When Your People Are Busy Working While Attending Training

This is a rewritten excerpt taken from Regina Morris’s sharing at People Potential’s regular Community of Practice, a weekly meet-up of subject matter experts, trainers, facilitators, and instructional design practitioners who come together to improve themselves. It’s part of People Potential’s commitment to our clients. Regina is People Potential’s senior business presentations specialist.

Over the years, there have been times I found myself leading a training session with participants who aren’t wholly present. They could be coming in late (or sometimes not at all), multitasking throughout training, leaving early, or engaging with the material with a 6-foot pole, content to let their teammates do the heavy lifting. No, they’re not daydreaming, far from it; they’re too busy working while attending training.

Often, they care about their work so much that they have forgotten that to be efficient is to take some time off to sharpen the axe. It’s harder to chop off our to-do lists when we don’t have enough tools in our work-life toolbox. The good news is that these tools can often come from well-designed training programmes. Alas, when our to-do lists look like a never-ending forest of trees stretching out into the distance, it’s hard to maintain the objective opinion that we must regularly sharpen our axes.

So what should you do as an L&D or HR professional when your training participants are too busy to engage with training fully? Here are my experience and a few strategies for dealing with participants who juggle plates, knives, and flaming sticks.

Two reframes that make training effective for the busy professional.

Recently, I led a two-day training program with 15 participants. During the training, I noticed that some participants were multitasking, leaving early, and not fully engaging in the programme. And despite setting norms and expectations at the start of the first day, the same behaviours persisted. One participant said that he had to be ready to work at a moment’s notice throughout the two-day training program, listening while attending to urgent tasks, and then leaving for meetings, sometimes not coming back on time after breaks and after lunch. “I have to be on standby,” he said. It was time for me to do some reframing. 

Like Robin Williams as he attempts to instil passion into his students in The Dead Poet’s Society. Or Michelle Pfieffer in Dangerous Minds as she tries to grow the minds of inner-city kids in an underfunded school. You’ll find that they spend significant time reframing their students’ thinking. 

Robin Williams reframed his student’s glacial attitude to learning with “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” He pointed at the black and white pictures of the school students much older than they were, proclaiming, “They’re worm food now.” As he helped his students break free of societal expectations and embrace their passions (before they become worm food themselves).

In her character LouAnne Johnson, Michelle Pfeiffer said, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish” – with this reframe, Johnson emphasised that her students’ pasts do not determine their futures. Such reframing encourages students to believe in themselves and their ability to achieve their goals despite current circumstances.

I had to do something to break my participant’s preoccupation with being elsewhere and doing something else. So I created two reframes for the busy bees in the training programme.


Reframe 1) You’re responsible for your results.

In previous training runs, two-thirds of the training participants at ‘Company A’  hadn’t joined the training at our usual 9 am start. To interrupt this pattern, I turned the ownership of the program over to the participants. I asked one of the participants to give us a time for a hard start. “9.15 am!” he declared. So we started the workshop at 9:15 am.

At the start, I brought the participants away from their tables, formed a circle at the back of the room, did an icebreaker, and asked them why they were there for training. This was to figure out what was important to them in the context of the business presentations programme that they were there for. 

After they shared their reasons, I asked them to rate their presentation skills on a scale of one to ten. Most of them rated themselves a three, four, or five. I then asked them if they wanted to get better, what they needed to do to get there, and how their life would improve if they were at level 8 or 9. They said, “We need to pay attention,” which became part of the three Ps: Participate, Practice, and Presence.

Once they understood that they had to participate, practice, and be present to get results, it was time for the next reframe.


Reframe 2) The one who chases two rabbits catches neither.

I spoke against multitasking, and how it isn’t the efficiency mountain, we make it out to be. I find that when participants can finish their work tasks, they’re more likely to participate, practice and be present. So I moved breaks and meal times around so that they would have the opportunity to work on their daily tasks. Then when it came to learning during training, they automatically put away their laptops and phones and paid attention. They were almost relieved that someone understood their need for time.

A saying comes to mind, “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” – Confucius.

As we all know, no one can argue with Confucius. And neither did the training participants. They all agreed that multi-tasking was a bad idea.

After these two reframes, the participants were significantly more engaged; they worked independently and in groups and enjoyed themselves as they practised non-verbal communication. At the end of day two, they rated themselves much higher than they did on day one; they were mostly sixes, sevens and eights, as opposed to the original threes, fours and fives. Some of them were modest; I would have rated these superstars an eight or nine. 


Actions for Reframing

To sum it all up, you can establish these two reframes (Reframe 1: You’re responsible for your results. Reframe 2: The man who chases two rabbits catches neither) in your training sessions and help your busy bees to focus when you use the following strategies:

  • Turn the responsibility of ownership of the program over to the participants. Allow them to self-regulate their group. 
  • Encourage participants to give themselves a baseline rating, even a quick one as I did will do, and ask them what they need to do to improve.
  • Interrupt the ‘too busy to learn’ pattern by changing the training schedule or format to accommodate sporadic work without affecting the programme learning time. Offer times when they can work on their tasks and other times when laptops and phones are not allowed.
  • Give them a sense of comfort by modifying breaks and meals so that they can pop in to work on tasks. Remember, these are people who are too hardworking rather than too lazy. In the spirit of giving the participants ownership of learning, allow them to set their break and meal times.
  • Empathise with the needs of your audience while doing justice to the programme.
  • Emphasise that the three Ps: Participate, Practice, and Presence lead to mastery.
  • Offer positive reinforcement by acknowledging their progress (and their change in behaviours).
  • And if all else fails, use Confucious since no one can argue with him.

The credit might not be mine, but something odd happened after the reframes. In the next run of the programme, a month later, most of the participants, different participants from the previous batch, arrived for training on time and turned off their laptops as the clock struck 9 am.

Then there’s the story of Sarah. Sarah has been a secretary for 25 years. She wasn’t comfortable speaking English, and she struggled at the start. So I told her to go ahead and speak in Malay. In the final presentation on the last day, Sarah stunned everyone. The other participants had mouths wide open, and when she finished, they all looked at her silently. They didn’t know what to say, and that’s when some of them burst out, chuckling. I was perplexed at what they were chuckling about, so I asked them why. They said, “I can’t believe this is the same person.”

She spoke so clearly. 

She had gestures in spades.

Her body language, her voice, she was just going at it. Having fun in what used to be a difficult situation for her. I asked Sarah, “How did this happen?” And she said, “Practice, practice, practice.”

You can’t do that when you’re catching two rabbits at once.

Note that identities and story specifics have been changed to protect the identity of our clients.

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