By Nick Bolton, Animas CEO
I was in China when the coronavirus broke out.
Cut off from western social media and news, I watched the reporting of the coronavirus unfold on CGTN (China Global Television Network) and even in its earliest days when there were only a small number of cases showing up, I watched with a certain degree of concern. There was nothing extreme in what I was seeing, but that word – coronavirus – set off alarm bells.
Danni, my Chinese wife, and I were in Sanya, in the far south of China enjoying some beautiful winter sun. In the glorious 25° January temperatures, the news and any concerns washed over us like the balmy breeze and gentle waves.
For the second half of our trip, we were flying to Harbin in the far north, a bitter -20°, for Chinese New Year with her family. Once there, we began to enjoy family time with spicy hot-pots and beautiful homemade dumplings!
Within days though, it became clear the outbreak was escalating. Hubei, the province at the centre of the infection, was quarantined and cases were appearing in multiple areas of China. Danni began to worry about our health and the potential for catching the virus and she imposed her own version of a “lockdown” on us. We were hotel-bound!
I was unconcerned by the health risk itself, but I was certainly concerned by the potential for us not being able to get back to the UK. I could easily imagine Danni being turned back from the UK border or flights from China being barred. Either way, I persuaded her that we should book early flights and get back to the UK. We left as the very first case was detected in Heilongjiang, the province we were leaving.
Returning to the UK felt like a huge relief and we were happy to get back to our canal boat where we hoped to spend a final month in London before beginning our cruising year. I had planned Valentine’s evening for us and we walked from our boat in Paddington to the West End where we were about to have a meal and watch a show. As we walked along Green Park, I recall vividly seeing the front page of the Evening Standard screaming that the first case of coronavirus had hit Westminster! My heart sank. At this time, I was still not taking it overly seriously but I knew it would affect Danni’s peace of mind.
Then things started to get really serious back in China. Danni’s family, though happy and healthy still, were telling her that they were house-bound and only one family member could leave the house every other day to buy food. At one point, her aunt left the sociable conditions of staying with wider family to pop back to her own apartment – in the few hours she was gone, the authorities closed the bridges that connected the north and south of the city and she was instantly separated from her family.
As I listened to what was happening there, It began to feel like some surreal Franz Kafka novel, Albert Camus’s The Plague or a Hollywood disaster movie. Except this was China and it was real. My wife’s family were experiencing it first hand.
Then Italy happened.
It was no longer another continent, another culture, another people. This was Europe. People began to wake up.
Around the third week of February, as the owner and CEO of Animas, an in-person training company, I began to voice concerns about the wide-scale impact this could have on my business and consequently my employees, both in the UK and the Philippines, and our students, all of whom had made a choice to train with us and to makes some kind of change in their lives by becoming coaches.
This stuff matters.
My business can survive a bad year. But my employees: that’s another matter. They need their jobs. It pays for their lives, their homes, their food, their children’s wellbeing. I know from multiple emails from my Philippines team, the importance Animas has in their lives. And, of course, I know the UK team like family. I see how important it is in their lives.
Then there are our students. Each and every one chose Animas because they felt it was the right school and they were excited to become a coach. Many have deadlines due to career changes, travel, childbirth or the pure desire to get going.
It was becoming clear that we couldn’t not talk about this.
Carrying on as usual is all very well, but silence about why and how isn’t!
We convened a crisis meeting on the 4th March and agreed that we would continue with business as usual but also that we would ask those at risk to postpone and that we would keep an eye on any changes. We emailed our student body and put a statement on our website and this was warmly received.
But we were not convinced this arrangement would last long. Behind the scenes, given the speed of change, we were looking at other options.
The first was to postpone all training until it was safe to resume.
We considered this carefully and it was going to be our primary choice. It seemed wise on first consideration. But it had some major problems. The most obvious was that there was no end date to plan around. A business can only go on so long paying expenses and making no income! Many students were on the verge of completing their training and it would be immensely frustrating to them. Others had just started and were building momentum – they’d go back to square one! It was all feeling very unsatisfactory as a solution.
Then we looked at our second option. Take our training online by delivering a virtual classroom experience. I’d heard much of the ability to work virtually using breakout rooms to divide larger classes into discussion groups and practice sessions but I never had much cause to explore it – we were an in-person school, after all. We were all a little nervous about the idea of moving live, in-person training into a virtual space. After all, coaching is about human contact (though ironically, the vast majority of coaching is conducted by phone!)
However, when we saw the experience and platform in practice, we were blown away! The ability to connect to the participants and to have them connect with each other was undiminished. It actually felt very personal and connected – with everyone’s faces and place equally prominent. No longer a trainer exalted at the front of the room with students in the corners of the room hidden from sight! Everyone occupied the same space and the ability to engage in group discussion, Q&A and presentations were exceptional.
Then the pièce de résistance – the breakout rooms.
Suddenly all of our preconceptions of what was possible changed. We could imagine the seamless transition from whole-group chat to small-group exploration and back to the whole all performed seamlessly – and no stragglers grabbing a quick coffee en-route to the training room! Likewise, for the practice sessions where our participants could work in coaching triads and our facilitators could drop in quietly to observe and offer feedback.
We got pretty excited, I can tell you! The possibilities for multiple, easy changes of energy and participation were unparalleled. With this as a potential option, we put it in our back pocket in case things got worse.
Of course, they started to get worse quickly. Marcus, our Head of Training, flew out to host our first ever Hamburg introduction day only to fly back the same day due to the number of cancellations, the conditions in the city and the very real risk of not being able to get back. Likewise, our trainer, Lilian, flying out to Berlin to deliver a two-day module, landed only to find that the city was in virtual lockdown and all of our students had had to pull out of the training. Lilian stayed one night and we managed to fly her back the next day.
Whilst the UK government were still playing it pretty cool, we could tell that our students were unsettled, concerned and questioning whether attending training was a good idea.
We had to do something.
We made a decision on Thursday, 12th March to deliver all our training virtually for the foreseeable future.
It’s a change from what people expected but we are all facing exceptional circumstances and we can either freeze and take no action or face it head-on, ensuring that our students get to continue their training and qualify as coaches, that my team can maintain their jobs for the long term and that the school continues to grow from strength to strength, making an impact through the ripples that coaching creates.
We are excited by this step and already we are thinking about what else this could lead to including online summits that allow our coaches from across the world to connect and learn together, specialist virtual training that, through its global reach, becomes viable where otherwise it might not, and virtual open-space events where coaches can participate in large live meetings hosting discussions of their ideas, plans, suggestions and topics of interest. It has opened a world of possibility for our students and alumni and for us as a business.
Of course, it’s early days and our first priority is to ensure that our students receive an exceptional experience in the virtual room. We’re bound to make a few slips along the way and I hope you’ll bear with us. But we are excited to bring our course to you this way and to ensure that your journey with Animas can continue uninterrupted and safely.
There is no question that Covid-19 is going to change things for quite some time to come. As a school, our job is to respond to this to ensure our students can train safely. As a business owner, I also have the job of ensuring the welfare and happiness of my employees, the delivery of value to our “customers” and the long term success and survival of my business.
I am confident that our decision to act swiftly in making this change is the right move. We could have waited for government guidance, or venue closure, or worst of all, the mass-rejection of the training room by our students, but we have to lead the way.
I subtited this article “the journey so far”, and I’m looking forward to writing again with an update of the experience, learnings and future.
Thank you for your continued support, patience and warmth.
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