I recently did something I hadn’t done in two years. I put on a collared shirt, slipped on a sports jacket, and stood on stage in a hotel ballroom to deliver a presentation. After what felt like an eternity on Zoom, it was fun to connect with the crowd, share a laugh, and debrief over a nice meal together afterward.
And yet, this positive experience masks a darker insight. In many parts of life, just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Think of opting for a cocktail or exercise after work, or ordering a big plate of nachos instead of a salad. It turns out that in-person classroom learning is the same: It feels better to most people than learning online, but when done well, online learning wins hands down.
After four years analyzing thousands of data points across hundreds of behavior change initiatives, I’m watching with concern as some companies shift their learning activities back to in-person workshops. This is a terrible loss now that we’re in the habit of learning online and because virtual learning may be a key to helping companies adapt faster to our rapidly changing times.
The surprise results of virtual learning
If an organization wants to enact culture change at scale, it can’t just rely on top leaders to implement new behaviors. Instead, such change requires employees at every level to build new enduring habits by thinking and acting in new ways, literally every week.
To measure this kind of change, we developed a way to track how many people do something new on a weekly basis, over time, after a learning session. We call this the “behavior change percentage,” or BCP for short. We found that the average BCP of our own in-person workshops was 54%. That’s a strong result: Getting half a large audience to do something new each week, several weeks after a learning experience, is no easy feat. And yet, the same content delivered virtually had a BCP of 84%.
Out of curiosity, we also captured and averaged net promoter scores (NPS), which measure the likelihood of people encouraging others to engage in such learning. Any score above zero is considered good, and online deliveries had an NPS of +12, while in-person events averaged -6.
To simplify, this means virtual learning in our case was over 50% more effective than in-person learning at driving real behavioral change. Imagine a workforce of 10,000 employees. That means that 8,400 individuals would change how they work with a virtual experience, compared to only 5,400 if the learning was done in person. And that’s before we even think about the costs, effort, and disruption associated with bringing 10,000 people together in person.
Our data is the opposite of what people predict. Most people think in-person learning, which is usually done in hours-long blocks, is better than spacing out learning in, say, 60-minute sessions over multiple weeks. To test our hypothesis further, we recently went back to more than 500 people in one organization who had activated new habits around having a growth mindset, using a virtual solution. Two weeks after the program, we found BCP was around 90%. Six months later, the BCP had only dropped to 85%.
Why does learning virtually work so well for cultivating new habits? To start, learning in small chunks over time allows you to learn one thing, apply it, and then come back and learn the next thing. This can’t happen during an in-person workshop, where you leave with pages of to-do’s. Second, the act of spacing learning out has a strong positive effect on memory, meaning even a one-time virtual workshop wouldn’t be as effective. And finally, learning over time, especially if the learning is made to be social in nature, increases the likelihood you’ll take some kind of action. When we did a thought experiment that looked at the effectiveness of a single, three-hour workshop delivered online or in-person versus three, one-hour events over three weeks, we concluded that people on average took seven times as many actions.
Impact an entire organization, fast
A lot of learning design follows a top-down model. The theory goes, train top leaders, and the effects should trickle down. That’s why we still see companies try to get the top 100 executives of a 10,000-person firm into a learning experience in person, and watch half a year go by before getting only 60% of them into the classroom.
But research shows the biggest factor in why people change is that they think other people are changing. Instead of a top-down model, we believe in an “everyone to everyone” model. Using a virtual approach in far less time than it would take to wrangle top executives, the majority of 10,000 employees could be doing something new every week. With the half-life of many skills shrinking fast, virtual learning enables an entire company to change in weeks instead of years.
Finally, consider this: While it was fun to be back on stage and share a laugh with the crowd, I found myself missing the dynamism of getting everyone responding to questions in the chat in real-time, thereby increasing inclusion. Instead, I watched the confident people with power in the crowd speak up, and many others say nothing. Also, with the costs and challenges of scaling in-person learning, those in the front lines of organizations, generally a more diverse audience, are often excluded from valuable development. With clever design, you can involve everyone in virtual learning, whether working on a factory floor, in a retail store, at the office, or at home.
In short, as you think about going back to in-person learning events, while it might be fun to see hands up in a room again, you might want to think twice. If you want the fun and connection of bringing people together, perhaps take a hybrid approach, kicking off a program in person but leaving the real learning for online. When it comes to real and sustained behavioral change, virtual learning, done well, beats in-person learning hands down.
Katherine Milan is the senior vice president of client experience and product at the NeuroLeadership Institute.