The Covid-19 crisis has affected us in different ways and has forced us out of our comfort zone, trying to adapt to the continuous changes it has brought along. Ireland went into lockdown on Thursday 12th March and my colleagues and I were sent to work from home as our office closed its doors. I work for a programme called EPIC (Employment for People from Immigrant Communities) that is part supported by the Department of Justice and Equality and by the European Social Fund (ESF) as part of the ESF Programme for Employability, Inclusion and Learning (PEIL) 2014-2020. My team has over 10 years’ experience working with migrants from diverse backgrounds and nationalities and supporting them to gain meaningful employment and access education and training, making an impact on diversity and social inclusion in Ireland. Our services take place onsite and we have always pretty much believed that meeting with our participants in person was a big part of our work and we were doubtful if we would be able to build the same rapport once we moved online. The change to online training has been an interesting experience and though it has been quite successful, and we have been running the programme in this format with four groups already, there have been challenges along the way. I decided to interview some of the participants who have done the online training and some of my colleagues who work closely with our participants.
Meet part of the team and some of our participants
Maeve is our EPIC Programme trainer and she usually trains two groups of 16 people at the same time, though with the move to virtual training we are just running one group: “I deliver live and interactive training on different areas that can help people looking for jobs in Ireland such as recruitment practices, LinkedIn training, CVs, cover letters, interview skills training. I'm also a qualified yoga teacher and I bring some yoga and mindfulness into the training as well”.
Alison is our Integration Support Worker and she works with our participants with anything that might relate to integration in Ireland: “I do one to one meetings where I refer our participants to support services that might be helpful for them in terms of social welfare, mental health, childcare or different personal issues. I also help out with different group projects that help with integration, such as arranging workshops with community groups on topics like health, education, social welfare and politics in Ireland, and to help them understand the Irish system better. I also work on some more work focused elements like mentoring and work placements”.
Janaína and Gabriela are two of our EPIC participants. Janaína took part in our first fully online training and was working in a coffee shop before she joined our programme. This is the reason why she joined EPIC: “I know how to build my CV. I know how to do the interviews. But here, I had a lot of difficulties because I did more than 10 interviews last year and I wasn’t successful. I looked for the EPIC Programme because I wanted to hear honest feedback about my profile and experience”.
Gabriela completed her training with the second fully online group we had. She had been interested in taking part in EPIC since last year, but it was not until we moved online that she had the opportunity to join the training as she could keep working at the same time: “I heard from lots of girls that EPIC was amazing and that they found a job after starting the training. I was very specially interested about having the opportunity to work with a Career Counsellor, so it’s something that’s tailored to you”.
The new reality of the pandemic
The pandemic has disrupted the way we live and work and has forced us to adapt to continuous changes. We have had to live with uncertainty while we tried to survive and cope with anxiety, stress and in some cases even depression. For my colleagues and I, one of the challenges of working remotely for over six months is not seeing and interacting with our colleagues every day. Alison feels that face-to-face and teamwork has always been a big part of our work: “I am definitely missing that support. So, I do find that when I'm working from home, half the time I am demotivated, and it's hard to structure your time”. Gabriela mentions that she found hard dealing with isolation and Janaína said that looking after her mental health was also challenging during the lockdown.
Having technology and being able to do a lot of things online is a blessing, but it also has its downsides. Maeve mentions that Zoom is a fantastic tool for delivering the online training, but she is finding that she needs to add more breaks during the training as screen time is very tiring and demanding. Alison talks about how the pandemic has had a negative impact on some of our most vulnerable participants, specially if they do not have the proper IT equipment or do not feel confident in their IT skills. Janaína and Gabriela say that IT issues are another big challenge, as sometimes there is a lot of background noise or the internet connection might be unstable.
But these are not only times of challenges and adaptation, these have also been times filled with opportunity and potential for growth and learning. Both Maeve and Gabriela mentioned that having extra time was a big plus of the pandemic. Maeve has incorporated a nice morning routine to her day and has more time for yoga in the evenings. Gabriella says that she got to spend more time with herself and that she enjoys her company more now. She also had time to rest and has been trying out some home workouts and new hobbies.
Companies are still interested in supporting our EPIC Programme, and virtual volunteering is opening opportunities for collaboration. They have continued delivering workshops, company visits, IT skills training and mentoring in an online format. Having opportunities to engage with guest speakers from different companies is a big plus for our participants, as it gives them opportunity to learn about the job seeking process from a recruiter’s point of view, get useful advice and expand their social and professional networks.
Moving the training online has allowed us to reach people who otherwise would not be able to enrol in EPIC, like parents and people living further away, and has given us the opportunity to work with people from outside Dublin. Janaína and Gabriela feel that doing the training online has been a great benefit, as it would have been very hard for them to attend the training if they had to commute and manage it at the same they were working.
The online EPIC training
Our participants attend EPIC for six weeks and have a lot of opportunities to bond and connect with each other in our Training Centre. That space for connection has disappeared with the online training so Maeve has been trying to find another way for her and our participants to build and develop those relationships that are so important: “I introduced coffee breaks, sometimes we meet just for a coffee break on a day where they might not have training. And then also, at the start of every day or most days, we have a check in with each other. We go to separate online rooms and chat away and then come back together as a group. And each group gets mixed up in a different way each time”. Both Alison and Maeve feel that it is still possible to get to know our new participants online and develop meaningful relationships with them.
Both Janaína and Gabriela had a positive experience from the online training and felt that it was engaging and interactive. For Janaína this was the first time she did an online training: “I think it was interesting because all my class was very engaged. When we started the training, I saw that the quality was very, very good”. Gabriela thinks that the online training worked very well though she was not sure if it was going to work as well online: “I was worried about it at first when I heard it was going to be online because I figured that we wouldn't have as many interactions as, like present show in person environment. But it's not true because I had no idea how complex zoom is. You have all these functions, the mute, the raise your hand, and the breakout rooms”.
Keeping the routine and motivation up after finishing the training can be challenging, especially now that a lot of people are experiencing feelings of isolation and disconnection. Maeve decided to start a monthly meet up with the EPIC participants that finished online training. These groups are led by the students themselves and is a space where they can share how their job search is going. Some of our colleagues and previous participants administer and keep the EPIC Professionals Network on LinkedIn active, so our participants can look for help, share information and support each other.
We have also started the Wednesday Workshop series which cover a variety of topics on job seeking and wellbeing. They are open to all the participants of our Employment Programmes and recently we started offering them to people in our waiting list. EPIC is in high demand at the moment so people have to wait for a longer period before they can join the training. Inviting them to these workshops is a way of engaging with them early and giving them employability tools they can use while they wait to start the training.
Supports and self-care
Minding our mental health during these months has been especially important for the team. Our trainer Maeve has been delivering two online yoga sessions a week for the whole organisation. We also have virtual coffees every week with the team where we can chat, connect, and support each other. They also help to maintain the cohesion of the team and they feel similar to the social interactions we would naturally have if we were working in the office.
We also want our participants to feel supported, so we follow up with them after the training and check in on them regularly. Janaína mentions that she had felt supported by the EPIC team from the beginning and how even now that she is not in training anymore, her Career Counsellor is still checking in on her. Gabriela also has a positive experience working with the team: “I think everyone is very nice and they always make you feel like you can do this. Motivation is a huge part of the programme and it's very important because when we were looking for a job, sometimes we feel at our lowest, especially when you come from a different country and you're away from everything and everyone you know”.
The last few months have been challenging and have forced us to change the way we live and work, but overall, I feel that we have reasons to be positive. Our online EPIC training is still ongoing, and though we miss meeting our participants in person, technology has allowed us to get to know them in a different way. We have met their partners, children and pets and become part of their home lives. We have shared stories and talents and taken part in online scavenger hunts. For me, the most important part is realising that even if we cannot be physically present in the lives of our participants, we are still able to support them in their journeys to employment and that our work still has an impact in their lives.
As a final note, I want to thank the amazing EPIC team for their hard work. The staff at BITCI for supporting us during these uncertain times of remote working and continuous changes. Our funders for being understanding and supportive. The businesses and the guest speakers that have volunteered their time and shared their knowledge and expertise with our participants during the pandemic. Our EPIC participants for their encouraging messages and for brightening up our days. Special thanks go to my colleagues Maeve and Alison and our EPIC participants Janaína and Gabriela for their patience and for kindly sharing their stories and experiences with me.