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Ethics for Fitness Pros During the COVID-19 Crisis

As I’m writing this we’ve had over a full week now of social distancing protocols, meaning the studio where I teach abruptly, and very responsibly, closed for in person sessions. The schools have been closed, so my 10 year old son is home, and my partner has been working from home for over two weeks, as his company was at the beginning of the wave of isolations.

During this time I’ve been working longer and more intense days than I do normally, but for significantly less pay. The first day was a panicked flurry of work on the computer, getting Zoom set up, updating my Acuity scheduling set up for online training, checking my insurance for online teaching coverage, moving the sofa bed out of the guest room/office and into the garage to create a clear teaching space, and getting my social media updated to let people know I was teaching.

I’m not the most tech savvy at all. Normally I much prefer to spend my days moving rather than to be sitting at a computer playing around with various platforms to see how they work. I gave up owning my own studio six years ago, mostly because I can’t stand sitting still for administrative work. But the sudden panic of realizing the income from my only marketable skill could vanish instantaneously was motivating enough for me to get a move on it right on day one.

Since then my days have been filled with teaching daily GYROKINESIS® classes online, managing all the scheduling and set up around that, and then fielding calls, texts, emails, facebook messages, etc, from colleague all over the country desperately needing help getting themselves set up and teaching online to maintain at least some income over the next, indefinite stretch of time. All while attempting to homeschool my 4th grader.

While the “how to” in getting started with online teaching is actually pretty straight forward (see my blog post on this), there are some ethical issues that suddenly arise in this new reality that many trainers have never had to think about before. That combined with the overwhelming stress and anxiety faced by studio owners and trainers can lead people to act as not their “best selves” in the lightening quick decisions we’re all being forced to make in an ever changing and insecure situation.

Here are some important points to keep in mind while you make the important decisions so many of us will have to face over the coming days, weeks, and maybe months.

Many studios will not survive this crisis. Small fitness studios tend to operate with very small profit margins. Studio owners still have rent, high software expenses, such as Mind Body Online, possibly administrative staff costs, and more miscellaneous business expenses that still need to be paid, even if the studio doors are closed. So if you’re a trainer working for a small or mid sized studio, even a larger studio, try to understand the position the studio owner is in. They’re worried not only about their own livelihood, but also probably feel a great deal of responsibility toward their employees and contractors as well.

Trainers are in survival mode. Just as studios often operate with small profit margins, so do many trainers. As movement trainers we do what we do usually because it’s what we love and what we feel called to do, not because it was the most financially lucrative career we could pursue. Trainers don’t tend to make a load of money and may not have a significant emergency fund or financial cushion to fall back on. Because mind-body fitness is somewhat of a boutique market, many of us live in expensive areas that can support this type of business. This means trainers may not make or have saved much money, but still have high rent or mortgage payments to maintain.

No Poaching. Boundaries are no longer physical, but still need to be respected. Most trainers know not to solicit clients who they have gained through their employer’s studio resources. If it was the studio’s marketing money and efforts that brought you a client, that client is a client of your studio, not your own personal client.

In my personal case, I was up and running by the end of day one of social distancing protocols for my area. The studio for which I work was several days behind in getting their own online teaching plan into action. So while I was already set up to teach online I was very deliberate in NOT contacting my regular clients from the studio, even those who I had personally brought to the studio from my own studio when I closed it six years ago.

Fortunately for me as a Master Trainer I have a broader network of students around the country and across other countries as well. So simply by posting on social media many of my past students easily found me and my classes, without my having to encroach upon any clients from my employing studio. Since then, slowly, the studio has begun to book a couple of my regular clients in for me as online privates from my home.

This of course can be problematic for a trainer who doesn’t have a client base from beyond the studio for which they work and is dependent on waiting for their studio to provide the online teaching hours they need to survive. But it is not okay to contact a studio client to set up training without the permission of the studio. However, new clients you obtain from your own network, who are not (and have not recently been) clients of the studio, are perfectly fair game.

What if the studio where you teach isn’t offering their classes online? Is it okay to contact your regular clients? Each case is different, for each studio and for each trainer at each studio. In the case that your studio isn’t set up for you to teach through them online, or if they’re set up for it but haven’t been able to mobilize clients onto their online platform, you need to have a discussion with the studio owner or manager.

Open communication is key, on both sides. The trainer needs to be clear about their intentions, while the studio owner needs to be clear as to why online teaching opportunities haven’t been made available to the trainer. Maybe the studio owner is overwhelmed by the technical and administrative demands of switching to online sessions. In which case a tech savvy trainer might be able to offer assistance. Perhaps the studio owner doesn’t expect the studio to survive the financial impact of the crisis and is considering steps to dismantle the business.

Only through open and frank conversation can the best, most ethical course of action be determined for each situation. If the studio won’t communicate with a trainer, or seems to have no plans of offering online training as an option to their clients, or if the trainer is laid off due to the crisis, then the trainer has a little more ethical leeway. If you find yourself in this situation it’s not appropriate to reach out directly to the clients. But if you set up a basic website, and get really present and productive on social media, then the clients will find you. If they’re really missing training with you and want to find you all they have to do is google your name. Remember, this is only an appropriate course of action if you’ve exhausted all good faith efforts at working with the studio.

Navigating online fees and free classes is new, tricky territory. There are a lot of questions and discussions going on right now about online pricing and offering services for free. How do you price your online services? Do you keep prices the same as they were for in-person sessions? Offer a discount because you can’t offer the same level of service virtually? You’ll have to think this through pretty thoroughly before you make a decision.

One school of thought is that you’re a professional with a certain level of training. Your time is your time and the value of that time remains the same, whether in person or online. Another thought is that you can’t offer the same hands-on cueing or subtleties that an in-person session allows, so the price should be a little less.

In my personal situation, because I’m not reaching out to my regular clients, rather I’m drawing from the larger circle of students I’ve developed as a Master Trainer, most of my trainer-clients are currently out of work. Therefore I’m offering group classes at the deeply discounted rate of $10 per class. It’s not a lot of profit for me, but it’s what the trainers can afford right now. If I continue teaching online classes after all of this blows over I’ll definitely put my price up a level more in line with my in person classes.

Also, keep in mind that you need more set up and tech time for online classes. In person I would usually teach several classes back to back. In an online schedule I need at least 15 minutes in between clients to deal with emailing or texting clients to assist with logging in and getting their microphone and camera settings adjusted.You'll have to evaluate your situation and the situation of your client demographic to make pricing decisions.

Many of my colleagues are pretty angry right now about the issue of free classes online. One friend who owns a small, boutique studio told me of how a large corporate owned gym near her has sent all the trainers home with full pay. The trainers are offering free classes online, since they have loads of time and aren’t concerned about cashflow. Meanwhile, smaller studios are struggling to keep some revenue coming in through paid classes while competing against a glut of free content suddenly available. We have to think about how our pricing strategies not only effect ourselves, but also the greater community of our industry. If we’re giving our work away for free that devalues the work for everyone. That’s going to have lasting effects beyond the end of this crisis. Sure, set up a free trial class for friends and dedicated clients so you can work out the technical glitches and ask for feedback, but then be sure you charge for your services once you’re up and running.

If you’re worrying if something is unethical that’s probably a red flag to more closely examine your thinking. Some colleagues and I were talking through some of these issues via a Zoom meeting the other day. Briana Kline, owner of Roots of Integrity in Chicago, said when trainers ask her if something is ethical or not she responds “If you have to ask me, you already know”. I think that’s very frequently the case. Although sometimes I think very conscientious trainers may err on the side of over-caution when it comes to possibly “stepping-on-toes”, to the point that it unnecessarily compromises their career opportunities. While this conscientiousness is a great quality in a trainer, there is a delicate line between over accommodation of others and asserting one’s rights to career advancement. As one who has probably tended too much toward an avoidance of this “stepping-on-toes” at the expense of perfectly legitimate opportunities, I know that it’s not good to find oneself paralyzed into inaction by the fear of upsetting anyone at all. So I think what we all need to do is carefully consider our motivations in each action and how these actions will effect others.

We’re all facing a new reality and so many new challenges. There’s not really any precedent for this and we don’t know how long this will go on. So there’s a lot of insecurity and anxiety for everyone. But I believe if we can be our best selves even when times are bad, even when we feel desperate, that’s the true demonstration of of character.

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