Delivering face to face employment training in Covid times

By Ceri Sheppard, Director of Impact at the House of St Barnabas, Soho, London

Imagine a five storey Georgian building containing a private members’ club on the ground and first floors, Employment Academy training rooms scattered across various floors with some only accessible through a bar area (yes that kind of bar), employment programme participants doing work experience shifts throughout the club and offices, and the need to turn a profit within the hospitality business which funds the charity.  Oh yes, and four significant changes in Covid regulations for hospitality in six weeks.

We were already four weeks into our October 2020 six-week employment preparation programme for people affected by homelessness when Lockdown 2.0 started.  Our programme is a mix of classroom-based sessions focussing on personal development and employability, and work experience in our members’ club.  Despite having to close the club for the duration of lockdown, we continued the classroom sessions and offered practical skills sessions in place of the work experience to finish the programme.

We knew all along that running the programme after Lockdown 1.0 with the risk of another lockdown looming would be a challenge, and that it would require a leap of faith from our referral agencies and from people applying to come on the programme.  Meticulous planning, a relentless eye on safety and a belief in the transformative nature of face to face connection took us to the finishing line without a single positive test!  Here’s what we did to stay safe.

Social distancing

  • We re-thought the flow of people moving through the building, creating one-ways where possible and changing signage.  Capacity in each room was carefully calculated and chairs in the training rooms were measured out to ensure spacing. It took more time than we thought to move around safely and this impacted on the scheduling.
  • Lunch and breaktimes were carefully timed and we dedicated different rooms for this. During the programme we realised we needed more staff around to manage potential cluster areas (think kitchens at parties).
  • The content of each training session was revised to maintain social distancing and to limit paper and other touch points. Trainers were briefed prior to their first session. We sent a PowerPoint outlining our safety measures and what we required from them.

General Covid-Safety

  • One to one conversations at the beginning of the programme identified each person’s Covid-risk factors and how we would mitigate these together.
  • In addition to enhanced cleaning in the whole building and all the normal hand cleaning rules, we enlisted a volunteer to clean the training rooms before and after each use. This was really visible to participants which in turn helped to keep the issue live.
  • We provided visors and masks for participants and trainers, as well as a goody bag for participants with their own set of pens, notebooks, hand sanitiser.
  • Participants and trainers were required to wear a face covering during training. We found that clear visors made training much easier.
  • Participants each had sole use of a keyboard and mouse which they kept in their lockers, and cleaned before and after use.  We had more tech issues than normal, as we had moved the desktops to create more space and were also more dependant on laptops.  One member of of our team spent a lot of time sorting networking and connectivity issues, and it is a miracle she still has all her hair.
  • An individual Covid-risk assessment was carried out with each participant during their first work experience shift.  This again helped keep the profile of Covid-safety high as well as skilling up participants in risk planning.
  • A weekly Covid-safety meeting with the Head of Facilities and  Director maintained a sense of urgency and gave permission to make whatever changes were necessary to keep a Covid-safe environment.

Getting creative

  • Instead of the normal face to face meetings between programme participants, staff and mentors, everybody took part in a video to introduce themselves, even though we were all in the same building. People enjoyed taking part in this and watching the finished product. It also gave wonderful conversation openers for those on the shy side.
  • We created new sessions in the programme on Covid-safety and personal risk management, remote working and on-line recruitment.
  • We encouraged peer leadership and leading by example, so that after a couple of weeks it was participants telling each other to wear masks more than staff enforcing it.

What comes next

  • We are making sure that all participants who have completed the programme have digital capability, which is needed now more than ever. We are using grants and individual donations to make this happen.
  • Our Progression Team will provide support for 6-12 months to help programme graduates find and keep work, and progress into good work. 
  • All programme graduates have been matched with a volunteer mentor who will be there as a friendly and consistent presence for the coming year. 

Was it all worth it?

Absolutely. And we can’t wait to run the next programme in February 2021.