Strategically Virtual: Voices from the field–Workforce responses to COVID-19

Nearly a year-and-a-half after the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, in the summer of 2021 researchers at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development released a survey to gain a better understanding of workforce development professionals’ ongoing experiences, questions, and concerns as they continue to navigate changes to their operations as a result of the pandemic.

Nearly 150 responses from workforce development professionals were collected, representing seven states. Additionally, three roundtable discussion sessions drew approximately 40 participants. From this direct feedback, Heldrich Center researchers were able to ascertain a clearer picture of the challenges, triumphs, and lessons learned from local workforce development professionals trying to simultaneously help people in need and personally and professionally stay above water in an extremely new and stressful environment. To learn more, read the new brief, Strategically Virtual: Voices from the Field: Workforce Responses to COVID-19, by Liana Volpe, Research Project Coordinator and Savannah Barnett, Researcher, both at the Heldrich Center.

In the early days of the pandemic, it was evident that many local workforce areas and individual workforce leaders struggled to create plans and strategies to adjust to a “new normal” in the face of the ever-changing landscape brought on by the pandemic. Varying levels of technology familiarity, access to technology for staff and customers alike, and a perceived absence of guidance from federal and state policymakers were all reported factors that complicated the transition to virtual. Now, many workforce professionals have reached a new level of comfort with virtual services, with many noting “virtual is here to stay.”

Workforce professionals reported learning many lessons during the pandemic, including the importance of well-being, self-care, and having compassion for others. For many local workforce professionals, dramatic societal and work-life changes, coupled with working with people in crisis, tested limits and made many realize the value of prioritizing their own well-being to ensure that they could continue to care for others personally and professionally. Lessons such as this should be remembered as the transition back to in-person or hybrid models of working are currently underway in most local workforce areas.

It appears to be a critical moment for the public workforce system at large, with researchers calling for local, state, and federal policymakers to be more forward-thinking and to engage in strategic planning to consider what the workforce development system could be, beyond what it is now, in order to bring greater resilience to the system overall.

Read the brief.


In the Suddenly Virtual series, the Heldrich Center examined how the public workforce system had adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing case management, training, and job search services in an online environment. The Strategically Virtual series builds on this work, outlining how the public workforce system can use technology and community partnerships more effectively to expand services, address job seeker mental and emotional well-being, and ensure that a broader range of the public is able to access supports during a time of social distancing and massive job loss. The Strategically Virtual series is producing issue briefs, Medium blog posts, practical guides, and more. View all of the Strategically Virtual blog posts.