The power of face to face

Ben Chambers make a case for the return of face-to-face learning once it is safe to do so.

As learning professionals we’ve been impacted in many ways by Covid. It seems we all adapted well in the early weeks by either cancelling learning events, or moving them to an online environment. Now we are six months into the Covid world questions are being asked of us about when, and how, we will return to face-to-face learning.

For many, Covid has provided us with an opportunity to put things into practice, things that we have always wanted to try out, but our organisations didn’t want to take the risk on. For others, we are also getting pressure to bank the savings associated with online learning through reduced travel and venue costs.

In addition we’ve been given the feedback that technology-driven learning is more inclusive in nature through the absence of travel and the knock-on need to find childcare. All these factors place a pressure on us to not to return to face-to-face learning in the same way.

We need to be setting the agenda here rather than reacting to it. The points below outline the case for when we would return to face-to-face learning. The below also come with the caveat of, we should only bring people together again when it is safe to do so.

We will have to contend with the challenge of our people not feeling safe to return to a training room

It is likely that we will have to contend with the challenge of our people not feeling safe to return to a training room, even when all the necessary steps have been taken to make it Covid safe.

Is there a need to build new relationships that will be ongoing?

Covid has shown us that if we have existing relationships that are built on strong foundations, often through contact time in an office, we have a head start when collaborating. When new people join an organisation, or new teams come together we need to consider how we are going to form this foundation and build this ‘social capital’.

Holding a face-to-face event feels like a valid way to speed up this relationship building process.

Does the subject matter require a deeper level of understanding and trust of fellow participants?

Anyone who has spent time on Zoom and Teams calls in the past four months will tell you that it is harder to develop a deeper personal relationship with someone using video calling. Conversations are more stilted and less free-flowing and it is harder to pick up on the other signals people are giving off.

Programmes that explore leadership, personality and core values and therefore need deeper personal understanding should be conducted face to face.

Is the learning experiential and the setting needs to mirror the learning that takes place?

We know that if you learn a skill in the environment you are going to use it then there is greater learning transfer. As a result if we are going to a face-to-face pitch, coaching session, or sales meeting then the learning should be face to face.


On the flip side, if we are embracing the virtual environment for how we work then we should learn the skills needed in this manner e.g. if you do your performance process virtually then learn the skill this way.

Is the learning external and we are not in control of the delivery methodology?

There will always be learning we did not commission and therefore not in control of. If someone is attending an external programme that hasn’t embraced a blended learning approach then so be it. Quite often attending a programme such as an MBA is just as much a learning event as it is a pseudo-reward. Pick your battles.

Will learner buy-in and engagement be impacted by running a virtual session?

Sometimes we know the content we provide would lend itself to a virtual environment just as well as a face-to-face environment. However, there is an expectation that it is delivered face to face as participants enjoy the collaboration and social element of being together.

One of the things that Covid has shown us is that the learning function is, whether we like it or not, the de facto owner of collaboration. Embrace being given the opportunity to run these kind of events and treat it as an opportunity.

Is it logistically more compelling to deliver something face to face?

If the subject matter expert is in the office along with the target audience and there is a room available then it seems sensible to bring everyone together face to face. We need to be careful not to over-use this reason for bringing people together as we will lose the inclusion benefits detailed earlier.

It will only work for work environments where the majority of people are in the office and over-use may re-establish the expectation that training is face to face so it should be used sparingly.

We need to remain vigilant so we don’t return to old habits. We have been given an opportunity to reshape how people learn and shouldn’t waste it. Most of the examples above require us to redesign the learning we do in some way as even if they meet the criteria there still needs to be an evaluation of the approach to ensure it is blended.

For example, when broken down most face-to-face learning has elements that can be delivered better by embracing technology. There is an expectation placed upon us to make the learning we provide the best it can be.


About the author

Ben Chambers is head of the Business School and talent function at Grant Thornton as well as the founder of the Talent and Leadership Club.


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