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Wednesday 05 August 2020

FDA Learn: evolving to reach thousands of members in lockdown

By Scott Dobson

The move to remote working during lockdown posed a real problem for FDA Learn, the FDA’s professional development programme. Scott Dobson looks at how the FDA Learn team rose to the challenge of providing high-quality career development opportunities to members in the new environment.


Since its launch in 2008, FDA Learn had focused many of its resources on offering tailored, classroom-based learning, with most events taking place either at the FDA’s head office or in workplaces. However, when offices closed in March, it was clear that face-to-face events of any kind would be suspended for the foreseeable future.

The team at FDA Learn immediately got to work creating a whole new offer for members. “We decided early on that trying to replicate our usual face-to-face events remotely wouldn’t work, at least in the short term, and it wasn’t what people were focused on in the early stages of the lockdown,” explains Neil Rider, Head of FDA Learn, “We quickly established that we needed a short format with topics focused on the changes our members were experiencing.”

Within a week, FDA Learn had come up with a plan for a programme of webinars, which would be made available to all FDA members. Working initially with the TUC, the sessions would be delivered via Crowdcast, using the FDA’s existing bank of training providers.  With a few days of research and preparation, the first event was set for 30 March, a session on building resilience and working well virtually, with regular FDA trainer Katie Driver of the Thinking Alliance.

There were only a few days to advertise the session and start to make members aware of the new training offer. “Ahead of the first event, we reckoned that an attendance of 25 would be a decent start,” says Rider, “in the end, we got 400.”

The flexibility offered by the webinars has also allowed opportunities for new providers covering different topics. These included a series of mindfulness sessions, led by Ruth Passman - previously a senior manager in the NHS - which proved very popular. It also means that FDA Learn can respond quickly to training requests from employers and changing demand from members, with attendees asked after each session for ideas for future courses.

Inevitably, as with any online platform, there have been occasional IT glitches, and as Rachel Harris, Project Co-ordinator at the FDA, points out, it is important that the people involved are ready “to deal with disaster” should an internet connection go down. “On one occasion we came very close to pulling the plug after we lost the provider for ten minutes because of a bad connection, but we engaged with people using the chat function and they were happy to wait until the problem was fixed.”

Rachel says there were real challenges in getting the new offer up and running, getting to grips with a new system and, after working closely with the TUC for the first few weeks, working out how to manage the entire process locally.  “With a number of different providers, it is important that we can respond to their individual needs - some had never done anything like this before.”

Amy Leversidge, the FDA’s Assistant General Secretary, believes the rapid response of FDA Learn to the crisis showed the commitment of the union to improving the working lives of its members no matter what the circumstances: “It is thanks to the hard work and innovativeness of the FDA Learn team, Neil and Rachel, that we were able to launch FDA Learn webinars in less than two weeks from when we went into lockdown - once again demonstrating that the FDA is quick to respond to make sure that we can always support you.”

Neil agrees that an awful lot of hard work has gone in to making the webinars a success, and pays particular tribute to Rachel, saying, “You can have as many bright ideas as you like, somebody needs to actually make it happen.”

Katie Driver, who has been delivering webinars regularly since the start of lockdown, had delivered some training via videoconferencing in the past, and was grateful that she didn’t have to begin leading webinars “from a standing start”. However, she’s quick to point out that “one thing that’s really helped has been the webinar platform and the support from FDA colleagues – it has meant I can focus on the participants rather than the tech.”  

Hosting sessions online has also given FDA Learn the opportunity to reach different members who wouldn’t ordinarily attend events. Neil explains: “Our interaction with members posted overseas, such as those in the FCO, was previously restricted to some one-to-one training, as they obviously couldn’t attend classroom events, but with the webinars, we’ve had members tuning in from all over the world.”

Katie goes further and thinks that engagement with the virtual audience has actually been better than when delivering a presentation to a room full of people: “People can pop things into the chat box and ask questions any time, and I think people who wouldn’t have put their hand up in a room are much more willing to add a thought online.”

As time has gone on, and people have adapted to new ways of working, the scope of the topics covered by the webinars has increased, with recent sessions on race equality running in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and sessions looking at how the world of work is likely to have changed post-Covid-19.

Looking to the future, it seems everyone agrees that the webinars are here to stay. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and the webinar format allows people to go back later and watch sessions again, or to catch up on something they missed. Indeed, Katie believes that being in a training room all day will be very rare even when it is allowed: “From a trainer’s perspective, there’ll be a real challenge to think through what can be conveyed effectively online and what’s the ‘special sauce’ that you can only get in the training room. And as a learner, I’m really enjoying being able to do more online that I’d never found time for before – I’m even starting an online improv course in August!”

The FDA Learn team are now looking at delivering new content in response to demand from employers and members, and at ways in which the FDA can work collaboratively with other unions. As we move through the pandemic, and people become more accustomed to current ways of working, the team is also looking at the viability of now adapting the previous face-to-face courses and smaller group sessions for a remote audience.

Reflecting on the last few months, Amy concludes: “It is an amazing achievement that in such a short space of time thousands of members have engaged with the webinars and have found them informative, relevant and valuable. Our webinars have enabled FDA members to develop their skills so they can continue to work well in this new environment.”

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