How to Thrive in Your New Online Environment

Employees miss the physical interaction with colleagues and clients. Students are not satisfied with their online education. Athletes lack progress without their regular training. The new online environment brings new challenges for many of us. Especially when it comes to our development in business, education and sports. However, it is often not quite clear what we are missing exactly. In this blog I will take a closer look at what is missing, how we normally help each other improve and how to do this in our new online environment.

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Employees may not have improved their business skills as much as they used to. They work from home (of course), and that decreases the physical interaction with colleagues and clients. We learn from observation of others and by practicing these skills. Also, training occurs mainly online, which makes it difficult to practice in a close-to-real-life environment. For example, practicing interpersonal communication skills is likely to be hard in an online environment. So, their ability to improve their business skills seems reduced. Or has it?

Students in The Netherlands are not satisfied with their current online education programs. They believe it significantly detracts from the quality of education, partly because they want to look each other in the eye. However, is that really what they are missing?

I must admit, I have not been working out as much as I used to do. We train at 1,5m distance, which reduces the type of training exercises we can do, and reduces the number of matches to zero. So, my ability to improve my squash skills seems reduced. Or does it?

We learn through observational learning

How exactly do we learn? According to Professor Emeritus Albert Bandura of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University, we learn through social learning. So how does this work exactly? As initially described by Bandura in 1963 and further detailed in 1977, we learn through a process of observational learning.

In the famous Bobo doll experiment, Bandura illustrates how people learn from observation.

  • First, identification: you are more likely to attend to and imitate those people you perceive as similar to yourself. These are your role models. Consequently, it is more likely you imitate behavior modeled by people that are more likely in gender, age, or social group.
  • Second, reinforcement: if you perceive the consequences as rewarding, you will likely continue performing that behavior. So, you are more likely to provide a summary at the end of internal meetings, when your role models compliments you on this behavior.
  • Third, vicarious reinforcement: you will also look at what happens to others when deciding whether to copy someone’s behavior. So you will also learn by observing the consequences for the role models performing the same behavior. So, when your role model summarizes the main points in client meetings, for example, you observe whether this has positive consequences for your role model. If you perceive this behavior to be beneficial to your role model, you will be more likely to copy this behavior.
  • Fourth, reciprocal determinism: you are influenced by the behavior of your role models in a specific situation, but because you copy this behavior, you also influence your role models and other people. For example, when you provide feedback at the end of internal meetings, your role model may notice the positive effects and starts using this in other meetings more often. Hence, your behavior, the situation and other people’s behavior all reciprocally influence each other.

How to learn in an online environment

So learning occurs for an important part by observation and copying that behavior if we see that this has positive consequences. I currently lack the opportunity to practice squash matches, because of the 1.5 meter restriction. Similarly, you feel you lack opportunity to practice your business skills, because you cannot observe your manager demonstrating the desired behavior. However, many aspects of our learning experience are of a social nature: they way we interact with the people around us. And there are two other general categories of social learning that we can use to improve our skills:

1. Verbal instruction

Someone describes the desired behavior in detail and instructs you in how to engage in the behavior. For example, verbally exchanging squash exercises to improve certain techniques or read a book on how to communicate effectively with different people in a business environment (e.g. “Surrounded by idiots”).

2. Symbolic instruction

You can watch free instruction movies (e.g. YouTube) or paid instruction movies (e.g. Coursera or Udemy) to improve your skills. For example, watching a tournament game of squash of two top rated players to improve your squash skills or watching presidential debates to improve your argumentation skills.

Combining verbal and symbolic instruction

The best way to improve learning employs both of verbal and symbolic instruction. This is what my squash trainer often does in improving a specific skill. He then pulls out his iPhone and we watch a movie of two top rated squash players (symbolic instruction) and points out when the players do this right and how they do that (verbal instruction).

Effective online training courses also employ this technique. They have slides and video’s that are accompanied by detailed verbal and symbolic instruction in how to engage in the proposed behavior. Many people believe that what is missing from an online training course is the live model, because they believe that they are missing body language or other non-verbal information that is out of the camera’s view.

Adding practice sessions is a crucial element

In reality, most people seem to miss the opportunity to practice the desired behavior in front of a live audience and receive feedback from that audience in a training environment. This audience effect arises when someone’s behavior is affected because they are being observed by others. In training situations we have to overcome some initial anxiety to perform the desired behavior, because we are afraid of rejection from the other participants of the training. A well designed training aims to reduce this anxiety and to create a safe environment for the much needed practicing. When no confidence is built in the training environment, anxiety will be even higher in the actual business environment.

Thus, a good addition to online training courses should be practicing the desired behavior in front of an audience. This would enhance participants skill and confidence in that behavior. As a result, practicing this behavior in a safe online training environment would greatly enhance people’s ability to perform the behavior in real life. So you do not have to worry about improved you business skills, just as long as your online training includes verbal instructions, symbolic instruction and practice sessions!

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Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral economist and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.

Want to know how you can get your marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop an email at niels@behavioralinsight.nl

Source of top image: Karolina Grabowska


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