It’s been a long, long year. More than a year.
“We thought that the pandemic was going to be over in two weeks,” says Josh Harraman, vice president for alumni engagement, annual giving, and advancement communications at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S.
Now, with vaccine rollouts underway in the U.S., universities are preparing for what’s next: What policies or practices will need to be implemented? Where do education institutions stand on vaccines—or rather, where do their states, provinces, or regions stand on the matter? How do advancement leaders plan to address the anxiety and trauma that COVID-19 caused many staff members, while channeling those energies to the work ahead?
Some of these questions are hard to answer, partly because there are still many unknowns; but mostly because there is no one-size-fits-all set of solutions.
“There’s no silver bullet to this because campuses and communities are different, as are attitudes about COVID, and engaging and testing, as well as attitudes about vaccinations,” says Juan McGruder, vice president for advancement at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, U.S.
Still, all advancement shops are ultimately wrestling with the same kinds of questions and using similar processes to make strategic decisions about how to approach these next months, and even years.
“It’s not about, ‘How do we go back?’” says Harraman. “It’s about, ‘How do we emerge from this better?’”
Navigating Office Reentry
For advancement teams, after spending so much time apart during COVID-19, some degree of hesitation around coming back together is inevitable. Employees might experience anxiety about being away from their families, having to relearn social skills, or resume a commute.
“People struggle with uncertainty, and this certainly has been [a lengthy period] of a lot of uncertainty,” says Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist who specializes in employee engagement, leadership development, and the work-family interface. “There has been heightened stress over the last year with the uncertainty about the economy, uncertainty about jobs, the pandemic, the vaccines. …Every step along the way there’s been some uncertainty. And now, for many people, [the stress is] focused on reentering the physical workspace.”
Jeff Gillooly, vice president of advancement at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S., thinks there will be “reentry shock.”
“We’ve trained ourselves to be apart from people,” he says. “It’s going to be hard [to unlearn that].”
Staff members may feel anxious or hesitant to return to in-person work for many reasons. There are the practical aspects of managing home life: How do you organize family, childcare, even pet care? For instance, Mike Barzacchini, director of marketing services at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, U.S., adopted two dogs during the pandemic. He can’t help but be concerned about them, he says. Others might feel worried about children returning to school or be faced with organizing childcare.
Other seemingly small matters may occupy advancement professionals’ minds, such as wearing business attire and engaging in small talk and social niceties again. Indeed, how do you greet people? Do you shake hands? Do you hug if you’re especially friendly? Is the elbow bump here to stay?
“It’s just the awkwardness of seeing people,” Swody says. “It’s going to be a period of transition. It’s not going to stick forever, but it’s going to be an awkward period.”
More introverted or easily distracted individuals might have found they are more confident and productive at home and may not be eager to return to in-person work.
“We realize there are a number of employees who just do not want to be back here,” says Rickey McCurry, vice president of philanthropy and alumni engagement at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, U.S. “They’ve gotten comfortable in the remote world, [and] they have enjoyed not shaving or putting on makeup, whatever the case may be. One of the things we’re thinking about is [welcoming] people back to campus. We want to make it inviting for people, and we want people to feel comfortable.”
At Oglethorpe, McGruder says the university is developing protocols while acknowledging the need for sensitivity to mental health and safety concerns. The institution has a particular advantage of having a college president who is a trained psychologist.
“When it comes to mental health for the campus, for our students, faculty, and staff, [President Nicholas Ladany] has highlighted this as a major concern as we open up,” McGruder says.
Finding a New Normal
After living through the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, advancement professionals aren’t going back to normal so much as creating a new normal. That new normal will emerge through everyday workplace interactions and practices. There have been many lessons learned during the pandemic about the nature of work, communications, and productive engagement practices.
When determining or reevaluating office procedures and policies, Swody advises leaders to survey and have open, honest conversations with their staff.
“Don’t assume what’s best based on your own experience; get a sense of what their priorities are. Ask open-ended questions: ‘What are you excited about? How can we support you? What is your ideal schedule in order to be productive,’” she says. “It’s going to be important for employees to know it’s not just about getting the cogs back in place.”
At Rutgers, a remote work allowance of nine days per month was already in place before the pandemic, and the university is examining that policy, Harraman says.
“We want to allow for flexibility that will let employees attend to their family needs,” he says.
Indeed, one area that is top of mind for university leaders is creating or refining their post-COVID remote work policies.
UNLV plans to have three levels of return to work: fully in-person, fully remote (by medical or family leave need only), and hybrid. The latter, McCurry says, will be determined by looking at both the individual and the job description: Is the job one that allows for effective remote work? And is the individual someone who has proven to be effective in a remote environment?
Of course, this raises questions of how to measure effectiveness and productivity, as well as how to offer flexibility in ways that are fair and equitable to all employees. For advancement teams, effectiveness is not as simple as raising a certain amount of money, McCurry says.
“Those are the easy measurements,” he says, “but we’re in a relationship business. Have you been effective in moving the relationship [with a donor] closer to the institution, so the individual feels like a valued part of it? It’s our responsibility to do everything we can, with everyone we come in contact with, to try to positively impact their relationship for the benefit of the institution.”
While there are a number of benefits to remote work, one of the drawbacks can be the difficulty in maintaining boundaries between work and home life. It can be challenging to mentally separate from work if there’s little to no physical separation.
“The fear is that if you’re working at home, you’re always going to be working,” says Gillooly at Clark University. “That’s part of the weariness we’ve run into. It’s been exhausting feeling like you have the opportunity to be ‘on’ all the time.”
In this fluid environment, leadership has a responsibility to model and support healthy boundaries between the two worlds, he says.
“It’s easy [for a leader] to say, ‘Even though you’re supposed to be off today, can you just jump on real quick and join that meeting? It’s only half an hour.’ We have to be very careful, as supervisors, to avoid that,” Gillooly says.
Taking a Shot at Vaccine Policies
One vital matter that schools are considering is their stance on COVID-19 vaccines. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 400 U.S. colleges and universities have introduced some degree of mandatory vaccine policy—some for residential students only, some for all students, and some including staff.
Clark University is mandating vaccines for all students, faculty, and staff, with the caveat that one can apply for exemption for either health or religious reasons.
Oglethorpe sent its staff a survey to glean how many would be likely to take part if vaccines were offered on campus. The positive response was high enough that the university hired a company to offer the vaccine on campus.
Vaccines are being offered but aren’t mandated at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. Anyone unvaccinated and exposed, however, is required to quarantine and work remotely.
“For me, the biggest incentive to get the vaccine is not having to quarantine,” says Torie Jackson, vice president of institutional advancement and president and CEO of the WVU at Parkersburg Foundation.
Since staff members have different personal needs and commitments, leaders need to be prepared for situations in which a vaccinated staff member is not comfortable working alongside an unvaccinated colleague.
Rutgers was among the first schools in the United States to mandate vaccines for students but at press time had not mandated them for staff.
“I think as we return to the office, that’s going to be a point of contention for us as an organization to figure out: If you’re not vaccinated, what health and safety guidelines do you have to follow? There are plenty of unknowns right now,” says Harraman. “The angst is real. …We have a little kitchenette-type area with four tables and coffee machines, and at lunchtime, it is crowded. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable in there during the lunch hour.”
Engagement and Events: The Future is Hybrid
When it comes to engaging with the wider university community—including trustees, donors, and alumni—the pandemic forced advancement, communications, and event planning professionals to find creative solutions for connection when gathering in person was not a possibility. Many advancement professionals tout the advantages of virtual engagement with donors and alumni, particularly as it allows for greater inclusivity. They say they plan to continue a hybrid practice.
“We used to take for granted that we could say, ‘Let’s meet for lunch,’ whereas now the question will become, ‘We’d love to meet with you. What’s your preferred method of meeting?’ as opposed to assuming that we’re going to get a personal face-to-face,” says McCurry at UNLV.
As with one-on-one or small group engagement, hybrid seems to be the keyword when it comes to the future of event planning.
Some events, like tailgates, lend themselves to in-person participation. Others, like lectures, can be sufficiently—and more widely—appreciated online.
“We ended up yielding more people (with virtual engagement) and it was more cost-efficient,” says McGruder at Oglethorpe. “People who were not able to get on a plane or come to the university had the opportunity to engage with us virtually. The comfort and ease of that is something that we’ll probably end up incorporating in the future.”
He says one way to further combine the in-person and remote concepts is to hold small group “watch party” gatherings hosted by alumni in various locales. These events allow some who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend an event in person to have face-to-face interaction with fellow constituents while engaging virtually with an event.
Similar plans are in place at WVUP. In 2020, the institution had success transitioning its annual Kentucky Derby fête into an at-home celebration with “Derby Dash” boxes for curbside pickup, and Jackson says the prospect of continuing an “events-to-go” option is in discussions.
Harraman says faculty lectures at Rutgers will more likely continue to be virtual events, as will the international board of trustees meetings.
“Bringing people to campus for a meeting three times a year can be a real challenge,” he says. “[Virtual engagement] affords us the opportunity to be more global and to effectively use people’s time as we ask them to serve the university.”
For in-person engagement, particularly in larger group settings, safety considerations will be top of mind.
Rutgers will require pre-registration for contact tracing if need be. They are also considering needs and guidelines for local alumni chapter events, since different states have different mandates.
Despite the conveniences of an online meeting—certainly, a two-hour video chat is more expedient, and economical, than traveling across the country and staying in a hotel—there is no denying that the intimacy of an in-person meeting cannot be matched via Zoom.
“One of the lessons learned is that we can do both; we can certainly engage virtually,” says McGruder, “but we’re social beings—our profession is social. A lot of currency comes out of looking each other in the eye, building trust and understanding, appreciating each other, and making a case for support in person. And so we’ve got to be able to do that. But we’ve also got to be innovative and figure out even more innovative ways of communicating through the virtual spaces.”
McGruder says he and his colleagues are discussing investment in new video conferencing technology to increase and enhance virtual engagement options.
Finding What Works Best Takes Work
As the world emerges from the pandemic, showing one another empathy is key, says Swody.
“Leaders need to recognize (and communicate) that this is a shift and a transformation—and call it out as such—but also be realistically optimistic,” she says. “[Say] ‘Hey, we’re going to figure things out. We’re going to get there; we’re going to find a way. We’re going to be asking for your input. Bear with us as we try a few different things.’”
That’s essentially what’s been happening at Harper College and with the marketing team that Barzacchini oversees. The check-ins that used to happen every morning when the team was in the office, for instance, moved to Microsoft Teams during the pandemic, becoming richer and more focused in the process, he says.
Barzacchini plans to maintain that virtual touchstone in the future along with other rituals that evolved during the lockdown, such as commencement.
“Our engagement was incredible with virtual graduation,” he says, citing viewership from 28 states and 14 countries. “Even if we’re fully on campus, there will be virtual components. We reach more people. I’ve seen alumni engagement grow.”
Ultimately, Barzacchini says, it comes down to looking for those ways—conventional and unconventional—to celebrate successes, honor great work, and build culture and community.
“I think we’re going to have a year of very proactive learning as we enter the next phase,” he says. Not unlike the last year.
For Asia-Pacific institutions, coordinated actions have helped control COVID-19 spread
Throughout the pandemic, institutions in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region (including Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore) have acted swiftly, combining strict lockdowns with ongoing communication and cooperation.
“We’re at a very different point in our pandemic response in comparison to other parts of the world,” said Tere McGonagle-Daly, deputy vice-chancellor, students and global engagement at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. “For all intents and purposes, we are in a period of normality. ...However, we’re also not complacent.”
Massey has four campuses, including one that is fully online. About 50% of students are remote, McGonagle-Daly says, and virtual events were de rigueur even before the pandemic. “The ability of staff to work from home and students to study from home has allowed us to reduce our footprint on campus.”
Whereas some U.S. college campuses saw cluster outbreaks, a January news account reported that no cases of community transmission had been detected at the three major universities in Singapore, thanks to strict social distancing measures that included decongestion and zoning (assigning students and faculty to remain in certain areas of campus).
Even increases in COVID-19 numbers have resulted in immediate restrictions. In late May 2021, for example, the Australian state of Victoria, having relaxed its rules, went back into a strict “snap lockdown” after 50 new COVID-19 cases were reported over the course of a week.
“We’ve had this slightly in-and-out thing,” Nick Blinco, vice president of advancement at the University of Melbourne, Australia, said at the time. “It’s been an interesting challenge.”
Contact tracing has also been essential in controlling the spread. Governments in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore have instilled strict contact tracing policies, including using apps and QR codes to register every building a person enters and using Bluetooth technology to track contacts, including anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Despite these successes, rollouts for vaccines have been slow in the Oceania region. As of June 17, just 3.2% of the population in Australia and 6.6% in New Zealand were fully vaccinated. This is in comparison to 5.9% worldwide, 45% in the United States, and 34.9% in Singapore. As of mid-June, persons under the age of 39 (with the exception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 16) were not yet eligible for vaccines in Australia, meaning most university-age students were not eligible.
Eligible faculty and staff at Melbourne, Blinco says, are being encouraged, though not mandated, to get the vaccine. His department is also enforcing density rules such as limiting the number of people per space, maintaining markers for social distancing, and constantly evaluating their remote work policies to maximize safety and productivity, as well as employees’ mental health.
He says the department has been working closely with the university’s employee assistance program to check in on workers and have regular conversations pertaining to the mental well-being of staff. Department leaders, he said, are encouraged and expected to prioritize checking in on their employees’ mental health.
“There are a whole range of pressures,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re being understanding about things like how people are feeling. If anything good has come of this, I think awareness of mental well-being has been heightened generally. We pay a great deal of attention to that.”
Another silver lining is the ability to reach international alumni populations, even when travel has been restricted.
“What we have discovered is we can reach many more people who wouldn’t normally come to our events,” says Blinco.
"We’ve also discovered, of course, that people will make time for digital engagement in a way they might not be able to make time for something that was face to face.”
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Town-Gown Relations: How and why institutions should collaborate with their communities. Plus, understanding alumni personas, navigating nontraditional paths to advancement, and creating a new normal as institutions return to campus.