Coronavirus, Compassion, and Change
I feel for my former colleagues and friends in higher education right now.
Having recently left an institutional role, I can easily imagine the conversations that are happening on campuses across the United States, the difficult decisions that are being made, and the stress that COVID-19 is creating for institutions and their leaders, their faculty and staff, and most importantly, their students. There are real consequences to these decisions, with potentially far-reaching impacts that could last for months and years to come.
While I very much empathize with the situation that higher ed administrators, and especially IT leaders are in, I no longer walk in their shoes (something that, in a moment like this, I feel some ‘survivor’s guilt’ about—but that’s another blog post). I can view this situation from a slightly different perspective, one that comes with a deep understanding of context and constraints but is also once removed.
Looking at it from that perspective, here’s what strikes me …
Technology leaders are deeply immersed in continuity planning for their institutions, as well they should be. Many of the strategies for mitigating this crisis depend on technology, from online learning to solutions for remote work. Institutions are developing amazing plans—how to roll out online collaboration tools, quickly equip faculty for online teaching, notify and support students. They are detailed and thoughtful, reflecting the entire community’s wisdom and expertise.
What may be getting lost in the moment—if only because institutions are acting under extreme pressure and in ‘crisis mode’—is an acknowledgement that as much as this is a response to a pandemic, it is also, at its core, a plan for change … and quick change, at that. If there’s anything that IT leaders know a little something about, it is change. With the ever-changing nature of technology, every project we undertake is one-part technology, two-parts change management.
Still, at times like these, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that change is not about the technology, or the process, or the plan. It’s about people.
People are who must make the change, and it’s a pretty safe bet that your people, right now, are reeling. They’re concerned for their parents, or their children. They’re worried about their retirement savings, or the stability of their jobs. They’re nervous about the health of the institution, and the wellbeing of your students. They’ve already been feeling fatigued by institutional change and now there’s added uncertainty, and more change.
As you work through the immediate and concerns of closing campuses, shifting courses online, and managing displaced students, please also remember to focus intentionally on helping your people through the change. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Provide clear and transparent communication. Don’t sugar-coat or downplay the situation. Be honest, and direct. Communicate regularly. Now would be a good time to adopt some agile practices, like a quick 10-minute ‘stand-up’ meeting each morning (virtual stand-ups work well, too) to check in on your team and let them know what happened the previous day, what decisions were made or are being contemplated, and what the upcoming day has in store.
- Give your teams agency. Engage your team members not only in conversations, but in decisions. Give them as much control as possible over their situation. Let teams decide for themselves how to best work as a team remotely, which tools to use, etc. Unless absolutely necessary, try to forego top-down decision-making in favor of individual and/or team choice. You may just be surprised by the creative solutions they find!
- Acknowledge and normalize the ‘human’ element. Be vulnerable. Talk to your team about the uncertainty, fear, or other emotions you personally are experiencing right now. Let them know that it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling, and to talk about it. Have your EAP benefits information at the ready. Bring in crisis counselors if necessary. Encourage self-care.
- Create space for social engagement. Insist on it, in fact. The call for social distancing can also create social isolation, which has its own set of implications for people’s emotional and physical well-being. Hold virtual happy hours. Encourage ‘coffee dates’ (virtual, if necessary). Intentionally plan for, build in, and insist on non-work time during the regular workday.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a career spent driving change, it is this: you may be able to do pandemic contingency planning in a couple of weeks, but there are no shortcuts for managing the people side of change.
Originally posted March 13, 2020, as a LinkedIn Article. Reprinted with permission.