More than 30 experts from 12 THE-ICE member institutions in 9 countries joined THE-ICE Webinar Series 9: Managing Staff and Virtual Teams in an Online Workplace to discuss the challenges of working remotely during the pandemic, and to share strategies and solutions for managing staff and teams in this environment.
On Thursday 24th September 2020, expert presenters Mr Arend Hardorff (Hotelschool The Hague, Netherlands) and Dr Paul Whitelaw (Southern Cross University, Australia) shared the insights they have gained in managing staff and virtual teams while working remotely during the COVID-19 crisis.
In-webinar polling showed that 67% of attendees have some academics at their institution still working entirely remotely (i.e. not coming to work even for meetings), 88% of polled attendees have been offered training or support by their institution to help them to work remotely, and 100% indicated that they are aware of logistical, technological or emotional issues with staff working remotely.
Mr Hardorff and Dr Whitelaw shared their experiences, including an overview of the pandemic situation in their respective countries, and through their presentations and open discussion several key strategies for managing staff and virtual teams in an online workplace were identified:
- Implementing systems and solutions with a long-term mindset
- Maintaining transparency and open communication
- Equipping staff with the right tools and skills
- Ensuring staff wellbeing
Within these areas, the following key takeaways were highlighted:
Implementing systems and solutions with a long-term mindset
- Meetings have been moved online for most institutions, but this can also be an opportunity to integrate or implement collaborative document editing, dynamic discussion groups, internal chat bots, and automation of secretarial functions such as transcription.
- Technology can be used to perform repetitive, precision-based functions (“high tech”) in order to fully utilise staff for personal engagement (“high touch”), but technology should be used to complement, not replace, people.
- Most institutions are managing the crisis with a short-term mindset but planning for the long term as much as the uncertain nature of the pandemic allows. Some institutions are rewriting their strategies for the next five (5) years.
Maintaining transparency and open communication
- The pandemic and the changes it has necessitated are not a temporary fix on the way back to “business as usual”, but a catalyst for massive change across many sectors, including education.
- Providing regular updates ensures that everyone remains informed and being honest and transparent, especially about case numbers, helps to prevent the spread of misinformation and gossip.
- Institutions cannot prevent infection but can remove barriers to honesty and ensure responsiveness for their affected staff and students.
- Virtual ‘town hall’ or question-and-answer sessions allow students and staff to have their concerns heard and questions answered directly, and provide a more personal point of contact. These have been so successful that some institutions will maintain these sessions once the pandemic crisis is over.
Equipping staff with the right tools and skills
- Staff can be upskilled to conduct online assessments, including moving to digital/simulated labs where possible.
- Institutions should ensure that employees have the correct chair, desk, etc. to be able to work safely and comfortably from home.
- Essential hardware and software should be made available remotely, including adequate support/troubleshooting for both.
- Expectations and workloads should be managed by reducing and reprioritising tasks, as well as outsourcing where possible.
Ensuring staff wellbeing
- It is important to maintain routines and socialisation, and these can be scheduled into meetings as well as separate events such as a “Zoom bar” after work hours on a Friday or a “morning coffee” online meeting room.
- Regular wellbeing surveys allow institutions and managers to gain a better understanding of employees’ and colleagues’ mental and emotional states, which can be much more difficult to gauge and manage when working online.
- Institutions and managers should pay special attention to expatriate colleagues or other vulnerable communities, who tend to have smaller social circles and therefore smaller domestic support networks.
- When mental space/energy is low, it is harder for staff and colleagues to seek out and ask for help, even if they recognise that help is needed.
- It is important to reward employees, both financially and socially, to maintain their engagement and morale, and encourage them to broaden their circle of colleagues.
The recording of the webinar can be accessed here.