Featuring Vicki Gremelsbacker, MSEd, Professional Testing Corporation, and Mina Larson, MS, MBA, CAE, National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
The effects of COVID-19 on businesses were swift and are likely to have a lasting impact. For those in senior and executive leadership positions, agility was key in helping stay afloat operationally as many had to quickly retool the way they approached running their organizations.
We spoke with two ICE members, Vicki Gremelsbacker and Mina Larson, on how the first few months of the global pandemic informed their thinking around planning, business continuity, sustainability of such plans and more.
Gremelsbacker is the president of Professional Testing Corporation (PTC), an organization that focuses on testing and assessment services for testing programs, certification organizations and licensing boards. Larson is the chief executive officer of The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)®, the only national organization that validates entry-level competency in the practice of acupuncture and Oriental medicine (AOM) through professional certification.
How did COVID-19 change your day-to-day business? What plans or policies were put into place to adapt?
Vicki Gremelsbacker: PTC’s systems and processes have long supported a mobile workforce, allowing us to continue to collaborate with our clients and candidates without interruption. With PTC’s office in the heart of New York City, I had early discussions with my staff about finding alternate workarounds to customary in-office functions, such as using a business communicator application to access phone lines; sending and receiving postal mail; printing paper exams, score reports and certificates; and ensuring continuity of technical systems.
Anticipating a possible long-term shut down in New York City, we activated our business continuity plans to support an extended work from home environment, such as forwarding mail to an off-site location; converting certificate printing and mailing to electronic certificates and digital badges; sending reports via secure email systems; and continually evaluating and updating our business continuity strategies.
We also suspended staff business travel to protect the safety of both our staff and clients and migrated all in-person meetings to virtual environments. While many of our clients had previously conducted some virtual meetings, this was a newer practice to others and included virtual meeting training as needed.
Mina Larson: NCCAOM had moved to a paperless system with all of its services, and has remote capacity for all employees. When COVID-19 hit, we were prepared to move our office, located in Washington, D.C., to a completely remote environment. The staff and I quickly put together a COVID-19 sustainability plan to deal with all aspects of our organization that would be affected by the pandemic. This plan included changes in policies and procedures that affected our candidates and diplomates.
NCCAOM implemented an emergency waiver to allow students who are graduating this year (until Dec. 31, 2020) to apply and start taking their exams before they graduate. They must contact their schools who will then in turn send us the list of qualified students who can begin this process. In order for the candidate to be certified, we must receive their official graduation transcript from their school.
Diplomates who contact us with hardship due to COVID-19 can be granted an extension to obtain the professional development activity (PDA) points they need for recertification upon starting their application for recertification.
The testing staff and I worked with our psychometrician to begin offering our adaptive exams (offering continuous and year-round exams) on May 18 instead of the scheduled linear exams. In addition, our staff is working with each candidate to ensure they can find the location and test date that works for them.
What was your process for communicating these changes internally and externally?
VG: While we were still working from the PTC office, we held in-person meetings to plan for the potential event of not being able to access our office building. Part of that strategy was an all-staff work from home day in early March to validate that our systems and processes could handle a full staff load.
Since New York City enacted its PAUSE program in mid-March, we have all been working remotely full-time and have been holding weekly, online, all-staff meetings to review each department’s priorities in the short- and long-term, as well as share updates from our clients, vendors and partners. We have conducted in-house training on collaboration platforms, such as Microsoft (MS) Teams, to ensure that our lines of communication stay open. Each department has its own weekly status meetings, content is shared through community boards on MS Teams, and the MS Teams chat function allows for the quick back and forth that we take for granted in an in-person office setting.
Communicating with our clients and candidates remains our top priority and is particularly important during this time of rapid change and disruption. We send email updates to our clients on a regular basis. Candidates and certificants receive custom email messages that share the latest information on their specific exam program, too.
We have also created a page on our website to consolidate the information that we are sending via email. In addition to our standard phone and email support, the online ticketing system that PTC launched last year has proven invaluable for tracking and responding to client and candidate inquiries. At PTC, we focus on putting people first, so it is very important to be available to our candidates and clients and to help them navigate the evolving landscape in the testing world. Collaboration is the key to success for our clients and their stakeholders.
ML: Communication was paramount to before, during and after a crisis. After the creation and adoption of our COVID-19 sustainability plan, our staff got board approval and then created a communications plan for each stakeholder. We informed them of our plan for dealing with COVID-19 and any changes that may affect them. It was important for us to check in with them during this difficult time. Each of these communications was sent to all groups and then posted on our website.
NCCAOM has posted a variety of information, from government agency resources to response guidelines, on our COVID-19 Helpful Resources Page. Our government relations staff have also prepared summaries of the CARES Acts and continue to answer questions related to CARES or COVID-19 issues.
NCCAOM also created a COVID-19 Resource Center with information that includes government and state guidelines. We also have weekly town hall meetings to inform our community of important topics that affect them. These recordings are available online to the public here. Some town halls have had nearly 3,000 individuals participate.
What are some lessons learned so far that you think others can benefit from hearing?
VG: It is important to stay informed about adaptations being made in the industry due to COVID-19. Take advantage of the webinars and online articles that are being published almost every day and explore new options that you might not have considered before. Most importantly, have frequent conversations with vendors, clients and stakeholders.
At the same time, remember to employ best practices when considering changes related to an examination program. Organizations may be struggling to survive in this environment but it is of utmost importance to remain true to the mission of your organization and those of independent certification testing, including standardization, equitable access and security. Maintaining your organization’s integrity is key to your long-term success.
ML: During this time of crisis, NCCAOM recognizes that being adaptable to change and reviewing your processes and procedures is a continuous process during a time of crisis. A certification organization is more than just a credentialing organization — it needs to be able to provide resources and information to its certificants, especially during uncertain times.
Being adaptive, nimble and even inspirational to your stakeholders are key traits of an organization that responds well to their constituents. Stepping up as leaders can make a great impact when difficulties arise — this will result in greater value for your certification programs and your brand.
How do these changes impact the way you think about your business in the long run?
VG: We see this as an opportunity to build for the future. We are certainly busy adjusting to the rapid changes with availability of test centers, candidate uncertainty about testing and client program policy changes, but we also need to look forward. How can we continue to provide quality services in a changing world? What solutions can we offer to our clients and our candidates to support a safe, secure and financially viable environment? There are a lot of exciting options to consider and we look forward to working with our clients to find innovative solutions.
ML: This crisis has enabled us to step up in our role to promote our services and the value of certification. By communicating often through different channels and really making the case for how certification will help during these times, our organization has learned to be more adaptable and responsive, while also cutting our work that is not meaningful or adds value to our stakeholders. This allows our staff to focus on important work that is at the core of our business which also helps with our finances. It is important to keep your strategic plan fluid to ensure you can update it or re-prioritize it during these fast-paced times.
Anything else to add?
VG: Remember to stop and listen, which I know can be hard when everything is moving so quickly. Everyone is affected by the coronavirus in some way — whether it is knowing someone that has gotten sick, being employed on the front lines, losing a job, not being able to see family members or having to support kids or other family members at home.
Take the time to listen and try to have patience with everyone. Have regular check-ins with your staff members and stakeholders. Listen to candidates’ concerns and help them through as best as you can. Last, but certainly not least, plan some fun virtual events with staff and colleagues, so it isn’t all work all the time. We will all get through this together.
ICE COVID-19 Resources
ICE has put together a resources page with relevant COVID-19 resources for credentialing organizations. View the COVID-19 Resources for Credentialing Bodies page to learn more.