Freedom and Choice in Virtual Training

Participants in virtual training are often maneuvered by unseen hands through a communal experience without their consent.

We’ve all been there…in the midst of a valuable discussion or nearing a powerful realization when suddenly the breakout room disintegrates, and we are dropped into the main room. Participants can feel manhandled and out of control in virtual training as they are forced into groups they didn’t choose and moved whether they like it or not.

Since the Fourth of July, I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom and choice. Humans are wired for independence, and technology increasingly caters to our preferences and creates customized experiences…except in virtual training, where we are often maneuvered by unseen hands through a communal experience without our consent.


Here are three ways to add freedom and choice to virtual training so participants feel respected and at ease:

1. Invite people to communicate how they want. When asking participants to share in a public forum (chat, group discussion, Google doc), consider who really needs to know/see the responses and offer a range of ways to communicate—private chat or e-mail you, simply think about it and not share, etc. Do this whether the public forum is anonymous or not. Often, this permission encourages people to share more (which is beside the point here but a cool bonus). See #4 in my April 2022 column (

2. Give a pass. We know that allowing participants to “pass” at any time for any reason offers them psychological safety, which benefits learning. Make “taking a pass” easy and low risk in your virtual trainings. At the start, let participants know they can say or hold up a sign that states, “No, thanks”; private chat you before an activity or group discussion; add an agreed-upon character to their virtual name tag; etc., to indicate that they prefer not to share. I sometimes do a virtual ball toss so participants can share, choose who goes next, and toss the “ball” to them. I welcome people who are not ready to share yet (or ever) to simply catch the virtual ball, call out someone’s name, and “toss” it to them without sharing. Giving people freedom to not share (with zero negative repercussions) creates safety and shows respect. Again, this can inspire those who wouldn’t otherwise to share…because now they are choosing rather than feeling coerced.

3. Allow self-selecting breakout groups. If your technology platform allows it, let participants choose, enter, and move between breakout groups on their own. Post the group numbers/identifiers on a slide, give clear instructions and a time frame, remind them where to get help, and let them loose! You may identify groups by:

Topic: For example, Market trends + Company challenges + Emerging customer needs

Level of expertise: For example, the same prompt for Newbies + Mid-landers + Veterans, or several unique prompts, such as Big questions from newbies + Best new practices from the middle + Things I wish I knew sooner from veterans

Steps in a process: For example, Identifying my tough interview questions + Crafting my good answers + Practicing my answers. There may be supportive materials in a handout and a guide in each room.

If your platform doesn’t allow this, or your participants do not have the tech capacity (and your group is small enough or you have co-hosts/producers to help), you may ask them to communicate which group they want to go to (hold up their fingers), so you can move them. When they are ready, they can leave the breakout group and let you know where they want to go next. This may sound complicated, but I do it regularly; participants like it and it supports engagement and learning.

For the sake of our learners and outcomes, let’s deliberately embed freedom and choice into virtual training!