Life as an Avatar: Why Virtual Leadership Development Works

Life as an Avatar: Why Virtual Leadership Development Works

av·a·tar ˈavəˌtär/noun- Computing – an icon or figure representing a particular person in computer games, Internet forums, etc.

Had you told me five years ago that I would be facilitating leadership development programs as a virtual ‘avatar’ in a 3-D gaming environment, I would have been amused and likely a bit confused. But, here I am, doing exactly that.

For the past 3 years, ViRTUS has been working with a major international company to “onboard” newly hired managers and deliver leadership development learning opportunities. Our experience has been that interactive virtual learning really works – the courses we run have been getting highly positive feedback from participants.

That being said, not everyone – clients and facilitators included – is totally onboard with virtual learning, with many still preferring live face-to-face meetings to virtual delivery. Each approach has its pros and cons.

But, the reality is that we are living and working in an increasingly virtual world so tapping into today’s virtual tools and technologies and leveraging them for your organization makes sense for a number of reasons:

Financial Savings. Virtual offerings wipe out costs of travel, meeting venue, packing & shipping materials and displays.

Increased Productivity. The time that meeting participants aren’t traveling can be spent on productive activities.

Reduced Stress.  Talk to any busy business traveler and they will tell you that the glamour of biz travel wears thin after a while. Over-crowded planes, long line-ups for security, delayed flights, lost luggage and awful airline food.  Air travel has become a major source of stress. Driving in big cities is little better.   Avoiding these hassles reduces stress and frustration.

Corporate Social Responsibility. Cutting air travel and car journeys doesn’t just reduce cost and stress, it also helps reduce harmful carbon emissions thereby reducing the negative impact of climate change.

My personal experience, and a lot of research, tells me that virtual learning can be highly effective and have a huge impact. However, there are some things to think about before you make the leap from face-to-face to virtual to make the experience as effective as possible. It is after all – literally – a different world.

Here are my Top 3 best practices when moving into virtual learning:

Research & choose your technology wisely. Creatively designed and engaging virtual environments make a huge difference to the participant experience.  For over 3 years I’ve worked as an avatar in an Avayalive Engage environment and the experience of working with a team to transition onboarding training from a fairly static LiveMeeting environment to Avaya’s highly interactive, engaging and fun 3-D virtual environment has been incredible. Presenters and participants each access the 3-D environment from their own computers—either from home or the office.

In the environment they transform themselves into an ‘avatar’—an online persona they create to represent themselves (or a chosen alter-ego). They choose their own appearance—height and weight, hair colour and style, casual or business attire. Presenter and participants can freely ‘walk’ through the virtual environment, speak and be heard, text, and use other modes of communication.

Whichever virtual tool you choose – and there is wide choice—remember, the more interactive the environment is, the more engaged the participants will be.  Don’t be shy about mixing up different modes of communication – slide and video presentations, chat, texting between participants as well as with presenter, polling and white-boarding.

And don’t fear the fun factor. In my experience bringing fun activities into virtual learning opportunities or meetings increases participant engagement and learning. Though sometimes the fun can be a little bit too engaging. In Avayalive, for example, getting the more adventurous avatars to stop trying to climb up the building walls in the environment is sometimes a challenge!


Design for the environment. Relying on the classic face-to-face presentation format in a virtual environment is really a waste of resources. The reality is, virtual participants can far more readily multi-task than they can in a face-to-face meeting – plus it’s a great way to keep them fully engaged.

Another tip for enhancing engagement is to reduce long slabs of delivered content, by increasing opportunities for discussion and other forms of interaction. In the Avayalive Engage environment, participants can move from place to place and from one mode of communication to another.

When bringing Power Point presentations into the environment, I have found that less text and more graphics increase participant engagement.  Great graphics, large font, less text—more engagement—is the way to go.

Don’t assume knowledge but don’t underestimate the smarts of participants either. Presenters learn from participants as well as vice versa. Above all, be endlessly curious about how to generate more engagement – your participants will thank you.

Prepare participants for working in a non-traditional learning environment. Provide a thorough introduction to the new tools they will be using, preferably a day or a few days before the learning session. This will allow first-time participants to focus on the learning session, rather than dealing with basic technical and procedural glitches. Trouble-shooting can consume a lot of in-session time if participants haven’t been prepared.

Moving into this new way of meeting and learning may feel difficult at first, but once you make the move, stick with it! Don’t give up after one or two meetings where participants experience audio or other technical issues. Deal with the issues, help people be as prepared as possible and keep trying.

Many of the participants of the programs I facilitate are already working virtually; many more will be over the next few years. And for more than three years I have been part of this growing trend.

My work environment is the compact fore-cabin of the liveaboard Gulfstar trawler yacht where my husband and I live in Spruce Harbour Marina in the park-lined south side of Vancouvers’ False creek.

Going to work involves carrying a cup of coffee from the galley into the fore-cabin and cautioning the dog not to bark. When the workday is done I don’t have to catch a bus, or sit in traffic in the car, or line up to go through security at the airport. I just close my laptop, call the impatient dog and head out in for a walk along the seawall.


Laura Mack is a Conductor with ViRTUS, specializing in emotional intelligence, authentic leadership, strategic planning, leadership development and volunteers with the North Shore Restorative Justice Society as a facilitator of restorative justice.


Laura Mack

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