Contractors are tweaking training strategies. Software suppliers are customizing content, structure and pace of their programs to exploit technology for collaborative, online learning. As a result, both report that training experiences and results are matching pre-pandemic levels. Some contractors even say that when done right, online training gives them scheduling flexibility, improved knowledge retention and a better ability to fit training in without disrupting day-to-day responsibilities.
“In the end, online training may have actually been better for us,” says Chris Byers, vice president at Bryant’s Land and Development. In-person training offers advantages that are hard to replicate, but Byers is among the contractors that discovered a positive tradeoff when forced to shift to an online format: flexibility.
Plans for a B2W trainer to visit his company in North Carolina were derailed by the pandemic. Byers and a colleague opted instead for two-hour sessions spread out over three days to learn the ins and outs of newly installed B2W Estimate software.
“Doing it online took a little longer, but that was not a problem for us,” says Byers. “Breaking up the training into shorter sessions helped with our workload. We weren’t pulled away from managing our everyday work for too long. I’m not sure how we would have done it with full-day sessions.”
B2W typically delivers in-person training in day-long sessions over one, two or even three consecutive days. Because a trainer is traveling to a contractor’s site, and a contractor is pulling employees away from work to come to a central office or travel to a B2W site, there is an impetus to pack as much training as possible into the shortest possible time frame.
“That format has proven benefits, including face-to face interaction and the opportunity to complete training more quickly,” says Michelle Connor, who manages training programs for B2W. “Some of our customers also prefer more intensive all-day sessions, because employees can focus 100 percent on the software, without being distracted and bouncing back and forth between training and regular responsibilities.” Others don’t mind trading the intensity and compressed timeframe for flexibility.
Christina Conaway of the Serco Construction Group in Texas says attendee focus was not adversely affected by the virtual aspect of training. “I believe that the training was more efficient taken online than in-person,” she says. “Two-hour blocks per session were a good length that kept the users engaged throughout.”
Like Bryant’s Land and Development, Serco planned for in-person training prior to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, seven users logged in from two separate office locations for 12 hours of B2W training spread over three days.
“We had no issues with the online meeting software, and the B2W trainer did a good job catering to the variety of experience levels among our seven attendees,” Conaway adds. Separately, a single new user at Serco completed six hours of online training.
Conaway did acknowledge that online training made it a little easier for individual employees to step away occasionally from all or part of a session to deal with other issues. “Users may have taken attendance a bit more seriously with an in-person format and instructor,” she speculates.
Byers cited another benefit of not trying to absorb an entire day’s worth of instruction in one block. “We had time in between the shorter sessions or at night to go in and experiment a little with the software and test what we had learned,” he explains. “This gave us time to digest the material more slowly and also to come back to the next sessions with any questions or roadblocks that we ran into.”
Keeping it Personal
Connor says there were some misconceptions when the coronavirus first started to impact travel and in-person training. Some contractors assumed incorrectly that remote training meant generic, recorded videos.
“In reality, our online sessions are always presented live by one of our trainers and customized according to the needs of each individual contractor,” the B2W training manager says. She points out that an extensive library of B2W training videos is then available to supplement or refresh what is presented in the training sessions.
Adapting the curriculum to work with the online format is vital too. “You can’t just take the material you would present in person and try to do it exactly the same way through GoToMeeting,” according to Connor.
First, B2W online sessions are 90 minutes or two hours long. Experience has taught Connor’s team that these are optimal lengths of time for holding the attention of attendees. “We have also adapted how we teach and how to break up the material for each B2W product to match these timeframes and this format,” Connor adds.
Contractors have completed as much as five hours of online B2W training in a single day, although most prefer to do less per day and spread the training out over more days.
Connor points out that, one hallmark of the B2W training approach remains constant regardless of the format. Online or in-person, B2W users always train using their own databases. B2W staff work with contractors prior to training during the software implementation phase to populate these databases with actual estimating cost items or operational information like employees, equipment, jobs and phase codes, for example.
Using their own data instead of a generic database during training gives contractors a head-start and a true feel for using the software according to their specific requirements.
Technology helps too with the effectiveness of online training. B2W relies primarily on GoToMeeting. Advancements in reliability and user interfaces make the experience far smoother than it would have been a few years ago. The B2W team can even do tablet training for scheduling, field tracking and equipment maintenance modules, simulating the remote, mobile environments that users work in.
Contractors as well as software suppliers do need to pay attention to Internet capacity and connections, particularly if the trainers or those attending the classes are connecting remotely from outside of their office location.
Connor says in-person classes remain a proven option and she expects the volume to pick back up when travel restrictions recede. Improvements in online meeting technology, experiences using it in recent months and the adaption of teaching materials and techniques, however, could have a lasting impact on how construction software training is delivered in the future.
“We offered virtual classes before, and the pandemic led our trainers to fine tune and expand our online curriculum to further optimize this option,” she explains. “We’ve been able to deliver results comparable to live training, and this will give our customers even more flexibility to choose in-person or online training, or a combination of the two, to match their individual requirements and preferences going forward.”