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“Agility” and “higher education” are two words that do not often exist in the same sentence. The structure of our organizations—with shared governance, decentralization and (for publics) state purchasing and human resources regulations—can make it difficult for good ideas to become a timely reality. It also can be difficult to make decisions based on real-time data.

If the last two years have told us anything, it is that flexibility and adaptability are necessary characteristics for our organizations. Pre-pandemic, many universities struggled with crafting policies around remote work, alternative work hours and hybrid work schedules. In March 2020, we were forced to come to terms with doing things differently; in mere days we pivoted our entire organizations and found solutions to problems we had struggled with for years.

As we limp toward the clichéd “new normal,” (what some call the “new abnormal”) we mustn’t forget the lessons learned during the pandemic. As 2022 approaches, unpredictability dominates. Moving forward won’t be as easy as flipping a switch after two years of massive upheaval. Our world, which was rapidly changing before COVID, has fundamentally shifted. We cannot assume that what worked in 2019 works today. It’s time to think differently. Here are a few things to consider as you plan for the new year.

Using Internal Communications as an Engagement Tool

The nature of work has fundamentally changed. Remote work, flexible work arrangements and hybrid work environments are here to stay, and we must flex to accommodate. Employee engagement is a critical component of both work satisfaction and productivity. Team members need to feel involved and informed, regardless of whether they are working from a cubicle on your campus or with their laptop in their living room. We must find new ways to not only share information but also keep employees connected to our campuses, whether through online tools like Slack chats or by bringing people together in person for more personal gatherings. The plethora of tools available to communicate with internal audiences has only grown, but our strategies often remain the same. In 2022, think about your internal communications goals a little differently. The shift from “everyone knows what is going on” to “everyone feels engaged” is a major challenge, but one that is essential if we are to retain our staff. Rather than broadcast, engage.

Rethinking Events

As much as we may wish it were not true, life post-COVID will not look exactly like life pre-COVID. One area that I anticipate will see extreme differences are campus events. For nearly two years, many people who previously filled their nonworking hours with events and activities instead found themselves embracing their couch and streaming video. As campus events ramp up, I predict we will find it more challenging to attract attendees for a while—not just because people are wary of large gatherings, but also because they have gotten out of the habit of spending time away from home on the evenings and weekends. Resuming events may not be the best strategy—rethinking them may be wise. At minimum, we need to realize that we aren’t just competing with other events, but we are also going head to head against thousands of streaming videos and hundreds of virtual events. As communicators, we must take a hard look at our approach. Now is the time to talk to our audiences and stakeholders about what they want. It is possible that virtual components are here to stay. It’s also possible that large-scale events transition to more intimate gatherings. Or that events that once started late in the evening start earlier to better accommodate families.

Taking a Fresh Look at Your Crisis Comm Plan

Nearly two years into COVID, many communicators are burned out on crisis communications. We have been in a state of crisis for so long that it is beginning to feel normal. Unfortunately, living this way for as long as we have may have led us to be a bit complacent. What new crisis could trump a global pandemic? While we may not be able to anticipate the next rough patch, we can apply what we learned during this one to set ourselves up for success. Now is a great time to refresh your crisis communications plan. An updated plan will incorporate the new technologies deployed on your campus and should be informed by what worked and what didn’t throughout COVID.

As much as many people long for us to return to pre-pandemic behaviors, we cannot apply 2019 thinking to 2022 problems. As communicators, we are positioned to lead our organizations toward future-focused thinking. We need to flex the muscles we gained over the pandemic and use them to craft communications strategies that address the problems of today—and of the future.

Jaime Hunt is vice president and chief communications and marketing officer at Miami University of Ohio.

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