Lessons From COVID About Managing Change

Frances Altvater shares what she’s learned as an academic administrator and how it has uncovered new skills of empathy, adaptability and resilience.

July 22, 2021
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This past semester, a year into the pandemic, a colleague who is recognized in her field for her expertise in teaching called. “I’m throwing up my hands. They sat there on the Zoom, but none of them had their cameras on, despite having been asked. None of them had done the reading, despite the fact that we’d discussed how important it was to come to class having done it. I even gave them the administration’s suggested ‘snow day’ off last week so they could catch up; they obviously don’t care.”

What do you do when the situation isn’t working? We’re quite adept when it’s the subject we teach -- I can easily see where the confusion in Greek vase kiln techniques is coming from. But COVID forced us all, including those of us who are academic administrators, to be flexible and adapt.

In the spring 2020 semester, when everything closed down abruptly, we tried to game what it would look like for a two-week quarantine that then rapidly became a two-month shutdown. We spent the summer planning for remote and hybrid and asynchronous instruction, measured classrooms for social distancing, stocked up on buckets of wipes and hand sanitizer, and tried to plan for quarantine teaching if we ourselves were laid up. We learned multiple broadcast techniques and platforms. We talked about the importance of creating safe spaces that also engaged our students.

Clearly part of our exhaustion now is the reality that none of those scenarios played out exactly as planned. We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and emotional bandwidth managing our change.

I’m an art historian who has served as associate dean for student academic services for the past five years. I’m definitely not a management consultant. But I have learned a few things about managing change as a result of this long COVID year.

Find a mentor -- or a network of mentors. I don’t mean just a friend you can grouse with. Find someone who cares about pedagogy from a similar perspective to your own and understands your views on working with students, colleagues and administrators. Having someone to bounce ideas off is a crucial part of the exchange that you need to encourage. Because of my position as an academic dean, I naturally attract faculty members looking for feedback, but those of us who are administrators should actively develop networks, too. Even before COVID, we met regularly as a group of academic deans from all the colleges across the university. I’m better for having someone who understands my role at the university and can help me navigate the emerging ground.

Develop your critical empathy skills. Communication is a factor in any organization, but universities often have independent offices and departments that don’t know how to talk to each other even when a situation suddenly throws them together. COVID exacerbated those difficulties by diminishing our face-to-face contact (and then also hiding it behind a mask) and increasing our email use.

Yet careful communication when everyone is already stressed and overwhelmed can make the difference in response. We adapted to Zoom and other technologies, but success could be elusive: meetings went too long; each meeting often had its own specific etiquette of muting audio, chatting and using cameras; and participants often couldn’t read conversational cues smoothly.

But I’ve learned that by listening without first speaking, by using “we” instead of “I” statements and by acknowledging the emotional charges involved, you can create an atmosphere where the community works with you. So make a point to acknowledge your colleagues and staff for the work they are doing and close emails with a variation of “Thank you, as always, for all the work you do to help our students,” acknowledging their efforts.

Also, when I have had to change things yet again, I apologize -- in part to simply emphasize that I understand the imposition and their exhaustion. Change management studies often talk about this as figuring out how to manage uncertainty in ways that maintain commitment. COVID added grief and loss and trauma to our sense of upheaval; change management that acknowledges that we cannot undo what has happened is more vital than ever.

Accept that some changes will fail. When systemic changes fail, they can create a domino effect of consequences. We saw it in our classrooms: absenteeism increased, morale decreased, productivity suffered. The specter of a worsening outbreak, causing serious illness or death due to a COVID-related failure, heightened the tension of making changes. And it was harder to differentiate between minor and crucial changes, adding to our exhaustion.

The literature of change management is full of reasons why change fails, including everything from insufficiently defined reasons for the change, a culture or an audience that is resistant to the change or the process, insufficient resources and outside pressures. Part of the reason attempted changes have failed during COVID is because we’ve been trying to implement direct first-order changes. We are familiar with those from our experiences in the classroom, but COVID changes have been remedial: reactions to questions that remained unanswered and attempts to deal with vagaries that resisted our efforts.

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For instance, our institution spent time and energy discussing our process for students who resisted wearing required masks. We ordered equipment for cleaning classrooms between classes that never matched with logistics or expected responsibilities. Realities forced on us by the virus itself and outside institutions like our state and federal governments drove us to work together on very imperfect common grounds.

People tend to be conflict averse. We’d like things to work smoothly, which during the pandemic rarely occurred. Hardest of all, we've also had to admit that we’ve sometimes made changes that have failed and that this was also a normal part of managing the situation. We've been forced to confront things like our own personal levels of anxiety and feelings of safety, and to communicate those concerns to folks whose levels were different from our own.

Colleges are famously independent entities under the unified institutional umbrella -- what might work for engineering students will almost certainly not work for art students or for graduate students. We've needed to directly ask students and colleagues how they were managing, mindful of realities of ill family members or changes in family employment. We've needed to know what was happening with testing, quarantining and contact tracing; the success of the communication on these matters has made a huge difference in managing the daily variations in who might actually be in our classrooms and how they might need support and remediation. Staff changed -- through furloughs and layoffs, working from home, and illness. Where change management literature was reminding us to look at our resources for implementation, those resources were in flux. All these bring us back to the idea of listening and assessing through the process.

Recognize that change is a constant. Just as we transitioned into pandemic realities, we now have to think about transitioning out again. COVID culture has changed so much from those early days of swabbing down groceries, of modeling different masks and PPE to find a bearable level of protection, of rumored treatments and coming vaccines. We have had successes in assessment and adjustment all along.

That colleague I described who complained about her students? We brainstormed a response from me to her students expressing concern about how the course was going, about resources if they were experiencing extenuating circumstances and about our expectations that if they did not reach out, they would recognize their own responsibility to improve the class experience. None of them responded. But the next class, I got a text from my colleague: “Today’s class was so good.” We built on communication networks, offering resources, expressing empathy and emphasizing expectations and responsibilities.

We’re still facing a COVID-inflected “normal.” Will our students be required to be vaccinated? Will we need boosters? Will we still wear masks at public gatherings? How will we address absences for quarantine, given that the efficacy numbers suggest we might need to have some policies in place?

But we have, over the last year, moved into each of these realities. It will take time to rebuild from the COVID losses of staff cutbacks, admissions declines and faculty burnout. Yet we will slowly recover from this, such that we can begin to synthesize our immediate reactive policies and adapt them for longer change.

We’ve all seen where resources of technology will allow for some continued flexibility in our classes, advising and office hours, and meetings. We have made new connections and networks to be more resilient in the face of forced change. We’ve learned just how constant change is as we looked at our constituencies, thinking about their needs and finding ways to create responsive and sustainable policies. Management of that change uncovered our empathy, our adaptability and our resilience. These are the most important skills we as senior administrators can take away from this long pandemic reality.


Frances Altvater is associate dean of student academic services and associate professor of art history at the University of Hartford.


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