New Tricks, You Bet

Colin Ward

It was mid-March and the global pandemic was inclining ever closer to our own reality.  There was an eery sense of anticipation, with the shape of the future visible but hazy; an uncertain time.  We had been talking about it but remained unclear as to what it was going to mean. 

My company is based in a small business centre nestling under the commanding presence of the famous Shukhova radio tower not far from Shabolovskaya metro station.  Part of the business operates with a licence for training and teaching, and we have a number of corporate clients around the city where we travel to teach English in groups and also corporate training.

Uncertainty reigned until a planned visit to one of our corporate customers resulted in being told that we could no longer teach in their offices.  Contact between people was being severely restricted, and we were told that all activities should be carried out remotely.  Luckily, we had already been looking around and wanted to have an alternative to Skype which largely supported 1-to-1 lessons.  My colleague Zhenya recommended something called Zoom, which we looked at and signed up for at once.  It seemed to have what we needed, but clearly so early in this new paradigm there remained lots of hidden tricks we needed to learn when using it.  We quickly migrated to the paid version as it became apparent that without that, we would be unable to support our client base as they wanted. 

Our clients wanted to continue with their English, but it became very clear that if this was going to work, then we would need to take the initiative and make it work effectively.  Training our groups to use Zoom and making it interesting for them was crucial to client retention.  We at the same time were moving out of the office in quite a hurry. We needed to ‘get away’ to set ourselves up at home; we needed to ‘get away’ as people in the business centre were already worrying about the close proximity to each other in the corridors; we needed to ‘get away’ in order to provide a seamless transfer of working environment to our clients. 

Our 100% changeover in delivery of our service to clients resulted in the loss of only one individual client, whose responsibilities at home, combined with work activities, meant she had no time to focus on English at least initially.  Setting up at home resulted in shaping our delivery to look our best.  Backdrops to the ‘teachers’ end of the remote call were necessary for professionalism as well as ‘fun’.  Getting the lighting right, making sure no ‘oddities’ appeared in the backdrop; all these things became as important as being properly dressed and turned out when making physical visits to customers at their offices.  The one thing we have failed to control is ‘crazy hair’; so 10 weeks in without a haircut makes for the ‘nutty professor’ look.

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It has been interesting teaching over this system when groups of individuals are located all over Moscow and the Moscow region. Some are using laptops and some phones; some have their books with them, some do not.  Adapting to their needs is vital so the use of ‘sharing’ with Zoom is vital.  It has been an interesting exercise of adaptation and without doubt the teacher has to adapt to the needs of the students and not the other way around. 

Teaching these groups has also thrown out one or two interesting points.  Our online groups are often from different parts of their business.  It is through their English lessons that they meet; it is the only time since chatting by the coffee machine at work is no longer an option.  So we often give them 5 minutes to ‘catch up’ on gossip and company activities using their native Russian language. Maybe we have added pluses now to our offering, and at the same time it makes us feel closer to our client business.

It has been an exciting time from a personal point of view to be a part of a new way of working.  We have changed our management ways to accommodate the ‘new normal’.  To work with clients only remotely is a new style, and recently we signed up our first customer whom we had met only ever online.

A few years ago I was given a picture parodying the saying you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.  It is one of my favourite gifts ever, and I like to think that this adaptation to remote working is a demonstration of what can be done when you put your mind to it.

‘New tricks? You bet!’