Leading in a Time of Uncertainty
The COVID-19 public health crisis gripping the world today has been a sprint for leaders over the past week or two, making urgent decisions about closing facilities, virtualizing the workforce, and providing services online. In the weeks and months ahead, we will face a full marathon, with colleagues, services, and in some cases businesses needing care and tending in a period of great uncertainty.
In a public health emergency, every organization must ensure it is caring for the needs of its employees. As the outbreak began to hit a growing number of regions in the United States in late February, ITHAKA first allowed and later encouraged all employees to work from home. Each day, the share of our employees choosing to do so grew steadily, and those who continued to come to the offices practiced social distancing. We cancelled first international and then domestic travel for all employees. At an all-staff webinar on Friday, March 13, our president Kevin Guthrie told us that he had decided to close all our offices (New York, Ann Arbor, and Princeton). As Kevin emphasized, having employees stop commuting and stay home was the single biggest contribution we could make to employee health and safety–and to public health more broadly–even before doing so might be required by the authorities.
The transition to working remotely affects individuals differently. Some are challenged by social isolation, others have the pressures and joys of parenting through a pandemic, others are relieved to have a new routine to replace the uncertainty of day-to-day changes. For myself, I know that my own productivity cannot be maintained, at least in the near term, and the same will hold true of others. We are all making major adjustments to work practices and circumstances. Kindness and compassion must be our guide. I am grateful beyond measure to work for an organization whose president emailed all employees this week, “I want to say very clearly and with emphasis: Your absolute number one priority right now is to keep yourself and those around you safe.”
My colleagues and I have begun adapting to the rhythms of working remotely. We have been aided by a fairly robust virtual infrastructure that was already in place, with both widespread availability and adoption of Slack, Google Docs, Jabber, and GoToMeeting, among others. We know that people also need social and impromptu engagement, not just scheduled meetings. Many of us are trying to check in a little more frequently, and several groups of colleagues are meeting together for virtual lunches. We are fortunate that, although all of us miss seeing our colleagues in person, we have been able to transition to working together at a distance.
As our work practices have changed, so too have some of our projects. We have worked proactively to reformulate or reschedule existing projects, to ensure we are not a burden on our partners. Should the advisory project to support library facilities master planning proceed uninterrupted as the campus is being vacated? Can we continue to survey students about their learning experience when they first need to focus on adapting in real-time to vastly different learning circumstances? Do we still plan to host a training workshop in person in Atlanta in May? Will an interview participant want to speak with us now (some are eager for a distraction; others not)? As some of our existing projects are rescheduled, or components of them moved online, there may be consequences to our financial stability, which we are monitoring. But, it will also free up some time and capacity to contribute to the immediate needs of the communities we serve.
And over the past week, I have been reminding myself and my colleagues regularly of the importance of our role (and that of all our colleagues in our sector) at this unsettling time. Christine Wolff-Eisenberg with Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (University of Illinois at Urbana) have documented the closures and service adjustments being made by academic libraries. Danielle Cooper conducted a series of interviews to examine the early impacts on instruction. Liam Sweeney is analyzing how museums and other cultural organizations whose facilities are closed will virtualize their community engagement. Kurtis Tanaka has written about how the pandemic is affecting prison education programs. Many other Ithaka S+R colleagues have written about work and experience relevant to higher education’s response. Recognizing the urgency of much of this work, many colleagues have worked nights and weekends, even while dealing with personal disruptions of their own, and I am immeasurably grateful.
One of the biggest challenges that we face is the unknown about how long this crisis will last, as well as the ways it might continue to unfold. The uncertainty that this brings makes transparency, adaptability, and compassion important values not only for leaders but for all of us. I feel comforted and confident knowing that I am part of an organization that strives to embody these traits in supporting one another and our community.
In a moment of crisis, our organizations and leaders reveal something of their true nature. Many universities, academic libraries, scholarly publishers, and museums have shifted their work quickly and in meaningful ways, eliminating face-to-face services, closing facilities, and ramping up digital access and virtual engagement. Other organizations have tried to balance between special responsibilities they have taken on, for example for student basic needs, against the urgent need to shut down face to face services. In yet other cases, sadly, organizations have been unprepared or unable to adapt.
The past days have been a sprint, but now–although exhausted–we are at the starting line of the marathon. Every day is an opportunity for all of us to make things better, or make mistakes. Leadership matters.