Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

5 Ways to Transform the Academic Workplace in a Post-Covid-19 World

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While everyone in higher education has been challenged by Covid-19, those of you in human resources have engaged in some seriously heavy lifting during the past few weeks. Think about it:

  • In a matter of days, you collectively moved thousands of people to remote work locations.
  • You decided who was "essential" for a continued on-campus presence and debated whether those people should be offered some form of premium pay.
  • You worked to communicate the parameters of benefit-plan coverage for telemedicine and Covid-19 screening and treatment options. In addition, you shored up employee-assistance services, knowing their mental-health services would be in high demand.
  • You pored over the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Cares Act, made changes in Family and Medical Leave Act policies, communicated changes in 403(b) loan and distribution options, and wrote multiple drafts of Frequently Asked Questions.

You juggled all of that while dealing with the fears and frustrations of people who rely upon you at work and at home, not to mention wondering about your own health and economic security. If no one has thought to thank you (because how often does anyone thank HR?), allow me — a longtime campus administrator in that realm — to do so now. Good job.

Adrenaline got you through the initial weeks of the crisis, but, like a great many people, you may be feeling weary and hopeless now. This is exhaustion talking, and it’s time for you to listen.

So for the next few days, do the bare minimum. Delete the deluge of Covid-19 guidance emails from people you do not know. Get some sleep. Because when you wake up, there is going to be a lot more to do — some of it operational, but most of it strategic.

Yes, there will be return-to-work protocols to develop and inevitable conversations about cost cutting and job eliminations or realignments. There will be new regulations to interpret and mandates to carry out as financial scenarios are modeled and revenue streams re-evaluated.

Do not let the urgent distract you from the important. As impossible as it may seem, it is essential that you carve out time to look toward the future. Covid-19 has created an opportunity to fundamentally transform the workplace in higher education. The steps you take now will determine whether you capitalize on new possibilities or simply waste this crisis.

What are the new possibilities and opportunities? Here are five to consider.

Opportunity No. 1: Remote work as routine. Administrators and staff members rarely have the same flexibility as faculty members about where they do their work. During my pre-Covid-19 travels to various campuses, I heard story after story about the misery associated with commuting to the campus and scavenging for parking. When I asked if remote work was an option — all or part of the time — I was usually schooled on all the reasons why remote work was "not right" for higher education:

  • It is impossible to monitor people’s work.
  • There are risk-management challenges.
  • Not all roles lend themselves to off-site work, so it would be unfair to offer the option to some but not others.
  • The ability to work together effectively is challenged by physical distance.

We now have an additional month (or more) to test the validity of those assumptions, and I bet we will learn that remote work is a viable option for far more employees on a college campus than we ever imagined.

What you can do now: Begin drafting more expansive guidelines for remote work (how will you assess its effectiveness?), and consider the staffing required (IT experts, for instance).

Opportunity No. 2: More open, authentic communication. In times of uncertainty, we crave information. Much of the Covid-19 messaging from the higher-education community has been quite good in recent weeks. Apparently, almost everyone got the memo about the need to temper optimism with honesty, and the power of seeming human when sharing difficult news.

As you move forward, remember three key tenets of effective organizational communication: Provide information in the context of your values, use simple language, and acknowledge the perspectives of others.

The last few weeks have prompted campus leaders to communicate regularly with their entire campus. Once this crisis concludes, faculty and staff members will expect the same cadence, openness, and speed. Having to learn campus news through the grapevine was annoying before Covid-19, and it will not be tolerated once we return to more normal routines. Honest and regular communication can no longer be reserved for special occasions.

What you can do now: Map out a plan for more regularly and authentically sharing information on the campus. Be prepared to provide details in the weeks ahead about your institution’s finances and organizational challenges.

Opportunity No. 3: Less bureaucracy. Consider all that was accomplished during three weeks in March without the usual process of vetting things up and down your organizational food chain. Decisions were made and decisions were carried out. Policies that were once sacred were tossed aside. There was no time for hand-wringing or unnecessary complexity.

The execution was not perfect, but it was good enough. While operating in continued chaos is not appealing, operating without the constraints of how you have always done things — that is, endless meetings, white papers, and task forces — could be enormously liberating.

What you can do now: Take a critical look at your policies and protocols. Delete as many as possible, and be ruthless in trimming those that remain. Use what you’ve learned during this crisis to simplify overly complicated campus processes.

Opportunity No. 4: Work/life integration, not balance. I don’t know about you, but I am seeing a lot of dogs, cats, and children in my Zoom meetings — and I like it.

Colleagues who were previously buttoned up suddenly seem real now that they have swapped work attire for baseball caps, admit to being sweaty from a run they took between virtual meetings, and acknowledge they are struggling with home-schooling responsibilities.

The work and home-life duties that some leaders and colleagues were able to keep separate have now collided. And that might mean more compassion for everyone who has struggled to keep family responsibilities from obviously intruding on their work.

What you can do now: Examine how much your institutional policies and programs support families and healthy lifestyles. What new flexibilities can be introduced? Which unnecessary organizational norms and practices can be challenged?

Opportunity No. 5: More respectful, diverse, and inclusive workgroups. Crises always teach us lessons, and I have asked dozens of friends and colleagues across higher education what they have learned in the last month. Two key themes have emerged:

  • A greater recognition of our interdependence.
  • A greater appreciation for self-reliance.

What do those seemingly contradictory observations mean for the academic workplace of the future?

I think they mean that, while we want to be able to take care of ourselves, we recognize that we inextricably rely on others. Perhaps this crisis will make it all the more obvious that we are most likely to survive when we are supported by a community of generous, cooperative colleagues with diverse perspectives and talents.

What you can do now: Set up focused conversations about how to create strong and diverse workgroups in which people hold one another accountable for being good organizational citizens.

As you work to balance the urgent and operational with more valuable strategic thinking, consider all you have learned in the last few weeks:

  • We are all hungry for information we can trust.
  • Complexity makes it hard to be agile.
  • It is possible to build a strong sense of community without being in close physical proximity.
  • Friends and colleagues with diverse talents are critical for filling in our own skill and knowledge gaps.
  • Cooperation is essential for survival.
  • We can get a lot of work done in our pajamas. And, of course, our pets really like having us around.

Allison M. Vaillancourt retired in December as vice president for business affairs and human resources at the University of Arizona. After three decades as an administrator and faculty member at large public research universities, she now provides organizational consulting services as a vice president in Segal’s organizational-effectiveness practice. Browse her previous columns in the Management Corner series on administrative-career issues.

As the coronavirus crisis deepens, The Chronicle is providing free access to our breaking-news updates on its impact on higher education. It’s your support that makes our work possible. Please consider subscribing today.

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