#WFH: Higher Ed Goes Emergency Remote
“Emergency Remote Teaching” is not good online learning. The two are quite different. When COVID-19 hit Higher Education, what they went with was the former not the later. Most of Higher Education was in no way ready to go online. In fact, they had been fighting it for decades. When I interviewed Sarah in early April 2020, she had been an Assistant Dean of Online Learning for a prominent university for years. She typically oversees relationships with an OPM (Online Program Management) organization, trains faculty and does whatever it takes to keep the online programs in her school up and running. The university hired a third party and paid dearly over an extended period because they did not want to invest in online internally. Like many schools, they thought this was a fad and it would pass. With the COVID crisis she was asked to work with many additional faculty to get their face-to-face courses online in a week.
Sarah has been working from home for three years. She lives in a lovely little town and has an eight-year-old son. She is a single mom. Initially, she struggled with feeling guilty for being able to work from home and felt like she needed to work more. Having leadership that supported her helped tremendously. Now, she feels like she has a good schedule and pace and is extremely comfortable working remotely. However, her new leadership does not share that view.
She thinks the work-life balance is the most difficult aspect of working from home because the actual physical environment causes the line to be blurred. Having an eight-year-old at home all day because of the COVID-19 quarantine only makes it more difficult. She now has three full time jobs: Assistant Dean, Mom and second grade teacher. What her son is doing is homeschooling, not online learning. She is given a list of assignments and activities and they are on their own to get it done and hand it in at the end of the week. She tries to schedule all her meetings in the morning because her son is better at working independently then; after lunch his concentration is not as strong.
Typically, before COVID, she managed a staff of three and did faculty training and met with her staff. Every Wednesday morning they had a team meeting. Before COVID she had two to four meetings a day, but four was rare; since COVID she is averaging six to eight meetings a day. She is in meetings online all day, every day, for six to eight hours. She thinks it is a reaction from leadership that they are truly uncomfortable with remote work. To get the faculty online she created trainings and scheduled office hours on an online scheduling platform, where they can easily book an appointment with her. She tried extremely hard to stick to that schedule and not react to the requests of faculty for help “right now.” Trying to get all the faculty acclimated and online has extended the day considerably. She used to work basically nine to four; now it more like eight to eight, at least. Her university often imposes their desire to please others and meet their wants and needs on her. Her struggle to keep a consistent schedule is difficult because she doesn’t get their support. There is a general lack of boundaries around the workday. She gets texts and phone calls late at night from her boss who wants something before an early morning meeting the next day. She understands that this comes from a sense of panic and an attempt to control what is generally out of control.
Sarah feels that she and her team were ready for the remote workplace. She made sure her team had laptops and webcams from the time they started as well as secure remote access and connections. The overall organization was not ready. It is not the school’s policy to give everyone a laptop. Just from a hardware perspective, the organization was not ready to go remote. People did not have the internet connections they needed either. Some of the staff is older and lacks the skills, and some of the systems are housed locally and not available for remote access.
Before the COVID situation, the leadership required her to come to the office one day a week for “optics,” which was ridiculous. Her boss was quite hypocritical, on one hand bragging that they had remote workers and on the other hand making her drive into the office to be “seen.” Now with the COVID pandemic, Sarah is a poster child for how you can work from home and still be productive and contribute. Everyone is coming to her asking for tips and tricks on how to be successful in this new environment. They want to know how she manages her team, her day and her work-life balance. Prior to the lockdown, the organization in general was very averse to remote work. It was a hiring issue or Human Resources problem and in areas like IT this caused turnover issues, and they could not hire and keep good people. The mental roadblock was based on fear that if we do this for one group, we will need to do it for everyone. Pre-COVID they were not ready to take that leap. Again, it comes back to ignorance and leadership not really understanding the technologies and what they have to offer the workplace. Sarah is sure that COVID was a wake-up call and policy will be impacted.
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