Annie McAnallen, PBNI Learning and Development, talking about how she is delivering training to staff during COVID-19

A Day in the Life – Delivering Training to Probation Staff during COVID-19

Annie McAnallen is a Probation Officer who works within PBNI’s Learning and Development unit delivering continuous professional development to Probation staff

In March it was all hands on deck to transform PBNI’s 10 day Induction programme into a new ‘lock-down friendly’ induction experience for almost 30 new probation officers due to start in June.

I work as a probation officer in the Learning and Development team within PBNI’s HR Department and my pre-lockdown remit included PIP (Professional in Practice, the continuous professional development pathway for social workers, regulated by the Northern Ireland Social Care Council), trauma informed practice and undertaking a research project at Ulster University on trauma informed practice in criminal justice. I also helped manage PBNI’s five social work students on their final student placements from Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast. They started their 100 day placement in January and on 18 March their placements ceased prematurely due to Covid-19. Then we all went into lock down.

Together with my colleagues, Kevin McLaughlin and Gary Connolly, we were tasked with approaching induction in a completely new way – online. Our original programme and resources were created for face to face delivery, in a training room environment. In the past staff would engage in conversations during tea-breaks and there would be an easy flow of informal questions, small group activities and shared learning.

The new challenge was to take a tried and tested induction programme and create a version that could be delivered to staff online and in social isolation. We had to substitute face to face contact with creative ways to forge online relationships and create an atmosphere that was welcoming and friendly. The process of acclimatisation is vital to any new recruit and we had to find ways to support our new staff in the absence of the informal networks and guidance provided through the everyday interactions with more experienced colleagues in the usual office environment.

With no previous experience of developing or delivering online programmes we quickly  familiarised ourselves with online platforms and online training methods, taking advantage of range of online training opportunities, including webinars, and virtual classrooms delivered via Zoom and WebEx. Using these technologies and training methods were invaluable in helping us design our own bespoke induction package. We focussed on the areas we needed to deliver and, working with our Manager Gayle McGurnaghan, made a list of topics for our Senior Leadership Team to approve. While Kevin’s strength is in networking and getting the right people to the right place on time, Gary is a technical wizard; together we coordinated our efforts looking closely at each of the 21 approved topics and considered the time required for each to create a robust and comprehensive induction programme.

The new ‘lock-down friendly’ induction has taken almost ten weeks to plan. It has been involved and is still evolving. We devised a five week schedule, offering induction 3 days per week, averaging 3.5hours per day. To support the direct inputs, we created a portfolio of resources on our internal computer database. Each topic has a dedicated folder, with a step-by-step guide and two sub folders, one outlining what is required to complete each topic and an additional folder with supporting materials, including journal articles, reports, and links to other resources to facilitate extended research and reading. We have had to be innovative and consider how to keep people’s attention. We organised set times for the virtual classrooms, incorporating this interactive time with flexible learning opportunities for reading articles, watching videos, and undertaking direct tasks.  Our approach factored in a level of flexibility as well as generous breaks. It was important for us to be mindful that there may be greater distractions and other commitments at home, with each individual dealing with their own unique lock-down situation.

As a team, we were cognisant of the importance of recognising the need for emotional support for new staff, something that was particularly acute during this time of lockdown. We were keen to find a way within the induction programme to buffer the challenges of starting a new job during lockdown. We came up with the idea of assigning all new staff members  into smaller groups called ‘collectives’ to facilitate small group activities and perhaps even forge informal peer support.  We are hoping these groups will create an emotional bond, as many of us remember our own induction and who we shared that journey with. We also arranged for new staff to have a team buddy from within their own team and a support probation officer from Learning and Development. We hope this wraparound support offers some reassurance to our new staff as they grapple with the demands of starting a new job and do so whilst we are in lockdown.

Although face to face training has many benefits and is a tried and tested approach, we will all be interested to read the evaluation findings post this virtual induction.  We may find that training in the future will benefit from our lockdown experiences.

Contents of the induction

The introduction to the overall programme includes a welcome video from the CEO and a focus on the role of Probation Officer, as well as a Q & A with our Director of Rehabilitation to bring the induction to a conclusion. The induction includes a mix of sessions on specific PBNI topics such as ACE, record keeping and report writing, case management, compliance, breach and recall, transition from custody and community, partnership working, SROSH, PPANI, child protection, psychology, programmes (generic and ISU), victims toolkit, trauma Informed practice, victims unit, as well as human resources topics including the Social Care Council, PIP and further education, health and safety, finance, personal safety and trade unions.