Going Virtual

The following article is taken from our 2020 Annual Report:

Piece by piece, the Cincinnati Works Member Suite was completed in 2020: a tech-enabled, rearrangeable classroom; a kitchen and lounge; huddle rooms for semi-private conversations with coaches; walls with bright colors and inspirational quotes.

When the year ended, though, there were still unopened boxes in corners of the space. The refrigerator remained empty and the coffee maker unused. The couch was removed, along with multiple tables and chairs. The classroom hosted just one JumpStart workshop.

When the Suite is finally full and fully utilized – perhaps later this year, perhaps not until 2022 – it will be used in ways we did not imagine when the renovation started in late 2019.

Because, for all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in 2020, it forced an evolution at Cincinnati Works that should benefit our Members as much as the new Suite. We adapted many of our services to be delivered virtually, and some of those virtual services are sure to continue, even when it is safe to gather in-person.

“COVID made us try so many things. Everybody stepped out of their comfort zone. Everybody,” said Terri Wilson, Director of Member Education & Intake. “We’ve made a lot of updates, changes, movements, but they’ve all been in the direction we need to take our Members – where we can serve our Members better. One thing everybody at Cincinnati Works can agree on is, it’s about the Members first.”

Beyond Office Walls and Office Hours

When we closed our office in March 2020 to help limit the spread of COVID, our professional development coaches immediately began connecting with Members by phone, email and video chat. During the first six weeks, coaches logged 963 touches with 354 Members – comparable to the same period in 2019, despite not having a single face-to-face meeting.

For Members who lost their job or lost hours due to the pandemic, it was a welcome opportunity to research emergency resources. For Members who were still working, it was a way to maintain a relationship with their coach that is not limited by office walls or office hours.

That relationship is critical to helping Members retain jobs, not merely acquire them. It has been central to Cincinnati Works since the organization was founded 25 years ago.

Retention is what gets us to our mission,” said Calista Hargrove, Vice President of Workforce Development.

Hargrove and Glenna Parks, Director of Coaching Services, have long talked about a day when all coaching was done virtually. “COVID gave us time to test what that might look like,” Hargrove said.

JumpStart Via Zoom

Adapting the JumpStart workshop to a virtual world was not as easy.

Participants have long told us they value the personal relationships they form with their classmates and instructors, as well as the practical experience of mock interviews with volunteers from a variety of industries. Zoom may not be the ideal medium for those experiences, but it is a viable option that opens other possibilities.

Wilson worked with coaches to update the curriculum, tightening it from three days to two and emphasizing the skills necessary to apply and interview for jobs online, which is how many employers are hiring during the pandemic. The schedule still leaves time for multiple mock interviews, and a core group of volunteers – many from the Cincinnati Works Young Professionals Board – join each week to practice with Members via Zoom.

Nick Jones joined the staff late in the year as Virtual Designer & Facilitator and has become the lead instructor for JumpStart. He has previous experience leading virtual training sessions, and he has extensively studied best practices in teaching, be it virtual or in-person teaching.

“Studies have shown that you can learn as well virtually as in-person,” he said. “It is a matter of how you are taught.”

Wilson has been impressed with how well Members have adapted to the new format and content. “We still see their improvement in mock interviews from the first one to the last one, we still see their confidence increasing, we see them getting more comfortable with technology,” she said. “So we know we are efficient, because we see how they are responding.”

Closing the Digital Divide

As the curriculum was updated for a virtual format, Cincinnati Works staff had to address a simultaneous challenge of making Zoom accessible for Members who might lack reliable internet service and appropriate devices. Our community partners have been invaluable.

The Cincinnati Public Library allowed our Members to use computers on the second floor of the downtown branch, a convenient and spacious location where they can maintain social distancing. A Cincinnati Works staff member is on-site at the Library to manage the Zoom meetings and provide technical support to Members.

Other Members connected on-site at The Care Center in Loveland. Those Members utilize The Care Center for other services, so having remote JumpStart allowed us to easily integrate our expertise with The Care Center’s expertise. It is a model that could be replicated with other partners across Greater Cincinnati.

Wilson and Jones are working on creating a “virtual library” of training sessions that our Members can access whenever and wherever they prefer. It could include segments of JumpStart, for Members who want to refresh a job-search skill they learned in the workshop long ago. Or perhaps resurrecting the Succeed and EmpowerYou workshops, which were designed for Members who are currently working and want to retain and advance within the job.

Our intake process is also undergoing a digital facelift. As consumers become accustomed to instant information and feedback, we want to provide the same for prospective Members. By automating portions of the intake process, we are able to connect with them sooner and start their journey more quickly.

The internet is becoming our second front door.

“It’s a platform with so much potential that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of,” Wilson said.

The same could be said of our Members. After 25 years of seeing individual potential emerge, we are optimistic that another generation of leaders will benefit from our knowledge and expertise – whether they connect within our beautiful new Member Suite or across a computer screen.