Case Study: Working in a Virtual Support Centre

Submitted by Rachel Shackleton

Just before Christmas I conducted several remote courses on Customer Excellence and Working in a Cross Cultural Environment with approximately 8-12 participants in each group.  This case is about my own challenges working remotely through a digital platform, as well providing feedback of the experience from some of the participants that I hope is useful to anyone who is embarking on the same challenge and is looking for some guidance.

2020 was a year of forced learning for me in the technological sphere.  Moving learning from a classroom based scenario to an on line one presented many challenges.  Firstly, how to accomplish what you would normally do with a group who are sitting in the same room at the same time to sitting in their own homes only together in a virtual situation, not only trying to focus on the screen, but arrange their time and that of their partners and family members and various pets so that they are not disturbed during the three-hour session.  Secondly, managing the time difference of several hours to keep focused and present close to the end of or after the working day.

Exercises had to be changed to meet the confines of a virtual reality, maintain the level of interactivity as well as achieve the needed learning.  This all looked daunting to start with, but through exploration of various platforms to achieve a deeper understanding of possibility within my own sphere of knowledge, skill and understanding took time and effort, but the result led to an expansion of my own knowledge in a world that is usually limited to PowerPoint, Word and Excel.  Ultimately, the chosen platform was Zoom which best suited what had to be accomplished.

During the six sessions for Customer Excellence training we used audio/video recording with play back and facilitation successfully.  For both courses we used breakout rooms effectively with the equivalent of a whiteboard so that they later were able to present their work in the main room for discussion and to share learning and knowledge.  Training on a digital platform, I found that most limitations are around non-writing exercises that only lend themselves to being together physically in the same room.  The question to myself is “Did this affect learning and transfer of knowledge and skills?”

For the Customer Excellence groups, the answer to this question will only be seen in 2-3 months time when their managers have been able to gauge what has been learned through observation of skills and analysis of customer feedback.  For other participants who attended “Working in a Cross-Cultural Environment” this is perhaps more about personal confidence and the ability to apply the models of cultural diversity that were used in the training to increase work effectiveness around communication, running and attending meetings, decision-making and building relations with colleagues from other cultures. 

With all participants, the challenge of training online was on the one hand easy for them as they are familiar and spend many hours working online with colleagues and customers, but at the same time difficult as the training required an additional three hours of screen time, which I believe all will agree is tiring.  Participants feedback reiterated this point with several people commenting that working online without a break for 3-hours was difficult. Getting the duration of each session correct is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of working online.  Each session was 3 hours, without break.  Participants were invited to get coffee/tea and take a call of nature break as needed.   Courses conducted with other groups earlier in the year, albeit on different topics were 2-hour sessions, which personally I felt was too short to cover any decent amount of material and conduct exercises to cement learning.  It looks like the happy medium of 2.5 hours is correct or 3 hours with a break.

For me personally, despite the technical challenge, I find working online demanding from the point of view of understanding what is really going on within the group.  When in the classroom it is easy to facilitate on the spot what you “see” and “feel” that might need addressing within the group, giving greater depth to the training and value to individual participants. My senses are on full alert whilst training, as this is where I believe as a trainer, I am able to add value. Information that can be received when facial expressions are the only thing you can go on in combination with spoken words limits this ability.  Perhaps this will come more with time?  I expect when working with the same participants over several courses that it will be easier, simply because over time you get to know each person better.

Breakout rooms give a wonderful opportunity to all participants to work in groups.   However, it is difficult for the trainer to participate in real time, even though you can visit each room, there is no possibility to scan the group and go where you feel you are most needed at that time.  In breakout rooms, input was provided from me as the trainer with the necessary facilitation of points that I understood were needed once in the room.  Working in virtual breakout rooms, I found also affects timing. When in a room together you can quickly assess where each group or each pair has got to and when to “close” the exercise to reconvene in the main group, this is only possible virtually by asking each room, or simply closing the exercise time with a few minutes warning to wrap up.

Participant feedback has supported my own observations, as follows:

  • Exercises may have been given too little or too much time
  • It is tiring without a formal break and therefore one is required, rather than an informal as needed approach, when running a 3-hour session
  • Use slides to outline each exercise so that participants have something to refer to when in break out rooms
  • Absence of personal interaction whilst being in the same room

In conclusion – experiencing training and learning through a digital platform has been a very positive learning curve for me and I believe there is more to do.  It was difficult to understand how it would work, despite attending many sessions myself, without actually doing it several times to master the use of the technology and what is required by you as the trainer, in addition to actual delivery.

Knowing the strengths and weaknesses further courses will be planned and executed with all these points in mind. Remote online training is a solid back up for when classroom training is not possible for some reason.  Perhaps the way forward is through a blended solution using the best of both worlds ie. classroom and remote online possibilities to suit each group, the goals to be achieved, location of participants and the parameters of availability of individuals within the group itself in relation to business demands.

Enormous thanks go to my clients who encouraged me and supported me through the process.

To learn more about how Rachel can help you and your organisation, please email Rachel directly.

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