When you’re designing Organisational Learning and Development Programmes, you’ve probably found yourself in the dilemma situation of wondering whether you should plan for in-person or virtual delivery. 

Here are the pros and cons of each:

In-person: Pros and cons

In-person deliveries are what people are most familiar with. They offer the opportunity to get together with colleagues, to build relationships, to network across departments by being in one physical room and by having informal conversations at break times and over lunch. In this way, they’re more personable and socially spontaneous. This is the prime reason that certain clients still insist on getting together in a room, to learn together.

The learning subject matters when you’re deciding between in-person or virtual. If it’s a physical skills session such as Presentation Skills or Personal Impact, you’d most definitely want to be in person. But some other topics (listed below) may be more conducive to online learning.

Learning is more sticky when it’s experiential. Whilst some types of experiential exercise can be done virtually, there’s way more scope to run such exercises when you’re in-person. Getting people on their feet and moving around the room or even outdoors can shift participants’ flagging energy and make the learning more memorable. For example, you can lay out a giant two-by-two matrix on the floor and have participants walk the quadrants, discussing the characteristics and behaviours of each quadrant. This works well for participants with visual as well as kinaesthetic learning preferences, anchoring the learning as they go. Or you can have participants visit different stations in the room, to solve a puzzle, to create something or to capture their group thinking.

In-person means that your participants can self-organise for ‘mingling’ exercises, whereby they share information with one person, then another, then another as they work the room.

As the learning facilitator, you can more easily keep your eye on whether the participants are staying focused when you’re in a physical room. When you’ve designed an exercise for them to do in smaller groups, you’re able to quickly see whether they’re getting distracted or going off-piste rather than following the exercise instructions correctly.

The downside of in-person is of course the cost. If you don’t have in-house space, you’ll be having to pay for venue hire and perhaps also covering participants’ travel and accommodation costs if they’re coming from far afield. If your organisation covers several locations or you’re a multinational, the chances of freeing people up to travel to attend a programme far away diminishes.

Virtual: Pros and cons

The great advantage of virtual learning is its convenience. Participants can be in the office or on a work-from-home day and log on to their learning programme. This of course means that there’s no commute or travel (and accommodation) required for the learner, and no venue or catering required by the provider. Not needing to organise the physical logistics means that virtual learning is much quicker on administrative time too.

In order to successfully run a virtual session, each participant would need to be on their individual computer with webcam access. So, it really is only an option when everyone has the technology and when participants are confident to be seen on-camera. It goes wrong when participants are camera-shy or in busy offices where they might be distracted or needed by colleagues. And it doesn’t work when you’re asking them to share something personal about themselves or to work on sensitive topics, when they’re within earshot of colleagues.

Ideally, virtual participants will have a quiet space to themselves where they’re able to talk freely and to not feel inhibited about the information they’re sharing or when participating in an exercise / role-playing. 

If the learning topic is a psychology or behavioural one, such as Creating Psychological Safety or Developing Emotional Intelligence, or an intellectual subject, such as Strategic Decision-Making, then virtual learning usually works well for the reasons listed above. 

Online also works well for communication skills topics such as Having Difficult Conversations or Giving Feedback, as the breakout rooms mean that the practising small groups have focused, private online space to create a safe learning environment (provided that their computer is also in a quiet, private room). It means that their conversations are not overheard by other groups, and it means that the facilitator can easily assign co-facilitators to observe a breakout room activity or else pop in and out of rooms themselves.

The biggest challenge for the facilitator is to keep online participants sufficiently engaged that they are not tempted to be drawn into work emails/messages or to be texting on their phones. The bigger the group, the more likely that participants are less engaged and less disciplined to be solely focused on their learning.

Because of its convenience, bite-sized learning can be delivered online in shorter time windows, more frequently. 

Virtual apps are ever-evolving, offering many of the regular features that are doable in person; slide sharing, whiteboard, breakout rooms, and more. And they can be used in combination with other apps to add extra features and workspaces for collaboration, e.g. Miro, Mentimeter, Jamboard, etc. These work best of course when the facilitator is confident with the various apps and functions, but it’s also important that the participants are not overwhelmed or anxious about their own ability to navigate them.

Beware the hybrid option!

Clients often ask if they can create a hybrid learning set-up with a mix of virtual and in-person. In short, the answer is, “No!”. Virtual works best when all fellow participants are also virtual. 

Hybrid sessions where some people are in a room together and others are on Zoom/Teams/etc. tend to be disappointing. It restricts participation in exercises and conversations, especially when participants are working in smaller groups. 

The work-around would be to have the small in-person group to have a portable laptop and just one virtual participant working with them (a ‘head in a box’), but it’s just not the same as everyone sitting in a circle together or everyone being in an online breakout room together.

For multi-module programmes, consider a mix

When you’re designing a programme that comprises various modules, consider which modules would be best suited to being in-person. Your first module could be in-person, for example, so that people have the opportunity to get to know one another quicker. Subsequent modules might be online and you then round off the programme in-person too, to help boost the sense of achievement and to provide more of a celebration.

Decision-making questions to consider

  • What’s the size of your group? Would everyone fit on one laptop screen?
  • How well do participants know one another? Do they need the opportunity to get to know one another in a real room?
  • How far would people need to travel to get together? What are the time, admin and cost implications?
  • Which topics are more effective facilitated in person?
  • Which topics are more effective facilitated online?
  • How effective would online learning be compared to in-person?
  • Does your limited budget mean that you can offer more learning scope to participants online than in-person? Or have two co-facilitators instead of one?
In-person – prosVirtual – pros
More sociable spontaneityMore convenience; no travel
More relationship-buildingReduced cost e.g. no venue hire & training budget stretches further
More dynamic experientialLess admin/logistics arrangements
Easier overview of participantsQuick transition to breakout rooms
Easier energy tracking & managementAvailability of online tools/functions
Less e-distractionsHandouts in e-version; less printing
More of a memorable experience (e.g. reward in the form of off-site learning)Apt for shorter learning bites and more frequent modules
Break from screen time 

In the early days of participants experiencing online learning, feedback from many was that they enjoyed the experience at least as much as they would have done in-person and that they also learnt as much. They were quite surprised! Now that online learning has become more accepted and has been run for a few years, survey results are telling us that participants appreciate the accessibility and convenience of online. Client organisations in turn enjoy their L&D budgets stretching further.

But there are some downsides to be aware of:

In-person – consVirtual – cons
Cost of venue, travel, catering, etc.Not so much social spontaneity
Less convenienceLess networking
Time investment for admin/logistics arrangementsAdds screen-time
Transition to and back from breakout rooms can be lengthyTypes of experiential exercises more limited
Handouts may require printingRequires individual computers with functioning audio & webcam, and app familiarity 
 Requires willingness to be on-camera
 E-distractions may affect true presence
 Energy tracking & management more tricky
 May require booking meeting room for each participant

To discuss your learning requirements and for more information about Stratton HR’s Learning & Development Programmes portfolio, please contact Team@strattonhr.co.uk

Katie Demain
15th August 2023

Related Insights

Learning & Development

Establishing a rhythm of one to one meetings as part of your growth culture

Katie Demain
05th December 2023
Continue Reading
Learning & Development

How to run really effective one to one meetings 

25th October 2023
Continue Reading
Learning & Development

Your one to one meetings as a retention strategy 

19th October 2023
Continue Reading
Learning & Development
4 min read

Is the cost of living affecting your learning & development spend?

The cost of living is on everyone’s mind. Perhaps even more so for business leaders as employees look to them for support. As a business, you might be looking for ways to offset cost of living initiatives you’ve introduced to support...

Wahida Mukadam
07th April 2023
Continue Reading
HR Support Learning & Development
4 min read

Get the most out of virtual working

Virtual working and virtual teams are becoming increasingly popular and common-place. Extended flexible working rights, improved technology and social change have enabled employees to carry out their roles from home while still...

Anna Cornwallis
04th January 2023
Continue Reading