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An article recently came across my desk that’s about 3 years old, “When Teams Fail: The Virtual Distance Challenge.

It really could have been written last week, and it got me thinking about how that concept impacts training and development teams.

Virtual distance describes perfectly my career transition in a very short amount of time.

My first job:

  • A local company in a traditional office setting. My entire team was in the same 1,500 square foot area. I was in inside sales, so I was in the office 100% of the time.

And 5 short years later:

  • An international company. I worked from a home office and my direct team was spread across 6 states. I worked on projects with people from around the country and the world. I was in field sales, so I spent large amounts of time on the road.

And today:

  • I’m running virtual teams as part of Impact Instruction Group. I have two offices – a home office and another one at an entrepreneurial center that provides a vital network to other business owners, allows me to take advantage of educational opportunities, and host clients.

While much of my experience in this shift was tremendously positive, I had to adapt to new ways of working and building relationships.

“Virtual distance” has a strange ring to it. Physical distance has become so common in the workplace that and our relationships and interactions become virtual and technology-based.

Putting this into the context of training and development, we have to adapt – taking that distance into consideration, because it’s here to stay. For companies that have relied heavily on traditional learning environments, they are probably finding it’s not feasible at their current levels anymore. But swing the pendulum too far in the other direction (ie, only self-directed online learning), and virtual distance is reinforced even more.

So what are some practical ways to manage virtual distance when designing a learning experience?

From the business side, T&D must forge relationships with the business units and learners they serve, even if they are thousands of miles away. That need for relationship ties between the business and T&D hasn’t changed, but the way we go about developing and maintaining them has some new twists.

One tool to help with that is the Strategic Interview. Bob Welsh, Head of Learning and Development at DP DHL, shared this tool at a recent Central Ohio ASTD event.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Schedule 30 minutes each with your Line of Business executives and several key learners from that group.
  2. Formulate questions in the areas of organization, strategy, and people.
  3. Compare this information with how you are currently designing and delivering training to meet their needs.

Now looking at the learning design side, here are some tactical ways to close the distance gap:

  • If you’re transitioning some face-to-face learning experiences, your team needs to re-purpose their content for the virtual classroom. This means everything from slide decks, to activities, to facilitation style, to timing. Face-to-face content must be tweaked so relationships can be built despite the distance. Think of the relationship between the facilitator and learner and the relationships among the participants.
  • Stretch the boundaries of the learning experience. Learning takes place everywhere – leverage it. For example, have your T&D team interview the top 10% of employees in the business units you serve for what makes them the “best,” and turn that into a portable learning format. Again, relationship building, relevant content, and easy delivery to bridge the distance gap.
  • Use the good old phone. When I was in sales, my manager had a “15 Minutes of Fame” call every week. That was my time to discuss strategy, new business, or closing a deal. She did this with everyone on my team. It was 3-4 hours of her day once a week, but it did wonders for closing the virtual distance gap – it also directly impacted team performance in a positive way. Again, very easy and zero cost to implement.

Ready to learn more?

Visit for more information about custom blended training solutions and professional development services offered by Impact Instruction Group. Amy Franko is a 2010 Apex Award of Excellence winner for training design.

© 2010 Impact Instruction Group, LLC

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