Can a virtual event still be a transformational experience?

2020 is moving along at a rapid pace and we are all aware that our life as we know it has changed, at least for now. For the corporate and business world, one relevant impact of the pandemic worth exploring is the reality that many face-to-face events have either been cancelled or adapted to a virtual setting.  

We are unsure if this trend is temporary or here to stay, but in the learning and development industry, we have had to ask ourselves – can a virtual immersive learning experience still serve the original purpose the face-to-face event was created for?

Let me share our recent experience of how we successfully adjusted to a virtual setting a one-week long live module that wrapped up a one-year long transformational leadership journey with 22 leaders from around the world.

For background, planned live modules play a substantial role in GAIA Insights’ long-term leadership journeys: they help our participants focus fully on their learning and growth, enabling them to dive deep into longer sessions on relevant topics and therefore take away richer learnings. During these modules, our participants are able to connect the dots and put together all the knowledge, skill and behavior changes taking place, while at the same time making unforgettable, lifelong memories.

For this specific group of leaders, we planned to have three of these amazing live module weeks over the course of their 12-month leadership development program, woven together with a series of bi-weekly webinars, related assignments, journal reflections, continual personalized mentoring and different challenges to anchor the learnings. The first two modules took place face-to-face in carefully selected, environmentally responsible venues ‘off-grid’ in Sweden and India. After the pandemic broke out, the third one, originally scheduled for June 2020, was postponed to September, in the hope that by then travel would be possible. In the end, we had to accept the fact a face-to-face module would not happen and we needed to adapt the week into a virtual ‘live’ experience – as the alternative of not delivering it at all was an even less desirable option.  

So… the adaptation and redesign process began: We realized quickly the logistics for the week would require careful engineering – we had to meet virtually for 5 working days with 22 people spread across many different time zones, from Los Angeles all the way to Shanghai. Also, how could we craft this experience for participants to still spend quality time together, as they would have during a face-to-face module? Then there was the question of content – not everything we had planned would work in a virtual setting. Lastly, we wanted participants to end their journey on a high note, feeling their last week as a group was also a memorable part of their program and journey.

At the end of the day, how did we pull this virtual module together?

  • Firstly, the Program Team worked very hard designing every timetable and every detail of the week – constantly changing and adapting to what worked best in a virtual setting.
  • Secondly, all along, we held our participants at front and center of our hearts and minds, focusing both on what was feasible and what would create the best possible learning experience for them.
  • Finally, both before and during the week, our participants also played a very important role– their collaboration was vital by fully showing up and making the most of every session.

Overall, the week was not short of unexpected challenges, for participants as well as the Program Team, but together we made it work – we were all flexible, we gave it our best shot and in the end, we did create a meaningful experience: minds were challenged, hearts were moved, and we had some virtual fun moments in the process as well!  

Was it the same as being together in the same venue face-to-face for a week? Of course not. But that is not the point – we cannot expect a virtual module to replace the experience of being there in person. That is not realistic. What virtual delivery does provide though is a viable alternative for people to come together, interact and share an experience regardless of their geographical location and distance.

In this particular case, a virtual module enabled us to retain a very meaningful milestone in the participants’ learning journey, respecting the moment in which it had to happen for the program they had embarked on. If we did not have access to the kind of technology available today, we would have had to cancel the module until further notice, or even indefinitely, leaving our participants without the chance to have a final week together to celebrate their growth and change over the course of the year.

In the end, my answer to our initial question – “can a transformational experience still be achieved in a virtual setting?” – is “yes, it can”. It is a different experience, and it presents different challenges, and different opportunities. But it can be done. It requires trusting your team, staying true to your purpose and keeping an open mind, heart and will. As for us at GAIA Insights, we will continue growing our expertise in creating impactful live modules in virtual settings, to build on what we have been doing consistently with our face-to-face experiences for years.

What about you? How is your journey progressing with “face-to-face-turned-virtual” events? So far, what lessons have you learned and what insights have you had?

We would love to hear your thoughts! Please share them with me: valeria.torino@gaia-insights.com

Are you curious to learn the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how we designed this virtual module? Would you like to know more about our experience in virtual delivery or about GAIA Insights?
Then, I invite you to contact Justine and James on transforming.leaders@gaia-insights.com

If you want to learn more about our leadership development journeys, check out: https://www.gaia-insights.com/what/aspire-transforming-talent.html

About the author – Valeria Torino is a Program Mentor at GAIA Insights.

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