Dear members of the university community,
Imagine relocating from a cold weather rural area to a new job in a bustling, vibrant sub-tropical community to assume a position with a cluster of talented people in a high energy institution that had repeatedly been nationally recognized as a “great place to work.” Imagine assuming this position even as the national rules and regulations in your field were in a state of flux, making the position all the more vital to the tight-knit group of professionals with whom you would be working.
Now imagine that during the long drive from that northeastern community, you learned that a far-away calamity called COVID-19 had arrived at your destination before you — resulting in a complete state and community shut down of the offices and place where you were supposed to set up your office and demanding a self-imposed isolation in an unfamiliar apartment and neighborhood where you were about to establish your new residence.
Now you understand what has happened to Michelle R. Horvath, our new assistant dean of students. Relocating from Cornell University to FIU — quite a transition; rural to urban; mid-sized, private elite to large, public, community-focused. Different demographics, although both research-oriented, different operational logics. Credit Michelle for her courage and positive approach to change. But today she finds herself, like over 80% of our FIU faculty and staff, working remotely, from her new hometown of Miami.
Michelle Horvath then and now
To complicate matters, the COVID-19 driven isolation that comes with the necessary physical distancing is de verdad for Michelle. In contrast to the webs of extended family networks here in the 305 and 954, Michelle’s family is out-of-state and she has not been able to utilize church gatherings and sports leagues to start a new web of acquaintances and friends. She has seen her new office only twice and been to the otherwise shuttered university little more. Since she formally began her work on March 23, 2020, almost all her interaction with the many splendors of our institution have been through embodied and disembodied Zooms and calls, and/or the endless inanimate documents (memoranda, policies, procedures, letters, testimonies) that accompany her important position.
This situation saddens and worries me. Many of us view our connection to FIU as central to who we are and what we value. Many of us are institutional “lifers” or if we are lucky would be lifers. Unapologetically, we tend to think institutionally. Credit Professor Hugh Heclo, a lifelong educator for his clarity. He reminds us that “thinking institutionally is not purely intellectual exercise. It is a mixture of cognition and emotional attachment yielding habits of action.”
David Brooks, the commentator, extends Heclo’s analysis (The New York Times, January 27, 2009). He remarks that as we pass through life we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Echoing Heclo, he argues that the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. Stated another way, management guru Peter Drucker reminds us that institutional culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Until March 12, 2020, when we announced that we were moving all operations into remote mode, we were in our own institutional bubble. We were focused on student success and research impact, intent on realizing a top 50 public university improvement strategy, raising our graduation rates, closing our Next Horizon Campaign, perhaps getting our men’s basketball team into the NCAA tournaments, graduating 6,000 students in April-May, 2020, receiving our new enhanced budget, getting on with a new long awaited marketing campaign, putting shovels in the ground for new construction of a residence hall, a hotel/conference/alumni center, a new academic building, and a new non-denominational chapel.
On March 12, 2020, life as we knew it changed, perhaps for the long-term. This COVID-19 global pandemic has put us all in a place where we have never been before. Those of us who have experienced our entire careers in traditional institutional life are going through a wrenching adjustment for sure. As Heclo touched our souls when he stated, the “deeper satisfactions we crave come from strong bonds of mutual attachment to other people and larger causes outside ourselves.” For the most part, FIU is a large, dynamic platform and portal upon and through which we realize these satisfactions. But from a leadership perspective, my hope and expectation is that we must not only progress individually and professionally, but that in the process our institution can become more effective, trusted, relevant with ever greater value.
In his book The American Spirit, author David McCullough reminds us that President Thomas Jefferson’s famous portable writing box had little import in and of itself, but that had “imaginary value” that symbolized the creative energy of the moment and the enduring vitality of the high purpose of his efforts. In many ways, today’s empty university is just vacant buildings and spaces until they are repopulated with our diverse group of stakeholders —learners, professional staff, faculty, board members, donors! Just as that empty box had little meaning by itself, our empty university only can realize itself through the people who inhabit it, inject vitality into it and give it life.
But we are now scattered throughout our geography near and far. At this point, our only means to foster our imaginary value is electronic through remote means. What an irony.
So here is the question: will this “remote” way of life augment or erode the imaginary value that we have struggled to establish?
Traditionally it is the dynamism and vitality of our campuses that give us energy and life. For five decades we have been place-centric. We have directly invested in building place because place matters. Our campuses are sanctuaries for so many who are bound together by their hope for new lives fueled by their educations and learning.
The zest of our students, our faculty and our professional staff provide us the fuel to keep going, even in the most difficult of times. The daily cafecito breaks at Vicky’s or Bustelo or Starbucks with colleagues often relieve the determined moods that normally accompany a place on the move. Informal face-to-face networking and brainstorming sessions close gaps, promote collegiality, trust, deeper communication, solidarity and momentum.
The remote option actually had already been the subject of deep scrutiny just months before by faculty and staff engaged in developing our Next Horizon 2025 Strategic Plan. A working paper on organizational efficiencies and increasing revenues written for the Plan points to the need for an “agile workplace strategy” with the following proposition taken from Global Workplace Analytics: “Organizations that continue to use 19th century workplace designs and 20th century workplace practices to do 21st century work will not survive.”
In our most recent strategic plan, approved by our Board of Trustees and Board of Governors last year, we explicitly state a preference for a flexible workforce structure in support of efficiency, productivity and retention. We even identify the possibility that we can generate a 27% increase in productivity on telecommuting workdays, an 18% reduction in office costs, a reduction in absenteeism to 3.7 days per year, and a 25% reduction in employee attrition.
But one thing is a plan, another is the planning, and quite another the implementation. COVID-19 forced one of the most dramatic shifts in higher education ever in the United States. In a matter of days, FIU converted nearly 5,000 courses to remote modalities and we asked nearly our entire workforce to work remotely from their homes. Because we understand that data must ultimately inform our decisions, our very capable Human Resources Division, led by El Pagnier Hudson, surveyed our workforce to gauge their reaction to the shock of remote delivery of both courses and work. What did they find?
El Pagnier Hudson and our HR team
The majority of our workforce adapted quickly to the remote work model. Nearly 83% responding indicated that they felt as productive if not more productive than working on site. While I found this surprising given the immediacy of the remote implementation, focus groups bear out the positive responses of our community to the opportunity that remote assignment can offer to the work-life balance difficulty.
One of our faculty specialists on remote work, Cynthia LeRouge, reminds us that the COVID-19 situation is an extreme example of living in virtual space for work, education and home life, adding to the stress of the ongoing situation. She asserts that you sometimes have to be a little more creative in extending the virtual space provided by tools, like Zoom, to create a connecting experience. And, you have to know when to turn it all off and connect with nature and those in your home to recharge.
During a Zoom-hosted assembly of FIU student affairs specialists on Friday, May 22, positive comments were made about remote efforts. One colleague, Gail Lefkowitz, stated that “I feel more connected to my department and coworkers than ever,” while another, Anthony Piaia, reminded us that remote work “… can get tough when you have kids at home while they are also doing online education and I am the only parent at home since my wife is a nurse …”
Colette Harrington cautioned that I have had to teach myself to ” ‘turn work off’ because the line can be crossed sometimes because you don’t physically leave work to go home. It’s all one place now …”
Finally, our CIO Bobby Grillo has further speculated that working remotely 100% of the time, while enticing to some, would likely eliminate the option of creating community within the workforce, something that is at the epicenter of what we do at FIU. As Grillo said, “having a sense of identity and belonging is very important to maintaining a workforce tied to mission and vision.”
No doubt, this transition to remote work has occurred in a context of extreme circumstances. My instinct suggests that deep reliance on remote means will erode even further our trust in and belief in institutions and institutional life. However, for recent arrivals such as Michelle Horvath, the bad timing of their initiation into institutional life is offset by an extraordinary ability to meet a lot of people quickly through our remote technologies. This initiation has ultimately saved Michelle significant amounts of time that she does not have given the urgency of decision-making in her FIU role.
This fact alone ought to provide some release from the frustration of seeing a new valued staff person not being able to draw immediately and directly upon the energy and strength of our community and the power of place and people via campus life. While it is too early to render a verdict about the impact of remote work on our lives, it is clear to me that remote work can enable greater imaginary value for our community just as easily as it could erode this value. But if greater value is to happen, we will need to have enhanced clarity and more bruising intentionality to effect the changes we want.
(Forgive me but I will take a short break in writing these Sunday briefs. Look for them again near the end of July! Special thanks to Ana Valdes and dozens of colleagues who have helped me to assemble the briefs. MBR)
Mark B. Rosenberg