From In-Person to Virtual in One Week: An Interview with Head of Training Marcus Stone

Author : Sam Chambers

2nd April 2020

There’s been lots of change, shift and transition for everyone in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

At Animas, we made the decision to move all of our training to the virtual learning space on 12th March to prevent a ‘learning lockdown’ for our students, whilst keeping them and our team safe. It was a swift decision that required everyone to throw themselves into the challenge, none more so than the Animas training team. 

I sat down with our Head of Training Marcus Stone to find out his personal experience of moving our coach training online. Marcus shares how he and his team are finding the Zoom platform to deliver training, feedback from the pioneering training groups, what his trainers feel about the transition now, as well as the opportunities that training in this way opens up to us. 

Sam: So, Marcus, a lot has changed for us in the past couple of weeks, but particularly for you and your training team. Talk me through how this decision to move to virtual came about.

Marcus: "We'd had conversations about what the impact of the Coronavirus might be for Animas and for our community before we made any sort of decision, and we recognised that we might need to do something at some stage, but there was a moment where we went, 'right, we need to do something now.'

Making a decision felt really tough because everything was changing so quickly. We were making a decision without knowing the proper answers to any questions about what might happen. I imagine for many people and businesses , it was really difficult at that stage. However, it got to the point where we thought, no, we have to do something. We actually have to make a decision here, noticing what was going on around us. Noticing the kind of questions we were getting within the Animas community and that growing sense of needing to act."

And what were your feelings about this transition once we made the decision?

"When we made the decision, it actually felt good. I think for me, there was this relief that we had acted in the best interest of our students and our team. Of course, everything was against a backdrop of uncertainty, and this incredulousness of what was actually happening. We made the decision to transition very quickly to virtual but, recognising that to do that for the weekend's delivery coming up, given this was on the Friday afternoon, was going to be too quick. We were originally going to leave those happening that first weekend face to face and then go virtual afterwards. So actually, at that stage, I thought that gives me some time next week to let all the trainers know, let the community know.

I knew this was going to be a really interesting period, very full on. There were lots of questions that we had to answer, but for me, I thought 'I've got a week to work with the people who are going to be delivering the following weekend and start to get some things in place.' So I felt okay about it. I had no idea how that was going to work, but I'd used Zoom. I knew that Zoom could work in that environment and it felt good to be providing the community with some kind of certainty and continuity for them, in this current world of chaos. It felt like a good decision.

For me, it felt like a relief and a chance to focus on something and move forward. However, we didn't really know how it might go. None of us have used this space for training before, we didn't know how that would play out in the virtual environment, we knew that it could work, so we thought let's give it a go and just see what happens. This at least was something concrete and positive to be moving forward with and it felt very congruent to me."

That Friday was quite the chaotic day for you right?

"Yeah it was a very interesting day. I'd visited Amsterdam and Berlin that week already, and had then flown to Hamburg to deliver our first, and for the time being last, virtual ITC, but when I arrived the city began to shut down around me. It was very surreal. I also had another trainer in Berlin and noticing how quickly things were changing, we both made the decision to just turn around and come back. After a few cancelled flights I managed to get home! So that was an interesting day, and then in the evening, I spoke with one of my trainers who felt unable to deliver face to face for the upcoming training weekend and we therefore had to make another quick decision, because this was at six o'clock in the evening on Friday, with training due to start Saturday morning.

We wanted first and foremost our students and trainers to be safe, and while we pondered the idea of cancelling or postponing training, it just felt too late to do that. We had a roomful of students turning up the next day, and while their safety is our priority, our other priority was ensuring our students could carry on their training momentum. So, we went virtual! And in a way, I think that was a really good thing in hindsight, as it didn't give us time to really worry about it, and for my trainers to worry. It happened so quickly. Matteo stepped into the virtual training space, and he did a brilliant job. Really stepped up to the plate."

And how was the feedback from the pioneering virtual training group?

"Yeah it was fantastic. And I think at that moment we then went, okay, this works. And Emily had a training module in for the following Tuesday/Wednesday and she stepped into it and also did a fantastic job. There wasn't loads of time to make lots of plans, I was in the thick of it as Head of Training and I knew we had to make this thing work.

Then I was delivering myself the following weekend. I had my own personal thoughts and feelings going into that, but what was good was that it gave me a sense of what my other trainers might be going through, faced with this different way of working. I knew I was going to have to step up with the extra pressure of being Head of Training, to make it work. That Presence module I was also delivering with a new trainer Todd, and he'd never worked virtually, so his first co-delivery was actually virtual rather than face to face. All of this was going on and then another module was running concurrently, with Nisha delivering her first solo Foundations. There was a lot happening but the team pulled together brilliantly to get the ball rolling with great success."

I find the concept of doing the Presence module from afar so interesting, how did you find training Presence in a virtual space?

"When you're training face to face in the room, there can be an immediate felt sense of what the energy in the room is like and what's happening, as it's all happening in front of you. And there's a sensing that goes on, which I found is not quite the same when you first go into the virtual training space. It's different. It's still there, but I just think it's different. You're not getting the kind of verbal cues and noises and sounds from the space and everybody is on the screen in front of you.

Initially, as the trainer, I found it quite difficult and I wasn't able to read the room in the same way. However, I don’t think that was the experience of the coaches-in-training. When I checked in with Todd at lunchtime, I was sharing how I'd felt and what the difficulties had been for me and he was like, 'well, none of that came across. I think it went really well.'

The feedback we got at the end of the first day from a few students was really positive. And then, the feedback we got at the end of the weekend was amazing! The second day felt completely different for me. It's a really interesting thing. I think there's differences, but I think that the evidence of that module and particularly Presence is that it can be a really powerful and intimate space virtually. And some of the exercises we do proved that this connection that you can have online, it’s like you're actually with that person."

Have you found the room to be just as engaged and energised by different elements of the training that you tend to see in the in-person experience?

"It's harder to gauge. I've only done one delivery and I think that's going to emerge over time. I think it's a very hard question to answer. But what we can notice, I think, is the feedback. The reflections and feedback I noticed after exercises and after particular sections, seemed to demonstrate that people are really engaged with it. They have also particularly enjoyed the breakout rooms and the chance to have conversations and practice in smaller groups.

The feedback that we've been getting generally from people at the end has been really positive. So, my answer is yes, I think the engagement is there, but I think it's just a different environment, and part of this transition is recognising that and finding ways to keep people engaged.

There is something for us about how we keep it engaging in this virtual environment, such that people's energy levels are maintained. We noticed that taking a few more breaks, maybe shorter breaks, adding them on to little sections, making sure people stand up and stretch out have all helped. I know Matteo played some music and got people to stand up and dance, so there's definitely things that we can do."

And have you found the feedback from all of the different modules is pretty consistent?

"Yes, there's been no stand-out modules that people feel are markedly different or affected by moving to the virtual space. In fact, my trainers have come back really energised from the experience and excited about what it offers, which is great!"

That’s great to hear, I wasn’t initially sure how the trainers would feel about moving to virtual, but it seems they are just as energised as a lot of the students. 

"If I speak from my own personal experience just for a minute, and I think that I've noticed a similar thing happening with other people, but my sense is there was a little bit of apprehension and anxiety ahead of it, a few general concerns. Then when it all first starts to happen there's lots of questions and you move into this place of knowing that it works, and feeling really excited about it. I was on a real high on the Sunday evening having finished my training, a real high. I'd really enjoyed it and it felt like the students had really got something worthwhile from it. I felt very energised as a result, and I know Todd did as well.

We've seen some of our coaches-in-training move from having that little hesitation of 'well, I'm not sure how this is going to work, but I want to give it a go and see how it is' through to this place of 'you know, I had one or two concerns, but actually that was really good, and it really translated well.' That's a great thing to see and hear, and I think there was a similar thing for most of the trainers, this feeling of 'I'm not quite sure how this is going to work' which quickly turned into 'that was great. I think that worked really well!'"

I feel a lot of the community are grateful that they still have the option to do their training, while staying safe. I’ve noticed that a lot of people have been wanting to give feedback because many of them at the start felt a sense of trepidation around the shift, but are feeding back about how blown away they’ve been by the experience, and that their concerns about training online have been allayed having completed their first virtual module.

"I feel it was definitely the right moment to do it, and what is wonderful that's emerging from this now is this excitement about the way that we're able to continue delivering training for both our community but also for our trainers as well. The great thing is looking at my trainers now and seeing the excitement from them around, 'I feel I could do this and I could do that. And I'm thinking of getting this so that I can do this in the training space.' There's something here about how not just within Animas, but how as individuals, we might do some of our work moving forward. What kind of things we might do and the learning around it. Suddenly we've become very knowledgeable about using Zoom as a training platform."

Speaking of Zoom, how are you finding using it for the training delivery?

"What I'm not aware of is what other platforms might be able to offer, so that's an interesting thing to explore going forward. But right now we're finding Zoom works really, really well. It's a really intuitive platform. We're also finding different ways to make other things work that might be slightly different to in-person delivery. But generally speaking, I think it's an amazing platform, which considering the amount of people that must be currently using it, is incredibly stable. The possibility for technical issues for anybody doing online training is huge, but actually so far so good. It's letting us deliver the training how we want to deliver it, which is tremendous!"

What sort of feedback have you been getting about the Zoom breakout rooms?

"My experience of using Zoom has been interesting, as I've done other training as a participant with a much bigger group of people, so I've experienced being put into a breakout room, but then to see it as the trainer is really interesting.

You press the button to assign people to breakout rooms and for a moment everybody stays on the screen. Then some of them freeze. And in that moment, you know, they're transitioning. Then there's this moment that feels like magic as they gradually just disappear into the private breakout rooms. It's amazing. And suddenly you're left in the main room with you and your co-host. And there's this moment of quiet satisfaction that it all works so smoothly."

"It also gives you a moment just to pause and reflect on the training with your co-host, before visiting some of the rooms, dropping in quietly to observe and offer feedback. The coaches-in-training seem to really love the breakout room experience. There's only two or three people in a room and we can have a very open conversation in this space without being mindful of keeping our microphones off etc. Suddenly you're just in a really calm space with just two other people and it's completely private. I think it's a wonderful thing. And as I've said many times, for the trainer, the added benefit is that you can bring everyone back into the main room and you know, they're going to appear, no late stragglers coming back to class after time.

We keep discovering new things as we deliver more training, for example last weekend we found that you can set a timer for the breakout rooms. Then there's a clock just running in the room so that everybody can see when they are coming back. As the facilitator you then have the choice to extend that if you want. There's a timer running in the room, which means timekeeping for coaching sessions becomes much easier. It's brilliant."

It seems the Zoom platform is great at replicating the in-person experience, and even does some things better. So what exciting possibilities does this approach to training and learning open up to us?

"I think there's so many potential possibilities for this that we don't even know about yet. But the big possibility to me seems to be that anything we do in-person, we could technically do in a virtual environment, and there's so many possibilities around that.

Also our community is already incredibly vibrant and diverse, but holding training or events online opens it up to the wider world and thinking about our community becoming even more diverse with people from all over the world is really exciting. This idea that we could bring our community together to be in a big space and anyone can join is brilliant. There's no travel, there's no hotel costs, nothing like that. When we run a summit now, there's not people perhaps in Brazil looking at the Animas Summit going, 'Oh I wish I could do that. When are you going to be bringing it here?' Or students in Berlin or Edinburgh thinking about attending the in-person summit in London and how they might make it work. The virtual space means everyone can attend The Animas Summit and it's open to everybody in our community. I mean, how amazing is that?"

It presents so many exciting opportunities to grow our community and really connect all of the Animas change-makers, I can’t wait to see what the future holds! My last question for you Marcus is what would you say that you have learned about Animas or the Animas community during this transition?

"I think from both the Animas team and Animas community I've seen such openness. Willingness to give things a go. Flexibility. Trust. Love and compassion. I also think that if we hadn't had Animas CEO Nick Bolton as part of our team, guiding our direction, giving us clarity at that moment, who knows what might have happened? Nick had his eye on the guidance and news as it developed, and this finger on the pulse and proactive approach from a place of care and concern was pivotal to the quick transition that we have made.

But just generally in the community, there's just this open-hearted acceptance and willingness to try something new and different, whatever we might be feeling about it. I think that's fantastic. Everybody's going through their own things at the moment and there's so much going on in many people's lives, so there's real potential for people's lives to be changed and perhaps, not for the better in these testing times.

I think for people to stick with it and, for us to be able to provide some stability in an environment for people to come together and express what's happening for them, and then do some learning around something which might be genuinely helpful for them in the future has been brilliant to be part of."

That’s great. Is there anything you’d like to add Marcus? 

"Yes, something to add is that I really do have an amazing team of trainers, not that I haven’t always known this of course, but it’s clearer to me now more than ever. Because while the training environment might have changed, and the way that we're delivering it changes, what is coming through in all the training and feedback is Animas.

That is all down to my trainers being able to deliver that Animas experience by showing up and being themselves, that's it. It doesn't matter what's around them. If they can allow themselves to be them in this new environment, then that Animas magic is going to come across. And so far, we're managing to do that. So hats off to my team!"

Thanks so much for your time Marcus, I look forward to checking in with you again soon!

Marcus Stone

Marcus Stone

As the head of the Animas training faculty, Marcus is an ICF accredited coach whose focus is on ensuring that Animas creates an unforgettable experience in the training room for our coaches in-training.

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