indicatorCommunity initiatives and programs during COVID-19

How a student program was reinvented for a no-office world

By ATB Financial 12 August 2020 5 min read

Louis Martyres, lead of ATB 101, returned to work from a vacation abroad in March. It was clear that mandatory social distancing to protect against the spread of COVID-19 might mean the 2020 version of ATB 101, ATB’s student work program for post-secondary students, would be cancelled before it started.

“Initially, I didn’t know if we were going to run the program this year. As we started to think about the next best thing we could do, we heard resounding feedback from leaders that they wanted to continue on,” recalls Martyres.

In a matter of weeks, his team transformed the program so it could work in a world where no one goes into an office. This involved fully embracing the technology and resources ATB was already using and inviting the students to thrive despite the challenges.

While the program transformed in 2020, the core goal remained the same, says Martyres. It aims to unlock the potential of team members—students and employees—while also giving back to the community.

“Having a balance of high performance and high caring is core to ATB,” he says. “We give our students exposure to the idea that both are possible. You can be a high performer and give back to the community as well.”


Tech creates deep connections


In a world of work from home, the 101 program became entirely virtual. This involved using Google tools, like Hangouts and Chat, to have one-on-one meetings, weekly standup meetings, team workshops and learning sessions. For example, each group of students had a dedicated chat room to discuss elements of the learning plans, work tasks, and other issues, says Martyres.

The program’s core curriculum was also added to the online learning platform Degreed to make it more accessible.

“Instead of attending an in-person half-day workshop, we hosted an hour-long Google Hangout session with the students. Then students could use Degreed to review the rest of the material and modules at their own pace,” Martyres says.

“Degreed has been great,” says Emma Brown, a 101 student about to enter her final year of a degree in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. “I liked that there are different types of media for learning, like articles, lesson plans or videos.” Brown also took advantage of the other internal and external resources posted on Degreed to do more self-directed learning on subjects like how to develop a brand.

Embracing these digital tools has paid off for the program, adds Brown, who was also a summer student last year before the pandemic changed how work happens.

“A lot of my concerns about the lack of connection were disproved,” she says. “I was actually able to create more connections this year. Last year, I got a lot of face-to-face with team members in Calgary, but this summer I’ve been able to virtually connect with people I normally wouldn’t get access to, like the VP of marketing.”

Nicole Suitor, a law student at the University of Calgary and a 101 student this year, says she’s impressed with how the virtual version of the program built trust within the teams.

“I never felt so connected to a company so quickly,” she says. “Within weeks of starting I was being handed assignments and trusted to ask questions and fully participate. A large part of that is the coaching and mentoring of students but also of the ATB staff who participate in the program. Their hard work really shows and they set you up for success.”

Martyres says the new elements of the program, like chats and using Degreed, are likely here to stay. “We’ve found through this experience, you can replicate some of the in-person experiences online and do it successfully with the same level of impact,” he says.


Coaching tomorrow’s leaders


The global pandemic required that the 101 program reimagine itself in a changing world, but even before COVID-19 the program was already undergoing major adjustments to better prepare tomorrow’s leaders.

“We as a company are evolving, so the 101 Student program had to evolve too. Our bold goal is to create the best student work program that ever existed,” says Martyres. “There is a huge focus on unlocking human capability by investing in the skills of the future. We know there are going to be disruptions across all industries due to automation, AI, and other technology. While technology is really good at the process stuff, it’s not great when it comes to empathy, critical thinking and human emotions. That’s where we focus with the students.”

This includes workshops and learning modules combined with self and small-group reflection on issues like how to be agile and adaptable, cultivating resilience and how to develop your uniquely human capabilities to succeed in the future.

To put these new skills into practice, Martyres made one more major change to the program. He replaced the capstone project with a community project. He connected with the Goodness Grows team—a new internal team focused on supporting Albertans during trying times—and had student teams propose creative ways ATB could uplift students in the community.

Suitor enjoyed the opportunity to work with fellow 101 students in the community project.

“Law school can be highly independent. It was so fun to partner up. I was incredibly impressed by the students and their wise ideas,” she says.

Brown adds that the pivot from a capstone project to community program was “perfect for the times we are in right now,” because it allowed students to champion and elevate the voices of fellow students.


Change drives growth


While it might have been easier for Martyres and his team to cancel the student program this year, they navigated through a change that led to growth for both ATB and the participants.

“It’s amazing what happens when you provide students with support, coaching, and opportunities coupled with freedom and autonomy,” says Martyres. “It’s a magic recipe for success. The students surprise themselves—and they surprise us as well.”

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