I’m prone to talk about universities and recent articles highlighting the problems with the higher education system. But I recently came across an article in the Chief Learning Officer by Paul Heck, M.Ed., a retired DuPont global manager, that I felt was worth commenting on.
Heck points out that although many multinational companies had virtual capabilities before, coordinating across countries in online meetings and communications, there’s a need to be aware that, “In times of great loss and uncertainty, it is an individual’s cultural background that drives their reaction to threats and challenges, and thus it is necessary for a leader to understand how their team members are reacting to COVID-19.”
This pandemic and the issues of racial injustice have affected both the workplace and higher education, with institutions having to look at their current policies, staff, and history to better adapt to what the current market wants.
Heck explains that so many of the underlying assumptions we carry as we make choices on a daily basis are based on the somewhat collective trust we share so we feel safer and more in control of our lives. “Control is achieved by doing what we believe is required so that nothing changes unless we choose to change it,” he writes.
Of course, the pandemic has removed our sense of predictability in the world, so what are managers to do? Embrace the unpredictability, especially that which is manifest in its diverse employees.
This diversity is not simply of the ethnic or national kind. Right now, employers are finding that their employees adopt a productive lifestyle consistent with their unique bio-patterns – “early birds” are productive in the early morning hours, while “night owls” find their productive hours in the evenings, with apparently no one fitting into the corporate-imposed 9 to 5 workday model.
In our discussions with workplace strategists, the whole philosophy of creating a work-life balance has been thrown out the window as individuals’ lives have melded into an overall existent versus a work, play, family set of distinct orientations.
Heck spares no sympathies with one certain claim in these regards: “The very real and immediate need to address the technological requirements of forced online work options grabs the attention, but finding IT solutions without addressing the cultural and emotional impact of COVID-19 on your employees is, at best, a half-baked quick fix.”
The point is that employers should be taking a long-term look at how they’ll approach culture in the workplace. Employees who have been able to successfully transition to working from home are going to wonder why it is they have to fight traffic to come into their places of work during an arbitrary time, especially those who have found their own productive groove during the pandemic.
Why am I commenting on this as someone from a university? Well, ignoring my corporate experience, these same problems are going to be witnessed here, and universities are seen by students as preparation for the workforce. Is there a need to have predetermined class times, most of which take place in the early morning and on weekdays, for a student body that is now adapting to the flexibility of “study from home.”
So what can universities – and workplaces – do? First, reexamine the purpose of their facilities. Space should be used as a culture connection center, bringing employees and students together for shared experiences, not to answer emails in an empty office or classrooms.
Second, allow the creative solutions of their constituents to be streamlined. Don’t try to get every student and employee to return to the old paradigms of scheduling. People are creative when they’re given the room to do so, and they want something your institution has – generally speaking, people aren’t just at their works for a paycheck, and students aren’t at a university just for a degree.
There are so many ways for institutions to adapt long-term to what employees and students will expect, which is why it’s so important that they embrace the philosophy of embracing the diversity of the people who participate with them.