A pivot to virtual training

Viasat employees find benefits in switch to online vs. in-person learning and development courses


Rebecca Abercrombie became a manager for the first time in her career in April 2020. As a talent acquisition manager for Viasat, she now oversees two people – so far all remotely. So when the company offered a virtual leadership development program, she eagerly signed up.

“Becoming a manager has been exciting, but in the time of COVID, the situation has been unique because you’re not managing people on site,” said Abercrombie.

Working remotely is old hat to Virginia resident Abercrombie, who has worked from home for the company for 11 years. But Viasat’s recent training track — Leadership Effectiveness: Adapt and Discover (LEAD) — surprised her.

LEAD helps managers understand different work styles, learn how to have difficult conversations, offer feedback and coaching, and motivate others. It’s offered to managers from every area of the company.

Held via Zoom, the virtual version offered new tools that Abercrombie said made participation easier and more natural for her.

“They’ve done a really good job of creating opportunities for interaction, with breakout rooms, polls and having people write on (virtual) white boards,” she said. “In a large conference room, I’d be the one who wouldn’t raise her hand to avoid having 50 pairs of eyes on me. But to put something into the chat or write what I’m thinking on the white board is so much easier.”


Rebecca Abercrombie and Kirk Friedman

Changing course

Like everyone at Viasat, members of the Learning and Development team had to make some drastic changes after the pandemic shifted most of Viasat’s 5,000-plus employees to working from home.

“A lot of our leadership development programs were previously held in-person with everyone together in a conference room,” said Lana Barendse, learning and development specialist. “Last March, we started asking, ‘How do we still develop our managers and leaders in this new virtual environment?’”

The team adapted its LEAD program from two full days to eight sessions spread in two-hour or less time blocks over six weeks. Zoom offers the opportunity for breakout rooms — sessions held in private rooms that allow for small group discussion. Zoom also has a chat box feature, as well as the white board or annotate tool that lets people anonymously add comments.

“What we found is it really creates an environment where there’s something for everyone,” Barendse said. “Natural extroverts love the ability to unmute and communicate verbally. Folks who are more analytical can add their thoughts in the chat box, or type it on the slide. You can participate in a way that best connects to your learning style. That’s a huge perk and an unexpected finding from the virtual setting.”

Systems engineer manager Kirk Friedman also gave the online class a positive review.

“I enjoy my job,” he said. “I want to help people grow, and the course really provided some good insights. In a way, there was a lot more focus in the virtual setting. There weren’t distractions when you broke up into small groups; there was nobody at the table next to you also talking. That was a positive.”

He added that the small rooms enabled more solid contacts with other participants. The virtual setting also makes the courses more accessible. Because many such programs were previously offered on site at Viasat’s Carlsbad, CA headquarters, employees not based there either traveled to attend or requested the program be replicated at their location; that typically required flying a facilitator to the site. Those arrangements were not only costly, but sometimes difficult for employees with family and other commitments to meet.

“A great aspect of virtual learning is that we don’t have those barriers,” Barendse said. “As long as it works in their time zone, there’s nothing holding people back from participating.”

Abercrombie agreed.

“In the last 11 years, there have been several courses I looked into, but when I saw they were in-person only, I didn’t sign up,” she said. “Offering them in a hybrid form – in person, virtual or both – I think is fantastic. It gives a lot of people who aren’t based in Carlsbad the opportunity to take advantage of more learning and development options.”

As the rate of vaccinations increase and the pandemic eases, offices across the country will re-open. But many practices of the past — including hosting large, in-person employee courses — may not look as they did pre-pandemic.

“We’re going to have to adapt to whatever comes next,” Barendse said. “We need to learn how we can incorporate some of the learnings from this past year into the future. That may mean leadership programs in the future may have an in-person and a virtual version. I believe the future is hybrid