Remote working has become the norm for thousands of charity workers over the past year. While the pandemic has brought many challenges, one issue that has become a lower priority for many organisations is staff training.
Training has often been seen as expensive or difficult to access, particularly for people who are based away from the biggest cities or major metropolitan areas: but the coronavirus outbreak has caused a huge shift into online operations for training providers, making it easier than ever for charity managers to access courses for their staff.
Martin Baker, chief executive and founder of the training provider the Charity Learning Consortium, says that when the first lockdown was introduced in March last year, his organisation recorded a 300 per cent increase in the use of the online learning resources it offers, and levels of use have remained high.
“Charities have moved important face-to-face training online, while furloughed staff and volunteers have used their time to upskill,” he says. “People who may have been reluctant to use digital technologies in the past have embraced a different way of learning, and this will have a positive, long-term impact.”
A crucial time to invest
Many third sector organisations are facing huge financial difficulties, so non-core activities might find themselves pushed out.
But Annette Lewis, director of services at the training and publishing charity the Directory of Social Change, says the change brought on by the pandemic means it is crucial for charities to be investing in staff training at this time.
“I can’t imagine a single charity out there that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic last year, and that means change,” she says.
“Changing organisational structures, changing roles and tasks for staff, changing ways of communication – staff need the skills and knowledge to respond to these changes.”
She says many of the differences from pre-Covid-19 days, such as the rise in working from home, are unlikely to disappear once the pandemic is under control.
“They are here to stay and require new skills and new ways of thinking and working across the charity sector,” she says. “Planning to simply sit this out and wait for ‘normal’ times to come back doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.”
As well as building skills, Lewis says engaging staff in learning and development often brings about an increase in performance and productivity. “Having the opportunity to step back from the hamster wheel for a day, focus on developing a new skill and meet other people facing similar challenges, can benefit staff confidence and morale enormously,” she says.
Inclusive learning strategies
Sukhvinder Pabial, senior learning strategist at the learning and development consultancy Challenging Frontiers, says deciding what training to prioritise is a difficult issue.
“Normal staff training does come at a cost, so there’s a tough balance to be found between the core needs to ensure that you are compliant with statutory requirements, such as safeguarding, and other things, such as line-management training, which is important but could easily drop down the priority list,” he says.
“Of course there’s a need to stay compliant, but there’s also a different consideration in that if you are going to invest in staff development, which particular group is going to benefit more from that? It’s a really hard question to answer at the moment.”
Baker warns that although there has been a steep rise in online learning over the past year, that doesn’t mean it has become easier for everyone in the charity sector to access digital resources.
“Charity staff and volunteers may not have access to the internet, or a quiet space to learn, or the time they need to sit down and complete remote learning,” he says.
“Making sure digital learning is inclusive for all your staff and volunteers, and the individual needs they have when working from home, is really important.”
One major barrier to accessing training can often be the cost. Sending a delegate on even a one-day training course can easily cost hundreds of pounds, meaning many charity workers who would benefit from such input find themselves missing out.
But Pabial says there is a wealth of material available online that can be accessed at relatively low cost or for free.
He suggests well-established platforms such as Coursera, which offers online courses in a huge range of subjects, typically run by colleges or universities. Although participants have to pay if they want to receive a certificate at the end of their training, the courses can still be completed for free.
The networking site LinkedIn also offers thousands of self-directed online courses in a wide range of professional skills that can be accessed for a monthly fee.
Pabial says many training sites have options for charity workers to access courses at cheaper rates or for free, and a lot of platforms made content freely available to key workers during the pandemic.
Some of the sites have so much content that having someone to guide delegates to the right courses can be valuable, he adds.
Lewis says the idea of training does not have to be limited to in-person or online courses.
“If you’re on a low budget, I’d suggest signing up for newsletters from training providers and keeping an eye on special promotions,” she says.
“Shop around and, if you are looking to send a number of staff on training, contact providers directly and ask if they can offer you a tailor-made training package for your staff.
“Depending on the number of staff, it might well turn out cheaper than sending several employees to an off-the-shelf course.”
Lewis also says charities could run training-related book clubs, with support from leaders in the organisation.
She suggests asking trustees whether they have access to any resources or can bring in particular knowledge or skills, putting together a resources library for staff or setting up a buddying or peer-to-peer support network or lunch club.
And managers should make sure that any learning is shared. “Use team meetings and staff days and briefings to share insights from different roles’ perspectives, share new field knowledge or teach a technical skill,” Lewis says.
Baker suggests talking to other organisations to find ways of keeping training costs down.
“Charities are great at sharing, so make sure you connect with your peers,” he says. “Collaborate with other organisations, both inside and outside the sector; join online groups; and find supportive networks that will help you share knowledge and resources. These are the people you need around you.”