Message from the CEWIL Board - August 2021

As September comes upon us, we prepare for the return to campus. For those of us who have worked in higher education and on-campus recruitment pre-pandemic, we remember the hustle and bustle of a September filled with hallways of students who were excited, nervous and a little bit anxious. The quiet hallways of the spring and summer filled with energy and potential. This September will feel different - hallways speckled with students where anxieties may be high, and excitement tempered by uncertainty. The cloak of the last 17 months will be challenging to shake. It’s not even like last September, and definitely not like the Septembers before.

Looking back to March 2020, when we abruptly left our offices over concerns for our collective health, we entered an unknown of working from home and supporting each other from a distance. Much of the work nuances were left to be figured out on a day-to-day basis, and we leaned on each other as a community to figure this out. There was disruption and uncertainty, but we made a commitment to get through the various phases together, and we didn’t feel that we were alone as we reached out to our colleagues across the country for support, advice, and collective knowledge.

The return to a new normal doesn’t seem to have the same feeling. Perhaps it’s because we feel like we know what we are returning to, with the hopes of normalizing social interactions and workplace relationships. However, this is where, in my opinion, stress and failures can happen. Failure to recognize the different environment we are returning to, the introduction of hybrid workforces, and the continued delivery of hybrid services will result in a return that could be chaotic and disruptive. Intentional thought and care need to be put into these strategic decisions. Failure or anxiety will not be because of the people; it will be because of the lack of supportive processes and policies put in place.   

The last 18 months have been highly tumultuous. If we are going to commit to not returning to what we left, we must do this well. We can support people working in new ways where high tech and high touch meet and allow for authentic work-life integration, not balance. However, it’s not by just saying that we are going to do it. We need to put thought into what is required to support this workforce. We need to look at how we can bring together teams working from the office and working from home. The adage that “we have been doing this for 18 months” does not apply as we return employees, back on-site– we have not been doing “this” for the last 18 months – we had been working on-site or working from home – not a proper integration of hybrid teams.

To be successful, there are many considerations for leaders and management: how to create a cohesive hybrid team; how not to create in-groups and out-groups of those that are on-site and those that are not; how to service stakeholders in a hybrid model; how to use technology to support your hybrid workforce; what are the ground rules that need to be established; how to set expectations; and many more. Unfortunately, as we have embarked on most of this pandemic journey, we have found more questions than answers. The same continues to be accurate as we plan our integrated return.

My advice for leaders trying to work through the nuances of return to the workplace is to follow a core set of values and complete a decision matrix and share it – both with your team and leadership. Create a foundation that everyone will understand, including how decisions are being made and a value-set against which to make decisions. 

We know that the systems are complex, slow-moving, and often challenging to maneuver for those of us who work in post-secondary. The clunky nature of higher ed. makes it especially difficult for management to work with new approaches as the systems are not set up to be agile.   

For example, converting offices into a hoteling system that requires all offices to be swipe card access versus lock and key is not impossible. Still, it is timely, expensive, and not conducive to change. These are the types of changes that may need to occur for new workforce management systems to work. So as leaders, we need to expect to stay the course and make the changes, just as we had over the last 18 months when we had to adapt and change to working from home – the same attitude must be taken – the difference is it’s not as abrupt, and it’s not going to happen quickly. However, it can be done thoughtfully so that it will support us best in the long run.

There are many questions to answer as we embark on the re-entry into the workforce: Who do we want to be as an organization? How will we get there? Who does this impact? What tools do we need? What do we need to manage and communicate? What assumptions are we making? What biases are we bringing? Who do we need to listen to? Who needs to be involved in the decisions? How does this align with our values? And many more. Coming up with the decisions and questions we face is the first step to working through what we are trying to build.

Anyone who knows Disney workforce principles well will have heard that one of their core philosophies is overmanaging crucial details. This concept is not about micromanaging but instead about figuring out what matters most and ensure that those pieces are managed intentionally and with purpose. This means involving those who the decisions will impact, over communicating with stakeholders and not assuming they know, doing check-ins, and having a plan for adjusting. This is new to many of us, and the established practices are going to require change management approaches and a high level of communication.

There are many nuances to creating a hybrid workforce. Many of us have learned how to manage and be part of entirely remote teams (CEWIL is managing an entirely remote team across the country!). Should your organization choose to embark upon this next phase, it requires intentionality, strategic HR, and perseverance. It will require the same tenacity that was needed when we left our office spaces.

Organizations that can integrate the future workforce concepts that we were talking about pre-March 2020 now will have an advantage in a highly competitive workforce. Those that do this well will see their talent attraction and retention strategies benefit. The ability to offer work-life integration to team members that they can thrive in is good for them, for the organization and, in my opinion, the opportunity for us as a society to change our workforce. When will we get this mass chance again?

These concepts are being discussed across the globe as we work through the next stages of the pandemic. A phrase I often say is “plan for flexibility and adaptability, not a certainty.” There is much happening in our world of work still, and it will require continued agility. 

This September will continue to challenge us as we navigate the continued impacts of the pandemic on our workforce and lives. The immense knowledge and expertise in our community will continue to be a source of best practices, sharing and working together to figure out the future. We will continue to support each other and learn through our experiences as a collective.

Wishing you all success as you navigate your coming Fall and know that the CEWIL community continues to offer a platform for support and sharing. Our townhalls will resume shortly, and we look forward to “seeing” everyone at the virtual AGM on Nov. 3rd and hopefully in person in 2022. Give yourself and others grace as we enter this Fall. We will get through it together and come out of this stronger if we take the time and intentional steps to build back better.