Training in the Hybrid World
Interview with Heather Burright
Many nonprofits were forced to move their staff and volunteer training to the virtual environment in 2020. Now, almost two years later, we have an opportunity to reassess what we created and truly leverage the technology to ensure our staff and volunteers have the skills they need to deliver on our mission – even in our hybrid environment. I will walk through a process to help you create more engagement in the virtual room and build momentum with your staff development efforts.
Leveraging 15 years of professional experience, Heather Burright, founder, and CEO of Skill Masters Market, specializes in creating dynamic, people-centric solutions that drive business goals. With her comes expertise in strategies for diversity, equity, and inclusion; instructional design; and change management. She’s dedicated to identifying core competencies that are needed to see real results and to creating the learning strategies and solutions needed to develop those competencies. Most recently, Heather managed a proprietary competency model for YMCA of the USA. She spent countless hours educating and influencing HR leaders across the country, deepening their knowledge of why and how to implement the model.
Prior to her work in a nonprofit, Heather led the way in innovative training design in industries such as for-profit higher education and government agencies.
Heather earned an advanced degree from Jacksonville State University in Alabama.
More about Heather and her work at – https://www.skillmastersmarket.com/
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Hello, everyone. We’re back for another episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. This is Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation, where leaders create synergy through their common vision. We’ve had guests for almost 300 episodes now. Each one of them has a little piece of data that fits into the bigger realm, but every piece is important.
Today’s piece is very important. In 33 years of working with boards and nonprofit teams, there is always conversations about the team. Why aren’t they doing this or that? Let’s come back to that piece. Heather Burright, you are our guest today. Tell us about who you are and why you are doing this work that you’re doing.
Heather Burright: Thanks, Hugh, for having me. My name is Heather Burright. I have about 15 years of experience, a little over, in the learning and development space. Always thinking about the adults in our workspace: our staff, volunteers, and customers in some cases. What do they need in order to do their work well? That’s where my focus has always been and what I have done throughout my career.
I last worked at a national nonprofit where I identified the competencies or skills that people needed to be successful throughout their career. I helped HR leaders across the country hire, onboard, and develop their staff with those particular competencies in mind. We’re being thoughtful and strategic about what skills were needed within that particular organization.
I also create formal and informal staff development opportunities, including virtual training, which I talk a lot about, and I’m sure we’ll hear a lot about today as well. I like to say I was doing virtual training before Zoom was cool. We all use Zoom now. Hugh was just talking about how great it has been over the past two years to be able to jump on Zoom and talk to people in different time zones and connect with people. That wasn’t always the case. We didn’t always use Zoom quite as much as we do today.
I started my own consulting business focused primarily on learning and development and specializing in the virtual classroom a couple of years ago. It’s really important. One of the reasons that I do this work is because so many organizations are being faced with new challenges right now. Staff abruptly went remote in 2020 in most cases. Maybe they are still remote; maybe they are in a hybrid situation. The work force looks different. The things that people need are different. It makes it even more difficult to get good training in the hands of your people, but it still is just as important as it’s ever been. Good staff training, investing in your staff, volunteers, investing in your people, it affects performance. It affects staff satisfaction and retention. We talk about the Great Resignation. It affects your organization’s ability to innovate and meet your customer needs, whatever you call your customer in your nonprofit or church space.
I love this work. I have been doing it for a while. I’m excited to share a little bit more today about virtual training and developing our staff.
Hugh: Thank you. We have some myths that we tell ourselves. I know it’s rampant in the corporate world, and I’m sure it’s prevalent in the- I like to call us in the business of churches and nonprofits. It’s a for-purpose, tax-exempt business. It’s harder than a for-profit business. We have a lot more rules. It’s more important work in many aspects. We’re impacting human lives.
Let’s go back. We’ve learned some things wrong. We’ve inherited systems that weren’t functioning. We were wasteful, so we hit the skids in early 2020. Things changed. We don’t go out normally. We don’t meet normally. The curse of Zoom is a blessing of Zoom. It was novel. It’s commonplace. Your job is to help it not be commonplace. We took a lot of things for granted, and we had myths.
Let’s address some of the misconceptions. Our teams are virtual. Many times, they are in different time zones on different continents, but we are doing the synergy of the work. One of the myths I hear from corporate America, and I’m sure it’s trickled into the nonprofit world, is if people are working virtually, we can’t control what they do. The Gallup polls have said for years 70% of the world is either disengaged or actively disengaged before the pandemic. You weren’t monitoring what they were doing anyway. How do we focus on productivity rather than hours punched on the time clock?
Heather: That’s a great question. Honestly, a lot of it is a mindset shift. They have actually done some studies. I can get you the data afterwards because I have it somewhere saved on my computer. People who work remotely tend to be more productive than people in the office. The studies say they tend to take more breaks, but when they are actively working, there are fewer mouse clicks away from what they are working on. They tend to be more productive, getting more done within that same amount of time.
There are also fewer interruptions. If you think about being in an office space, you never know who will walk by your door or cubicle and stop by and interrupt. You never know how long it will take you from getting one meeting to another if you are moving between conference rooms. There are fewer interruptions at home. It’s mostly mindset and how we think about the remote work force or even the hybrid work force moving forward.
Hugh: Some of the same principles apply. What are the outcomes we want? How do we drive for that outcome? We tend to get bogged down in activity and not results, don’t we?
Heather: Absolutely. Sometimes that’s because we haven’t fully defined what the outcome is. If we are looking at outcomes versus activity, then we can see that people can still be productive in a remote environment.
Hugh: Part of training is helping people learn to focus. Our organization’s name is SynerVision, the synergy of the common vision. We’re going here. In music, we have a piece of music that everyone plays from, but the conductor helps it stay together. That’s the analogy for the workplace. How do we function together? We sometimes don’t have the road map like a sheet of music. What are some of the misconceptions about that area?
Heather: Because I focus on staff development, I often hear things like, “We need training.” I always, in a very polite, tactful way, question why we need training. Why is it that training is the solution? Sometimes training is the right answer, but sometimes, as you’re alluding to, there is not a clear strategy in place. Or there is a clear strategy, but it’s not been clearly communicated. Trying to unravel some of that, peel back the layers of some of that, to see what is the real need. Is it a training issue? Is it a communication issue? Is it a strategy issue? Then you can start to put the right solution in place.
Hugh: Things have changed. What have we learned in the change?
Heather: In the shift to virtual?
Hugh: Yeah. Since 2020 started, it’s been radical.
Heather: It has been. We all need a minute. Maybe not a full minute, but a minute to think about everything that we have been through in the past two years. Everything that our staff and volunteers have been through in the past two years. It’s a lot for anybody to take in. The home life and the work life, all of that has blended into one. Taking a moment, taking a pause to reflect on that and show each other some grace in our workspace can be an incredible first step.
As far as what we have learned about virtual training specifically in the last couple of years, the first thing I would say is that training needs didn’t go away just because our workforce went virtual. I believe people excel when they know what is expected of them and when they can show up authentically at work. Both of those ideas, beliefs were challenging for staff in 2020. No one knew what to expect.
Suddenly we were seeing people in a completely different light: in their homes, with children doing remote school beside them, with all of their pandemic puppies and babies interrupting their phone calls. We weren’t used to that. That’s not what we saw prior to the pandemic in many cases. Suddenly our processes were changing, our programs, our services were being adapted, and our staff had to adapt quickly to the new environment with everything else around them also changing. They still had training needs. That’s the first thing I would say that we learned: the training needs didn’t go away because our work force went virtual.
The second thing I would say that we learned is that it’s not a one-for-one conversion. A lot of organizations had staff training that existed in an in-person way prior to the pandemic. If they did recognize that those training needs didn’t go away, the idea was to just move everything online. We can just do this in a Zoom. While you can probably hit some of your objectives by just moving things to Zoom, it’s not going to be the most ideal. Training needs to be designed for that virtual space. What worked in the in-person environment does not always translate to the virtual room.
One of the examples that I often give is if you are a really strong facilitator, you are likely really good at asking open-ended questions. Hugh, you do this all the time in these interviews. You ask these big, open-ended questions, and people just talk, probably to the point where you’re like, “Please stop talking. I need a minute.” That’s what works when you are in the in-person environment. You can ask this big, great, open-ended question. You can be silent. You can look around a room. You can wait. It’s not awkward. People will wait with you. They will think and start to respond. There is this group peer pressure almost in an in-person environment. As soon as that silence starts, someone will speak up. Someone else will join them. Suddenly, you’re having this really great conversation with an open question.
In a virtual environment, on a Zoom call, if you ask an open-ended question, I don’t know what it is, maybe people feel like they can hide. Maybe there is not that same positive peer pressure in a virtual room. But if you ask an open-ended question, you are more likely to get crickets. You are more likely to have extended silence without people jumping in to rescue and answer that question. Silence lasts longer in the virtual room. Ten seconds in an in-person environment goes much quicker than ten seconds of silence in a virtual space.
If you were just to go one-for-one from in-person to virtual, you might ask those great open-ended questions still, but you might have a room that isn’t responding. They are not engaging. A simple change is to ask a closed question first. “Tell me: Has anybody attended a conference in the last two years?” People feel more confident answering that yes or no question. They can speak up. They can use the chat box. You could use a polling feature. Then you know who in the room has attended a conference and who hasn’t. You can then ask your open-ended question, “What made that conference so special? What made you decide that one was worth going to?” You know that you have seven people in the room who answered yes, they have been to a conference. There was some draw to that conference. Now they feel a little more excited, inclined to engage and answer that question.
That’s just one example of moving from in-person to virtual and how it’s not necessarily a one-for-one. That was a big learning within the last two years.
The last one I will say is related: Facilitators need to be prepared to train virtually. That open-ended question example is just one example. Just like the courses themselves, the training itself is different in a virtual room, so is facilitation. It requires different skills, different confidence, and comfort with the technology. If those things don’t exist, it’s not going to be a seamless experience.
Hugh: That’s a lot of good stuff, wow. We made the shift. We teach in SynerVision that the foundation of leadership is relationship. In 33 years working with live organizations, communication has never failed to come up as the #1 issue. The biggest illusion about communication is that it actually happened.
What you addressed is engagement. You use facilitator rather than trainer, which is priceless. We are facilitating a conversation about learning. All too often, I have been on the other end of somebody lecturing or having endless PowerPoint slides with too many words that they’re reading. Why don’t you send the PowerPoint? Why do you need to be here? There is no engagement or conversation.
I think the paradigm you’ve set up is just where we need to be. We facilitate active learning. What are some ways that we facilitate that relationship, that interactivity? You just opened up the idea of asking a closed question before an open-ended question. I like to add, “I’d like to hear from George and then Sally.” Someone I know can respond to it, and then someone might need a minute to think. Using slides is a double-edged sword, a curse and a blessing. What are some other best practices or worst practices we need to know?
Heather: I talk a lot about creating that engagement in the virtual room. Part of that is that connection piece. It seems to be a top concern. When I talk to people who are considering virtual training or have talked to people who have tried virtual training, engagement seems to be the thing that comes up most often. Why is that? We have all attended that boring webinar with PowerPoint slides and a lecture. We dread asking other people to do the same thing. We don’t want to be the provider of that boring webinar. We don’t want to end up staring at a bunch of blank faces or empty video squares. We don’t want to watch somebody doze off on video. We want engagement. We want to create that connection.
What I focus in on is a three-pronged approach. Whatever you’re going to do, especially in a virtual classroom—this is absolutely true for in-person, but if you think about virtual, people have a lot of opportunity to minimize their screen and go about their business, so it’s even more important in the virtual room. Make it relevant, make it meaningful, and make it fun. That’s my three-pronged approach.
What does that look like? What does that actually mean? When you think about creating something that’s relevant, it’s about creating training that can tie back directly to your organization’s priorities and the audience’s job. To do that, we have to start by being clear about our organization’s priorities. Maybe that is a strategic plan. Maybe it exists already. Maybe it’s something you need to spend some time defining. Either way, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re trying to achieve. Once you know what your organization’s priorities are, you can align all of your talent practices, not just training, to those priorities.
The other piece of that, and this is getting toward what you’re talking about, is relevant also means we have to make training actionable. I will often see organizations determine a need for training, and then the training becomes an information dump from the subject matter expert, that PowerPoint. Knowledge doesn’t equal behavior change.
I know that I should do laundry every day if I don’t want to pile it up. Every week, I question how many people live in my household. The laundry pile is so high. I know I should do it, but doing it every day doesn’t always happen. People know they should eat healthy and exercise, but that doesn’t mean they always follow through. If you think about the number of New Year’s Resolutions that are broken, knowledge doesn’t equal behavior change.
If you want to create engagement in the virtual space, making it relevant as part of that process, we need to focus in on the action that we need staff to take. Do you need your staff to interact with whatever you call your client base differently? Do you need them to use a new software? Do you need them to tell the story of your organization to raise money? Whatever you need them to do, give them an opportunity to practice taking that action in a safe environment. It’s not necessarily a tactic as far as open a poll. Polls are great. But giving them the chance to practice an action that is relevant to their job and relevant to where the organization is going, that’s powerful. That can still be done in a virtual space. That’s the first piece of my three-part approach. I have to come up with a better way of talking about that. Three-legged stool? I don’t know what it is. I need a better story there.
The second part is to keep it meaningful. Part of making it meaningful is making it relevant, making sure that it’s actionable, answering that “What’s in it for me?” question. Part of it is meeting those deeper human needs, like the need for connection and the need for reflection and the need for exploration. We can invite staff into the conversation instead of just having the expert in front of the room with the PowerPoint slides talking, sharing. We can invite staff or volunteers, those who are participating in a training, into the conversation and allow them to share what their past experiences or past expertise has been. Allow them to learn from each other in a meaningful way.
To the point earlier where an open question doesn’t work when it’s asked first most of the time, you can use the tactics, the features of the room to allow for that conversation to happen. Whether you’re asking yes or no questions, whether you’re asking people to start in the chat box and then move into a verbal conversation, whether you’re using polls or handouts or shared collaboration hands-on within a virtual space, like a shared slide deck, where people can be in it in real time working together. Moving people in and out of breakout rooms so they have the comfort of the smaller group setting. That is where you start to get really good conversation. People are able to share and learn from each other. That is meaningful. Everybody brings something to the table when they show up to a virtual setting. They have experience. They have expertise. They have stories and things they want to share. They want to be heard. Giving people an opportunity to do that is incredibly impactful. Make it meaningful.
Maybe we will get into some more tactics here because I know we also like hands-on tactics that we can implement right away. Everyone has a different meaning of the word “fun.” I always hesitate to use it. Know your audience. For some, solving a problem is fun. For others, collaborating is fun. For others, working in a more casual environment is fun. Games are fun. Know your audience and what they think of as fun.
No matter the definition, one thing we can always do is keep the training engaging and interactive. This goes for virtual meetings as well. There are a lot of boring virtual meetings that could have been an email. Think about the features that you have available to you. Think about that chat box. Think about using whiteboards or breakout groups or polls. Use outside tools, like the virtual collaboration space I mentioned. Going to a Google slide and being hands-on together. Using a tool like MURAL, where it’s basically a virtual white board with sticky notes that you can move around and draw and do all of the things that you would do with a white board in a room. Think about tools like Kahoot! That’s a way of gamifying the space. Techniques like storytelling, analogies, improv.
I love to do improv in a virtual space, which you probably wouldn’t necessarily jump to. It’s great. You have a question that you need answered, or you want people to brainstorm a different way of doing things, do a “Yes and” activity, and allow them to build on each other’s ideas. You will get a lot more interaction from that than just a simple, open-ended question.
Get people hands on whenever possible. When people are engaged, they will have more fun. The more they engage, the more they will engage. The more we can intentionally bring them in to the environment, to the conversation, the more they will continue to engage with us.
Hugh: Relevant, meaningful, fun.
Heather: You got it. Those are the three.
Hugh: Lots of stuff underneath that. A lot of bad practices where people talk at the audience and not do what you say, engaging people. I always like to start with my learning objectives. This is what we’re going to walk away having learned. I always come back to it. It’s an accountability piece for me. Did we do this? I’m setting the bar. What is your trick for getting people to turn their cameras on when they don’t want them on?
Heather: I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. There are times when people are not able to turn their cameras on. I am guilty of this also, but we tend to think about people being in the same space that we’re in. Right now, I am home. There is no one here to interrupt me. I have a private space. Maybe you will hear my puppy crying if he hears me talking. But there is not a lot to interrupt us. That’s not everyone’s home environment. We need to prompt people and ask people to share video if they are able, but we also have to show them some grace if they are not able. That’s just not going to be the case every single time for every single person.
What I have done to encourage video sharing is if I am using a PowerPoint, I will say, “Turn off your camera. Take your break when the PowerPoint is up. We don’t need to be seeing each other’s faces for this piece. We will look at the slide, the image, the graph. But when we come back and we’re engaged in conversation, whether in a large group or going into breakout groups, if at all possible, turn on your camera so that people can see and engage with you that way.” It is an important element. It’s not just always possible for people.
Hugh: I know. I’m thinking about multi-tasking and people not engaged. If they are being paid to be there, it’s important to set a bar. I’m with you on the grace piece. There is extenuating circumstances. We are in uncharted territory about personal stress and anxieties. It’s probably better to err on the side of grace than otherwise, but it’s a constant challenge because we want people- If we have something important, it’s important that people grasp it and use it.
In planning for a college class I’m teaching, I gave people reading assignments. In the last course, I said, “Here is your reading assignment. I want you to extract three things to highlight that you think are important. Tell me why they are important in your world and how you will utilize them.” The students took part in being a teacher. We learned from each other. They were really jazzed about that.
I’m listening to you for myself as well as asking questions. There is more than one way to do this. The worst thing we can do is model it after we saw something somebody else do and repeat the same mistake. How do we measure success? How do you know you have been successful when you have done a training?
Heather: There is a big debate on this in the learning and development space. It can be hard to measure. We want to make sure that if we are putting our time, investing money and resources and people into it, that it’s effective.
For me, the first thing is always start with whatever your organization’s strategy is. What is driving it? Why are we even doing the training? Why does the training matter? How is it going to help your organization? Is it important to the people taking the training? Identifying at the start what the underlying strategy driving the training is is the first piece.
If you’re talking about assessing whether a training is effective virtually at a high level overall, then I think setting goals for the virtual training in general is important. If you’re talking about one specific virtual training course, then the objectives are the place to start. We do always want to have objectives when we’re creating the training.
I tend to focus on the action. Making sure that it’s relevant, meaningful, and fun, the action tends to be where I start. There may be a lot of things people need to know at the end of the day to perform that action, but I want to start with the action. That is where you will see the most behavior change and impact in the organization. Most of my objectives are formulated around whatever action we need them to take after the training is over.
That will help set us up for the evaluation. It’s incredibly important to do evaluation on training as well. Then you do have some data to look back on and say, “Yes, this worked.” “No, this didn’t work.” Or “It kind of worked, but we want to continue to adapt and learn from it and make it better every single time.” You can evaluate satisfaction, which is a baseline. Were people satisfied with the event? You’re not going to get a ton of actionable data from that, but I do think it’s important that people are happy with what they are experiencing.
The next is to think about knowledge gain. Did people learn something when they attended the training? From the time before they joined to the time they ended, did they learn something? Did they walk away with something?
I do think that behavior change piece is often harder to measure, but it’s important. If your training is designed to create that behavior change, having site visits, if you’re in a position where you can go and watch people doing their job or doing their volunteer work and seeing if they are implementing the change, that’s important. Getting supervisors or volunteer coordinators involved to see how they are doing. Are the staff and volunteers changing the way they’re behaving? Asking the people they are serving if they’re meeting the needs and if the behavior has changed. There are ways to get that input for behavior change. I do think it’s important. It’s the only way to know if you have been successful and the way to continue to improve. In the learning and development space, we all have this desire for continuous improvement. That’s why we’re here.
Hugh: I call it continuing improvement. In my world, it’s not a set program; it’s what we do for ourselves. We’re going a little long today because it’s such an important topic. I want to probe it a little deeper here.
I have experimented in a college setting, in my nonprofit community where we have engagements, and in corporate trainings. It’s not really a training; it’s more of an engagement. The bottom line is productivity. We need to have more money left over in a business. We need not to spend so much money for overhead in a nonprofit because it needs to go to the cause. We can measure our results financially. We tend not to do that in nonprofits, which is a shame. We need to be more productive and accurate and incorporate some of the better practices.
Have you ever done a Part A, Part B? For instance, one of the leadership programs I do with a company is take all the top leaders and teach them how to coach because they don’t know how. They are telling people what to do, but they complain about people coming to their door and asking them what to do. They are setting up a vicious cycle, which interferes with their productivity and those people they are coaching. There is no win to that.
What I do is go through an interactive session where we all see a model, practice a model, talk about what we learned, do it again, talk about what we learned. 30 days later, we come back, and in front of everyone, answer, “What did you learn? What did you try? What didn’t work? What will you do differently?” That is massive. I don’t know if people wait until the day before to do it again, but there is still an accountability point.
Do you recommend models like that? We tend to dumb down to the IQ thing, which is only measuring memory comprehension. There are multiple facets: problem solving, creative thinking, etc. Thinking about the multi-faceted, how do we take the knowledge and then apply it? Is there a Part A, Part B? How does that work?
Heather: I have definitely taken that approach if the structure and resources allow for it. Sometimes there are parameters within an organization where that wouldn’t really work. If it does allow for it, I think it’s a great approach, especially if during that time between Part A and Part B, you know they will have an opportunity to implement. If they are not going to have an opportunity, they are not necessarily going to do it or learn much from it. It won’t be effective. So if you know they are going to have that opportunity, great approach.
If you can provide any kind of technical assistance or coaching between Part A and Part B, that’s also a really effective thing to do during that time period. Come back to Part B, share what they learned, get that feedback from each other and from the facilitator. It’s a great approach to use definitely.
Hugh: Facilitating the interactive piece so that people can continue the conversation would be one of the success factors. They’re talking about it at work. I hate when we get in mandatory trainings, and people are rolling their eyes because they know better. That’s why you’re at the bottom of the organizational chart because you know better than everyone else.
Heather has a website, SkillMastersMarket.com. When they go there, what will they find?
Heather: This is the homepage of my website. There are a couple of things about how we can get connected if you’d like to get connected. There are some services I offer. You can learn more about me than the one-minute snippet I did at the beginning. I also have a blog where I share some relevant information related to staff development and virtual training. Take a look around. There are lots of resources there. I am also sharing almost daily on LinkedIn, so that’s another great place to get connected and look for resources. I engage with those who are commenting and participating as well.
Hugh: People can learn a whole lot about you and the value you bring. This is a key piece. Thank you for doing this work. It’s important no matter where you’re a leader. You know what? I am 75 years old. I learn more today when I’m teaching than I ever have before. I don’t know why. Maybe there is more to learn. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. It’s valuable for us to teach. Is that the reverse way of learning for ourselves?
Heather: It is essentially one of the higher levels of learning, to be able to take a concept, synthesize your way through it, and to be able to take it and teach someone else. It’s actually a technique I have used within virtual training as well. Someone is having to take a concept, learn it, and then teach it to other people.
Hugh: You’re clearly an expert on this topic. I’m excited by this and want to go create another program just because I can.
One last question, I promise. I hear lots of excuses from people. “Let’s write down goals.” “I don’t have time to do that.” “Well, you have time to waste everybody’s time and have to do it over again.” “Training, I don’t have time for that.” Wait a minute. It’s not spending time; it’s investing time. Would you speak to the investment and why it’s important?
Heather: Your people are your most important asset within an organization. You couldn’t do what you do without your staff or volunteers. There might be an organization that runs automated, I don’t know. In most cases, we can’t do what we do without our people. Not investing in them, you are running the risk of them not meeting expectations and not delivering on your strategies, your mission, your vision. You’re running the risk of them leaving and losing years of knowledge as they go. You’re also running the risk of them staying and being really unhappy. That’s almost worse. You never know where that unhappiness is going to go and how it’s going to impact the other people that are a part of your staff teams, your volunteer teams. You never know how it’s going to impact the people that you serve or the work they’re doing. I personally believe that organizations are better when they empower their people to operate from their strongest capabilities. Training is one way that you can do that.
Hugh: Wow. You heard it here. Heather Burright, thank you so much for your wisdom and sharing your thoughts and strategies and for this great interview today.
Heather: Thanks for having me.