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21st Century Work Life and leading remote teams

Brought to you by Virtual not Distant, the 21st Century Work Life podcast looks at leading remote teams, online collaboration and working in distributed organisations.

Join Pilar Orti, guests & co-hosts as they shine the spotlight on the most relevant themes and news relevant to the modern knowledge worker.

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Mar 10, 2022

Catherine Nicholson is the Director of The Virtual Training Team 

She last appeared on the show in episode 274, almost a year ago. Now she is back to let us know how the work with their clients has evolved, and how they have changed how they work as a team.

The novelty of having to move online because of the pandemic has faded. Trainers, as well as other knowledge workers, are now looking at how to make the most out of the online space, once everyone has embraced the mindset that things can be done through technology. 

Trainers can move onto the next level by taking “learning loops'' as a first design point, by looking for a routine that learners are used to so that they feel familiar in the environment. Before this familiarity turns into predictability and people “stop trying”, it might be necessary to “shake things up a bit” – but how? We need to enhance the learning experience, but maintain purpose.

One of their approaches is to “be a kid in the sweetie shop”, the sweetie shop being the huge amount of tools, stories, research, technologies out there that they can use. (Although always coming back to the purpose of the training.)

Once they explore one of these “gigs”, they focus on what is going to be essential to deliver the experience they’re looking for. But they don’t let everything go, in case it’s useful as supporting materials.

Another approach, driven by clients whose main challenge is the need for participants to consume and understand long chunks of materials. Here the problem leads to the process, rather than the output. For example, the material can be turned into an audio that summarises the key points, to be listened to before they go to the full material. Catherine covers a few more approaches that can prime people before they interact with the content. (In some ways, we’re going back to “blended learning”, in the widest sense of the world.)


Learning pathways can be designed for learners: required and desired pathways, to help us curate the content and design the learning experience. This is a great way of fuelling the autonomy aspect of intrinsic motivation. 

Internal trainers have another challenge which is delivering sessions where there’s a lot of content to be covered, through material designed by others in the organisations, sometimes even by another department, like communications. Catherine mentions a few ways to tackle this, like creating more slides. (More slides, you say? Yes!)

Or if you can’t change the deck, you can use “hide and reveal”, or even using the pointer to direct people’s attention through the information.

Look out for Catherine’s upcoming video on “Hide and Reveal”!
(Their videos can be found here.)


Let’s leave the tech to one side and focus on the quality of the conversations that participants have in the session. When you first start to train, it’s easy to be scared by the “tumbleweed moments”, but these aren’t always bad, sometimes they mean that people are thinking, and sometimes they’re necessary. (Plus, they feel longer in the online space!)

There’s a lot to think through when you’re delivering online, screen, chat box, reactions, slides, camera pointing at you… While still being in “delivery mode”. Having your questions planned in advance is key. 


Which will provoke deeper thinking in participants? Which can lead to more fruitful conversations? Thinking through these in advance will make delivery easier.

There’s a parallel here with the challenges managers have when they’re leading meetings.Plus, we’re now having conversations we didn’t have before, more personal, more sensitive. Psychological safety is key.

It’s also important to know who is present at the meeting, in what way, and what they’re supposed to be doing. For example, graduates might be attending to observe, can make this explicit during the meeting, and if they have their camera off, explain why.

As a trainer (or manager), you can also keep a “contribution log” – being respectful that people want to contribute at different levels. Catherine covers some of the reasons people contribute less, and the fact that our introversion/extroversion preferences become more radical if we are uncomfortable. 

We can manage our presence in our meetings, and part of this is discussing/communicating how we use our cameras. For example, video is useful, but doesn’t always have to be on. There are times when it’s important for it to be on, and there are advantages, but it’s not an absolute. It’s important to understand our own preferences and not always design for them.

Balance – that’s the word. 


The conversation turns to how Catherine’s team is experimenting with new ways of working. They’ve come across the challenge of balancing schedule autonomy, with the need to be available to each other when needed.

One challenge some team members have is seeing a message and, even if it doesn’t need immediate replies, the message presence lingers, so they’re using the Schedule message function in MSTeams.

“Flexible work” is great, but it needs structure. Catherine and her colleagues are experimenting with core hours, with flexibility within them. Through experimentation, we get clarity, and have to have conversations about working together.

You can find out more about Catherine here: The Virtual Training Team