I have heard experts say all the changes in working practices that occurred in the first six months of the pandemic would have happened anyway, but they would’ve taken ten years. We adopted a more flexible approach to working overnight out of necessity, and fast tracked the adoption of technology to achieve this. We effectively pivoted the ship on the spot instead of gently steering a wide arc over a few miles. The rapidity of this change has bought about inevitable consequences. Many are positive, a bit like peeling off a plaster, but others will take time to really understand.
In the town planning sector, training is one such area where we are only just beginning to understand the long-term impact of embracing the virtual options quite so whole-heartedly. Prior to the pandemic I am certain that almost all training for town planners took place in-person, at council offices. Let’s face it, councils didn’t even consider video interviewing when hiring even if it meant a candidate having to traverse the country for an initial twenty-minute chat. At the height of the pandemic there was still recruitment taking place, it was just very limited. In those cases, some form of online training and onboarding via a video call platform had to be implemented quickly. IT basics such as a laptop and phone, was couriered to a new starter, and they got started at home on their own.
With the majority of the contract planners we place now working from home around 85% to 100% of the time, with the occasional site visit, remote working is set to stay. As a result, for the contractors that I am working with, the training provided is almost all online. On occasion contractors are asked to meet in person for training sessions but it varies massively from council to council, with some firmly set on being 100% remote for work and learning and others not yet sure on how the dust will settle.
An important question is, what are the advantages of remote training and what will planners be missing out on by only undertaking training virtually?
With a large majority of training focussed on software and IT systems, it is evident that this element of training programmes can easily be conducted as effectively online. Pre-recorded video tutorials or screen sharing can help learners self-pace and content can easily be adapted to accommodate different learning styles. Similarly, trainers can rewatch their sessions to help them improve and can massively aid their own professional development. This of course assumes a basic level of IT competence from the trainee, so there will always be a clutch of planners that will miss the hand holding that comes from being in the same room as their trainer. But on the whole, the majority of planners of all levels are comfortable with the new set up. In fact, many welcome the opportunity to be in a more relaxed less socially intense environment whilst they learn something new.
Councils and planners alike can benefit from a permanent move to virtual training. Cost savings from not having so much office space would make a significant difference to council budgets and could be impetus enough to ensure a move to fully remote working practices. In fact, we have already seen evidence of councils permanently closing offices, leases not being renewed and even buildings being put up for sale. Planners can also reap the financial savings from not having to commute, no need for a “work” wardrobe and potentially less childcare costs. Training programmes can also be more easily adapted and individualised to be more accessible to a more diverse workforce.
However, there will always be aspects of face-to-face learning that are more difficult to replicate virtually. Many of the department heads we work with are finding trainees maybe less engaged, more easily distracted and they are unable to gauge how much is actually sinking in. Non-verbal communication cues are much more difficult to pick up on a screen. Recent graduates in the sector who have had the benefit of growing up with e-learning are more comfortable with virtual training and find it easy to adapt to whatever platform is offered. But again, a total reliance on remote learning means certainly they are not developing key communication skills. There is a concern they will never have the tools to enable them to confidently ask questions, debate, present or lead meetings or teams in the future.
What does the future hold?
In the immediate future I think it is imperative that councils ask themselves if their learning and development tools are fit for purpose. It is not always going to be sufficient to record a quick tutorial or screen share. More sustainable and bespoke platforms that assess learning styles, deliver a variety of content and provide real time reporting on progress are needed and to date I have seen little evidence that these are in place to any great degree at present.
In the medium to long-term, it is also important to consider how opportunities in the sector will be perceived by those looking to start their planning careers. Will newly qualified planners want to enter a working environment with little or no face-to-face interaction? How will this affect team culture and therefore team outputs if employees haven’t even met? What personal skills will planners be unable to assimilate when they are working in isolation? I suspect it will be some time before all of these questions will be answered. In the meantime, there is an appetite amongst current planners for more flexibility in when, where and how they work, and councils will need to be accommodating to keep top talent in the sector.