Earlier this year, I wrote that COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary, but what’s encouraging is how quickly the status quo can change. Yes, we are capable of adjusting our mindsets and behaviours.
Alas, I forgot to add that this change has been forced. The underlying culture has not evolved. When the weight of the pandemic is lifted, human behaviour will bounce back like a coiled spring.
Same goes for any positive effects on universities and the workplace. There’s a lot of excited talk about work-from-home as the new normal, for example, but despite all the undeniable benefits, it’s a mistake to assume this will come about naturally.
Deep change is cultural change. If we want to retain anything positive from this crisis, it will require both direction from above and the active involvement of staff. Until administrative and operational staff are involved in working on these underpinnings, hope and talk will be forgotten as the dominant culture reasserts itself.
I suggest asking a few challenge questions. I admit these are heavy with process, policy, and tools. Hardly the stuff of inspiration, and having these things won’t cause change. But lacking them will certainly hinder it.
- Is a telework policy being drafted, or revised, based on the assumption that work-from-home is normal? Are we planning to deal with the most challenging aspects of remote work (hiring and onboarding, performance management, alignment on objectives)? Are private-sector examples being studied for lessons?
- Can we give everyone the tools to be mobile? Are meeting rooms equipped to serve a blend of on-site and remote attendees? Are work-at-home systems secure? Are employees trained to protect personal information?
- Do we know how to maximize the return on staff travel, tightening criteria for approval, based on an assumption that the default engagement from now on will be digital?
- Are we thinking about how to retool the measurement of engagement and meaningful cultivation activities in the digital world?
- Are we adopting new tools and processes to move paper-based approvals to secure electronic signatures?
- If there’s really a new spirit of pan-campus cooperation now, is it translating into something that will last, such as a university-wide data governance framework?
This disruption feels long because it’s unfamiliar and because we’re still in it. It’s hard to see it as temporary and fleeting. In truth, without taking deliberate action on the underpinnings of positive change, the disruption won’t last nearly long enough to make a difference.