delivered in a vibrant and effective way as a hybrid between virtual and face to face sessions, says Dr David Mathew, Learning and Development Manager at NHS Arden & GEM Commissioning Support Unit

Leadership skills are in high demand in the NHS. The combination of challenges facing new and existing leaders includes building teams and managing people effectively in a new world of hybrid working, as well as developing the partnership working skills required to contribute effectively to Integrated Care Systems. Alongside these issues, we must continue to support teams through a highly pressured and emotionally demanding pandemic.

Traditionally, we would deliver this type of training in person – much of what we’re looking to do is develop interpersonal skills while gaining practical knowledge, and what better way to build partnerships than by getting everyone in the same room?

In-person training allows both trainer and participants to learn about and respond to body language, as well as what’s being said. Refreshment breaks have also traditionally allowed people to build relationships informally – an important part of the overall learning experience. How do we bridge those gaps when working online?

Making virtual training work well

Despite all the benefits of online meetings, it’s fairly common to hear people say ‘It’s not the same’ as meeting face to face. When it comes to training, it may not be the same – but it does need to be as good.

There are lots of technology solutions to aid this, such as breakout rooms and online whiteboards, but there are fundamental aspects we need to get right to ensure the online training experience is as effective as the face-to-face alternative.

To achieve this, we should:

  • Treat each session as the equivalent of a face-to-face workshop and make the environment as close to that as we can, rather than a substitute for it. Whether the trainer or the delegate, we need the same commitment, energy and ambition that we would bring if turning up to a venue.
  • Start a couple of minutes later than scheduled to allow people to join. Get everyone involved as early as possible and greet each individual as they join. Invite people to participate – it is their input that means no two workshops are the same – the session they attend will be unique to them.
  • Apply core presentation skills. Keep slide content to a minimum, release points one at a time and punctuate with questions and provocations.
  • Be aware of the technology available, but not driven by it. Just because we can record a session, doesn’t mean we should. What purpose would a recording serve and how likely is it that it will reduce some people’s willingness to participate? Similarly, a delegate with the camera off isn’t necessarily disengaged – allowing people to participate on their own terms at the outset can lead to richer conversations as sessions move forward.

We’ve witnessed strong engagement and positive feedback across a wide range of training using these techniques. However, there is no substitute for having an interesting topic. Whether face-to-face or online, identifying subjects that resonate, and preparing quality, audience-focused content will spark interest and participation.

Maximising engagement

Virtual learning does have limitations when it comes to body language – and the absence of nods and murmurs of agreement can create a more sterile environment. But there are other ways to encourage participation, particularly when combined with offline techniques. For example, during the wellbeing training we run for various NHS organisations, we encourage participants to record their responses to the various discussion points in an offline journal. We saw real value in bringing into our online sessions some of the well-documented benefits of journaling to help frontline staff protect their mental health during the pandemic.

Similarly, our leadership training combines traditional offline and self-directed learning techniques with virtual training. This sees participants complete a personality profile, work on a leadership project and present that back via MS Teams to colleagues across the organisation.

Taking a hybrid approach builds on the success of traditional learning and development techniques, while removing some of the time and cost barriers that can impede training. In our experience, virtual sessions facilitate relationship building across multi-site organisations and across partnerships, which is becoming increasingly important as clinical commissioning groups merge and system-wide working expands.

Is hybrid training the answer?

Delivering – and attending – virtual training is here to stay, and not just during the pandemic. In the same way that organisations have woken up to the benefits of flexible and remote working over the past 18 months, we can all see benefits from virtual training. We can bring people together across multiple sites and build relationships beyond organisational boundaries much more efficiently. As place-based and system-wide working grows, this flexibility will aid much needed partnership working.

But the real strength lies in being able to combine techniques – whether that is offline, self-directed learning or punctuating virtual courses with occasional face-to-face sessions – recognising that we all learn in different ways. By approaching online learning with the same preparation, energy and courtesies, and drawing on tried and tested training and workshop techniques, the ultimate aim is that the value derived from a session is equally high, whether delivered virtually or in-person.

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