Are you zoomed out yet? At the end of a recent virtual training, I facilitated with a group of high-level corporate leaders, one of the participants said, “Wow…that went much better than I expected. I’m so zoomed out I didn’t think I could take another virtual training. And I certainly didn’t think I’d learn much. I was wrong!” None of us should be surprised that in the second quarter of 2020, Zoom’s revenue hit $663.5 million, more than four times the revenue this time last year.
Similar to other digital platforms such as Teams and WebEx, Zoom has emerged as one of the virtual lifesavers for the millions of people forced to remain home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Over the last six months, employees and students worldwide have needed to rely on these services to keep them connected to colleagues, team members, and faculty. While parts of our worlds are slowly opening up, we all understand that virtual learning will forever be part of our new normal.
Those of you battling zoom fatigue may not be very excited about this reality. But I challenge you to not only see and embrace it as an opportunity to continue providing engaging and innovative online content for learning and development, teaching, meetings, etc.; but to also deliver it in ways that effectively connect to the cultural diversity of your audiences, whether they are senior leadership, frontline employees, global team members or first-year undergraduate students.
Read on to for four CQ tips for ensuring your virtual learning experiences are culturally intelligent:
Consider Cultural Differences in Design and Facilitation. I know this may sound basic and like a no brainer. However, it is a critical and often missed consideration in the development of virtual learnings. Most good instructional designers understand that, regardless of the audience, there are three critical components to creating and delivering a high-quality virtual learning experience — participant engagement, relevant content, and practical application. However, if these key components are not executed through a culturally intelligent lens, your effectiveness will be limited.
When facilitating a virtual experience, ask yourself: How well do I understand the cultural backgrounds and values of my training or meeting participants?
You can develop some of this knowledge by using a tool like the Cultural Values Profile assessment, which highlights participants’ differences in values like individualism (focus on individual rights) vs. collectivism (focus on rights of the group) or power distance. If your group prefers hierarchical approaches to authority, consider having individuals “rename” themselves with their formal titles and spend more time talking about your pedigree. If they aren’t, avoid that, lest you turn them off right away.
How and when you use tools like polls, chat, whiteboard, case studies, etc. will depend on your audience. In a few weeks, I will be facilitating a virtual training with a large group from around the world. The cultural values of the group are widespread. I plan to use a combination of online tools to support the diversity of the audience. For participants from high power distance cultures, I plan to include polls, since it allows them to participate anonymously. Participants from low power distance cultures may be more comfortable speaking up, so I will create space for them to unmute their microphones and share their thoughts with the larger group. Participants who are uncomfortable with ambiguity (high uncertainty avoidance) may need very explicit instructions for online group activities or templates for what you want them to submit. The key is to acknowledge and accommodate the differences so everyone can feel respected and included in the learning.
PRO TIP: Are you new to Cultural Intelligence? If so, watch this short video explaining Cultural Intelligence and why it is important.
Establish Virtual Rules of Engagement. When we facilitate virtual trainings, we create and share guidelines for how participants should engage in the virtual experience. Rules or guidelines might revolve around basic topics like asking everyone to mute themselves and being explicit about when cameras need to be on or off. More importantly, spend time on how you will communicate with them and how they will communicate with each other.
If you have a culturally diverse group, at the beginning of the online session, you could poll them with questions like: What online behaviors might be offensive to your culture? What online behaviors contribute to building community and productive engagement? Build the feedback into ground rules you all agree on together. Even in small and informal virtual meetings, be clear about expectations, especially since what is acceptable or not acceptable in virtual meetings can change across cultures. A culturally intelligent facilitator acknowledges participants’ cultural differences and the realities of teaching people remotely, especially if they work from home. They recognize that the virtual classroom can be distracting and that they are competing for the learner’s attention with emails, family interruptions, etc. Rules of engagement help minimize distractions and make sure everyone is clear on expectations and agree to honor the established rules.
Close the Equity Gaps. Prevent your virtual trainings from perpetuating disparities across different cultural groups in the workplace or further widen achievement gaps amongst different student groups. Early in the pandemic, students lost quite a bit of learning when schools around the globe closed. The amount of loss varied significantly by factors such as access to remote learning, the quality of remote instruction, home support, and the degree of engagement. One of the ways to contribute to closing the equity gap is to make sure all of your participants have access to the platform. The same reality can occur in professional training. Last week we ran a program where participant’s only option for joining the session was on their phones using their own data. That significantly altered their ability to engage in what had been designed. Ensure your design anticipates the different access participants may have.
Make sure the virtual experience is accessible, user-friendly, and culturally responsive. Anticipate potential technology challenges and proactively provide participants with solutions at the beginning of virtual training. Work with your learners and partners to determine the best platform for the participants. Using your own platform is ideal because it allows you to control the process and actual learning experience. However, if it is more beneficial for participants to use their organisation’s system and everyone has full access, then it may be best to go that route.
During the training or meeting, be intentional about inclusion and engaging all participants. Majority groups are even more likely to dominate conversations in a virtual environment. Don’t hesitate to call on those you haven’t heard from. In any teaching environment, it’s important to use diverse examples to make your points but be careful with your words. Recent headlines of the USC professor who used a Mandarin word that sounded a lot like the “N” word in an online class created a firestorm with students. It appears that he meant no harm and was giving an example of how Chinese speakers use filler words, but in light of what’s going on internationally with the Black community, the context raises the question of whether this was a culturally intelligent choice. Doing this in an online environment limits the opportunity to fully see students’ reactions and safely talk together about the issue. Watch for how unconscious bias can creep into your facilitation, especially when you are virtually training others who may have a completely different set of cultural values than yours.
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Move Fast and Slow. When COVID-19 hit, we all had to move fast. Really fast. Like so many other organisations, we had to pivot and quickly adapt our face-to-face training programs to a virtual format. In addition, we had to make sure that our trainings on cultural intelligence were delivered with cultural intelligence. That meant doing a number of the things I mentioned earlier. Going forward, adapting to unexpected or unpredictable changes is expected. And we will still need to respond quickly. At the same time, hastily prepared virtual learning has proven to produce poor results. Participants are not engaged, the content lacks substance, and there are no quality measures for assessing learning, etc.
Add the dynamic of cultural intelligence, or lack of, to the equation, and you risk a virtual learning and development or training disaster.
You need to fight for balance between proactively responding to the realities of the ongoing crisis and slowing down enough so that quality learning is not compromised. One of the ways to do this is by soliciting real-time feedback and making continuous improvements.
During the virtual experience, regularly gauge the user experience to check for efficacy and learning. When doing so, be aware that some cultures may be less likely to be forthcoming about concerns or challenges. In some ways, the online format allows you to do this more efficiently than in an in-person setting. Taking polls throughout the session allows for honest, immediate, and autonomous feedback. A survey after the session can also be useful. You also might want to consider not recording the session. This may make some participants very uncomfortable and unwilling to engage and share their real feelings and thoughts.
Once you have the feedback, make the necessary changes immediately. This might include monthly or weekly adjustments to the content and how it’s delivered. This approach allows you to stay proactive and continue enhancing your virtual experiences.
Virtual learning is far from new. We’ve been transforming traditional face-to-face learning to the virtual space for years. The global pandemic just forced us to make the changes on an entirely different level and practically overnight. It also reminded us of how connected we are. This is another reason why understanding our cultural differences and working together virtually in culturally intelligent ways is critical to our long-term success.
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About Dr. Sandra Upton
Sandra Upton, DSL serves as VP, Global Diversity Practice, and provides strategic direction for applying Cultural Intelligence (CQ) to DEI work across all segments and industries. She previously worked with schools and universities through her role as Vice President of Educational Initiatives. In addition, she’s a regular speaker, trainer, and consultant on cultural intelligence with companies and non-profit organisations. As a former business school dean and organisational consultant, Sandra understands how to effectively integrate CQ with organisations’ D&I initiatives and global leadership programs. She has also facilitated study abroad experiences in places such as China, Europe, Israel, and South Africa. Sandra finds her greatest pleasure in spending time with her husband and two children. She also enjoys travel, reading, watching a good film, and long walks.