Nigel Ross, an L&D Professional specialising in the voluntary sector, shares his thoughts on how the global pandemic has changed L&D for volunteers

Image is of a laptop and tablet, sitting on a desk next to a set of headphones, plugged into a smart phone. On the laptop and tablet screen is the image of bookshelves. The background is a blurred image of the same bookshelves.

Providing volunteers with all the skills and knowledge required to successfully carry out their role is vital and most organisations pride themselves on having established excellent induction and training courses for their volunteers.

Covid-19 has challenged everything we do. Face-to-face and classroom based programmes are now largely impossible to deliver, and the only viable alternative is a virtual training programme.

Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Webex and Zoom are currently free to use, and most of us are now very confident at virtual meetings – so it is a small step for any learning and development (L&D) professional to tweak their standard course to make it suitable for online delivery. With a little practice in moving from PowerPoint to whiteboard, opening and closing polls and the essential skill of controlling microphones, it is relatively easy to put together a slick online training programme.

But what must not be forgotten is that unlike paid staff, who are incentivised to stay with you by their monthly pay cheque, volunteers only stay with you if they find it rewarding and enjoyable to give their time – and much of that enjoyment comes from social interaction. Here is the biggest challenge to the L&D profession at this time – how do we keep the social interaction in a virtual training programme? It is relatively easy to make the virtual training course engaging, but there is no denying that sitting in your own home in front of a laptop does not offer the opportunity for social interaction that attending a face-to-face training event offers. You automatically lose the coffee break conversations. You also lose all the totally off purpose conversations that take place in pairs and small groups (yes we all know that much of the discussion time diverts into gossip about the news or moans about the journey or room temperature or food – but this is all valuable bonding!).

The danger is that at the end of an engaging virtual training programme, your new recruits will be left totally isolated – not knowing any other volunteers or any other faces in your organisation – and this is very different from how things have been in the past, where they would have had chance to bond with other volunteers, trainers and others who helped with the housekeeping/ catering/ meeting and greeting. There is a very real risk of all the hard work that is put into training being wasted because of a high attrition rate as the volunteers feel like strangers and out of place in your organisation. This may well be exacerbated by social distancing rules which make it difficult to interact in the way we usually would.

So – the answer? Well firstly force social engagement. Make use of forums and make it a training requirement to comment on at least a couple. This gets the group interacting outside of the virtual classes. Seed the forums with good discussion points that are not about your organisation – perhaps ask for tips on ways to keep children occupied in these strange times – or advice on how to cut your own hair!

And mentor your new recruits. Make sure that there is someone who takes them under their wing, helps them transfer the learning into practice and shows them where the coffee is kept. Remember how deskilled and uncomfortable you have felt in the past then you have started a new job and not known the basics such as: do you need 9 for an outside line and where do people go at lunchtime? As I said at the beginning, paid staff ride this discomfort for the financial reward – volunteers may simply choose not to return.

In the past we may have overlooked the important role our induction and training courses had in bonding groups of new volunteers, introducing them to the surroundings they will be working in, and introducing them to faces they will come across when they are in their role. In the future we need to be very mindful of this and ensure we plug the gaps that remote learning and social distancing leave.

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Nigel Ross is an L&D Professional specialising in the voluntary sector. For over 17 years he was responsible for the volunteer learning function at Samaritans. Since leaving that post he has established a consultancy and has worked with major charities both in the UK and overseas.

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