Virtual learning has helped bring people together to learn, connect, and help business move forward during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s a key component for how Dunkin’ Brands has, during this unprecedented time, been able to uphold its motto: people over profits.
“As a learning team, we take that seriously and have been working to ensure franchisees and their teams have information to help keep themselves, and their guests, safe,” according to Stephanie Lilak, senior vice president and chief human resources office of Dunkin’ Brands, who responded to DDIFO questions via email. The company has implemented new online safety courses related to COVID-19 as well as strengthened its existing food safety trainings. They have also used both live and recorded lessons to help new franchise owners learn the business virtually, without the need to travel to Dunkin’ Brands University for the three-week in-person curriculum required before the pandemic.
“In response to the pandemic, we required all Dunkin’ franchisee restaurant employees, as well as our DBI field operations team, to take a refresher of our online food safety course”
– Stephanie Lilak, Senior VP and chief human resources office of Dunkin’ Brands
The pivot from live to virtual learning
Dunkin’ has always had a strong focus on food safety; virtual learning emphasizes that, Lilak said. “In response to the pandemic, we required all Dunkin’ franchisee restaurant employees, as well as our DBI field operations team, to take a refresher of our online food safety course,” she said. The brand also created new lessons on how to properly wear a mask, as well as classes on new brand standards such as plexiglass shields at cash registers and social distancing requirements, and a new video showing enhanced available safety materials that franchisees could consider implementing. “This will continue to be an ongoing and evolving focus,” Lilak said.
Course material, derived either from existing curriculum on food safety standards or newly created and filmed recently at Dunkin’ Brands University in Braintree, Mass., has been posted to Dunkin’s online learning management system called “The U.” It can be viewed on smartphones and tablets.
New Dunkin’ franchisees, who would have typically attended an in-person training program at Dunkin’ Brands University, have been able to transition to a virtual model “so the business is not negatively impacted by the pandemic and the temporary suspension of various in-person classes,” Lilak said. “Our goal is for all franchisees to continue to receive the same high-quality training programs.”
To fulfill that goal, “following the Brands’ learning model of Learn It, See It, Do It, Check It, we applied our knowledge of adult learning principles to flip the three-week curriculum to be virtual with limited franchisee travel,” she said. “Synchronous virtual sessions pull through eLearning with a focus on job aids, demonstration, and introduction to restaurant systems. Learners join small classes broadcast from DBU or home offices. Each learner then has post-class work to complete in their own restaurant with in-person or virtual coaching from the [Dunkin’ Brands] Learning or Operations Manager in order to get hands-on practice and in-restaurant experience.”
Online learning has been positive, and franchisees have commented on “the continued support from the DBI learning team, and our focus on training around new brand standards and safety measures for food, restaurant employees and guests,” said Lilak. Such feedback has helped indicate when new learning materials are needed or when existing courses should be modified. “Restaurants have consistently had a high level of course completions for the available courses during the pandemic,” she added.
Trends in Virtual Trainings
Dunkin’ Brands is doing what many other companies are doing to help educate and unite its franchise owners through online learning. The National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees (NCASEF) also pivoted to online webinars early in the pandemic to help its franchisees learn how to apply for various economic relief programs, such as loans from the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program and to help educate franchisees on their responsibilities under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, according to Michael Jorgensen, NCASEF’s executive vice chairman. The organization is also running monthly virtual meetings with its board members and transitioned its annual convention, which was scheduled for August 2020 in Maryland, to a virtual trade show, for the 4,400 franchisee members who run a majority of the chain’s more than 9,000 stores in the U.S.
“There are different synergies when you do that, but it affords us greater opportunities for much broader access and connectivity doing so virtually, which we might not have done so quickly”
– Michael Jorgensen, NCASEF’s executive vice chairman
The change from in person to online “is still a work in progress, as everyone is in different stages of recovery and many are still experiencing staffing issues,” says Jorgensen. Besides the pandemic, several 7-Eleven stores across the country have been destroyed or targeted by looters resulting from civil unrest this summer.
Virtual learning and meetings have allowed people to come together more quickly, Jorgensen says. “It’s much easier to access the number of franchisees we have, in their stores or the comfort of their homes, than to try to get everybody together in person,” he says. “There are different synergies when you do that, but it affords us greater opportunities for much broader access and connectivity doing so virtually, which we might not have done so quickly” if it had not been a necessity.
Online communications have become the standard, says Diane Phibbs, the executive vice president of Franchise Update Media. “Virtual is in every layer. In addition to communications from the brand and to their employees, everyone has gone to webinars targeted for franchise learning, which is great if it’s done well.”
There is so much going on that franchisees are overrun with how much information needs to be shared online. “Franchisees are operators, and they don’t have time to watch a screen for two to three days. Even an hour on the screen is a lot,” she says. Franchise Update Media rescheduled its annual conference, which was originally planned for April 2020, to April 2021. A virtual conference wouldn’t have worked, Phibbs says. “We get close to 2,000 people at our conference, and with 250 exhibitors, that face to face content is critical—so many deals are done on the floor.”
“Virtual is in every layer. In addition to communications from the brand and to their employees, everyone has gone to webinars targeted for franchise learning, which is great if it’s done well.”
– Diane Phibbs Executive Vice President, Franchise Update Media
Others disagree conferences can only be successful in person. Wesley Marcele, the senior sales manager for event and meeting planning company PSAV, noted that most client conferences are moving from live events to virtual ones.
“It’s a weird time right now, but I think [virtual conferences] will be a product that outlasts the pandemic,” he says. “People like live meetings, but with travel restrictions, the move to virtual” makes sense.
Regardless of whether live conferences, trainings and meetings will return in full once the pandemic ends, the experience of becoming better at virtual education will remain, says Jorgensen.
“Our learning through this is going to sharpen our skills and broaden connectivity to our franchisee membership across the country,” he says. “It will change the way that we’ve gone to businesses in the past. Change is not necessarily a bad thing. It teaches us a whole new way to educate and communicate.”