Like you, we’re all thinking about how the Pandemic will change our personal and work lives. For sure, we’re all getting better at working virtually, and whether we like it or not, we’ve found ways to be effective—or at least somewhat more efficient—with virtual meetings.

Undoubtedly some of these newly found skills will continue to serve us well after the Pandemic is over and life returns to the “new normal.” In fact, some of these changes are already taking hold in the form of “virtual assignments.” (We will address that in a future blog.)

One of the other changes we’re sure will remain is shorter, virtual training sessions. I’m certain this will also impact the way expat training is conducted because we’ve seen expat training change with the growth of globalization over the years.

Years and years ago, expat training was a three- to five-day session in-residence, where candidates and their families would go offsite and be immersed in an intercultural learning environment with places ranging from Farnham Castle outside London to Boulder, Colorado to Washington DC.

As both globalization and the appreciation of culture’s impact on business practices grew, expat assignments increased in number. The training sessions morphed into one-day face-to-face (and half-day) sessions. Even before the outbreak of the Pandemic, virtual sessions were becoming more and more popular—a completely logical outgrowth given today’s inherently global business environment.

These sessions were not only more efficient and less costly, they also responded to the virtual learning revolution that was occurring simultaneously. In fact, virtual expat training overcame three barriers of face-to-face learning:

  • Training sessions could now be delivered easily anywhere in the world.
  • Remote training options are flexible and can work with an expat’s time constraints.
  • Shifting norms. Virtual training is appropriate for a generation of new expats who had already expected information to be transmitted online.

With that as a background, coupled with the restrictions we are all experiencing in response to the Pandemic, we need no further argument to support the need for instituting new and fresh virtual expat training. That said, one of the most important changes we need to make is to fully integrate the human element with the technology.

Setting a New Precedent for Expat Training: Staying Human in a Virtual Environment

We define “virtual expat training” as an integrated whole that begins with self-directed online learning for pre-work, seamlessly integrated with a one or more virtual face-to-face instructor-led sessions, followed by post-work to reinforce the learning. It can be made even more powerful with follow-up virtual face-to-face coaching. 

But in order for virtual expat training to be effective, it needs to be entirely redesigned from the ground up—not adapted from existing models. And it certainly can’t condense traditional training. The foundation of effective virtual training must incorporate several key elements:

  1. A natural flow between online learning and coaching reinforcement. Seamless blending of self-directed and instructor-led components will ensure trainees can readily interact with coaches who can help them hone their skills.
  2. Visual contact. Face-to-face coaching via webcam is invaluable for retaining the “human” element.
  3. Practice and training. Integrated supplementary resources like pre- and post-learning materials can help facilitate practice and training.
  4. Engaging materials. Today’s learners expect visually and mentally stimulating content that helps keep them engaged.
  5. Sessions that are limited in time and scope. People have limited patience for sitting at a computer, therefore multiple 90-minute sessions should be the limit.

Why Coaches are Needed in Virtual Training

To learn is to gain information. Much of that can be done effectively during self-directed online sessions. To train, on the other hand, is to gain new skills by integrating your new-found knowledge and practicing how to make that knowledge tactical and practical. But in order to really train effectively, you need a coach who can help you improve your skills.

For example, when you’re learning to get along in another culture, you first must build self-awareness about your personal cultural preferences because you cannot adapt to other cultures without first understanding yourself. But, it’s difficult to translate that self-understanding into the ability to flex your style so that you maintain your personal authenticity while behaving in a way that resonates with people from other cultures and backgrounds. Training helps you modify your actions so that you will be most effective, and coaches can help you pinpoint exactly what you need to do.

Say you come from an egalitarian environment where people feel ready to take initiative when they see something needs to be done. You’ll need coaching to retain your effectiveness when working with people who expect to be given specific directions before starting a new task.

You cannot underestimate the difficulty of making that transition, which looks simple on the surface. To fully appreciate the complexities of being a successful expat, you need to exponentially multiply that challenge by dozens of other cultural practices.

So, what does virtual expat training look like in the foreseeable future? In some cases, trainers will still sit with expat families in the same space, but in most cases, it will mean adapting to fully integrated online, self-directed and virtual face-to-face programs. We see that as a welcome change because it makes the learning and training more accessible to today’s needs and expectations of Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z international assignee candidates.