The connections we forge with others remain critical to the experience of assessment and development centers in the virtual world.
As humans, we have an innate need for social connection, which has long been explored and documented in social psychology literature. In fact, scientist Matthew Lieberman goes so far as to say that the human need to connect with others is as fundamental as our need for food, water, or shelter. Yet this concept of social connection seems to be largely lacking, or at best an afterthought, in much of the guidance that surrounds virtual assessment and development centers (VADCs). Perhaps this is understandable in many respects when we consider the pace at which processes and platforms are evolving, largely driven by technological capabilities and of course exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic. First, the focus has been on the more tangible, practical aspects of design and delivery – the logistics, initial communications, training, and so on. But what about how it really feels to be on the receiving end?
Feedback and experience suggest that this environment can be particularly isolating for participants (candidates and assessors alike). Issues that could be easily resolved are quickly exacerbated, as the individuals miss those informal touchpoints with each other – to feel that they are part of a genuinely shared experience. Assessment centers are an important brand building opportunity, key for engagement with the company, and creating the right impression, the image you want to portray. Similarly, networking and building connections with senior ambassadors across the organization has often been a critical objective of many development centers. Yet, ultimately, we seem to have lost sight of the end-to-end experience, exploring the nuances of each day and the importance of those less tangible (or assessment specific) touchpoints – where we might traditionally have had a coffee together, gone out for dinner, or merely taken five minutes to debrief or offload.
VADCs inevitably bring an added challenge in that participants may be experiencing the event from multiple different time zones. Also, what is appropriate may differ depending on the intended outcome. However, where possible, the suggestion is to give due consideration to what can be done to bring people together at various points outside of the assessment activities. Here are some tips:
#1—Keep It Personal
Ensure the welcome briefing and close of the center remain a group event, where all participants come together. Make it meaningful and empowering. You could ask a senior member of the organization, or relevant other, to introduce and close, e.g. by talking about their experiences. If there’s time, ask assessors to share one or two sentences about themselves (or the event) too.
#2—Create Shared Experiences
Where appropriate, build in pockets of non-assessment related group activity throughout the day. This could include virtual icebreakers, group debrief or insight sessions, or a group task that filters throughout the event, where participants need to work together in between exercises to achieve a specific outcome. You might also revisit the structure and format of the assessment exercises themselves – for example, whether there is value in extending out a group discussion to include paired follow-on activities.
Find opportunities to recreate those informal touchpoints for others and for them to build connections. For example, schedule virtual coffee breaks for small groups in between activities, or host a virtual dinner party in the evening. Consider opening an informal chat stream, separate to any forum for general communications or issues resolution, that encourages individuals to reach out to each other in the moment (“anyone around for a quick coffee?”).
Where possible, speak to participants in advance of the center – whether individually or as part of a group briefing – to give them as much insight as possible into how it will run and, importantly, how it might feel. Give participants the opportunity to ask questions and provide reassurances, outlining some of the processes, structures, or activities you have put in place to enable them to connect with others throughout the event.
Whatever you decide when designing and running your VADC, remember that social connection – the experience of feeling close to and connected with others – is a basic human need. Let’s not make it an afterthought.
Rhian is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Principal Consultant at SHL, specializing in Talent Management. She has been partnering with organizations for over 15 years to help them better understand and leverage their greatest asset, their people. She uses her expertise in leadership development and coaching to realize her passion for connecting people with their purpose, helping individuals find meaning and belonging in their work.