How to deal with the current environment and everything it implies? What can companies do to turn the Coronavirus pandemic into opportunities? Also, how were universities able to adapt their courses and provide students with new learning experiences? To discuss these key topics, HR One recently met with change management experts Esther Celosse (LL.M., Professor of Management, Sacred Heart University) and Marcus B. Mueller (Ph.D, MBA, Professor of Management, Sacred Heart University).

How did you first react to the confinement strategy and how did you manage the change of teaching from “on-site” to online?

Esther Celosse: My first reaction was “good call”, since many students were already working from home and were quite anxious due to the rising number of infections and the acknowledged risks. When it comes to the program, I was right in the middle of teaching the Managing Change course, which runs from mid-February until the beginning of April. Since the Coronavirus outbreak became more present in our daily life, we had started to use these major changes as discussion and case material. When the decision was taken to go online, we included that easily as part of how to deal with change. As most students already worked online, the transition was not that hard. Yet, the question of exams and how we could organize the final presentations needed some reflection…

From the technological point of view, it was not too hard to manage, since we are part of the IT structure of the SHU campus in Connecticut. We already had access to all online facilities, such as MS Teams and WebEx, long before the outbreak of Covid-19. We just hadn’t chosen to use it before. All students and instructors could now just “hop on” the WebEx and MS Teams “bus” in no time. It took me a while to get the hang of it all, however, I was surprised to see how little participants were using innovative digital tools themselves in their respective workplaces and also needed some time.

Marcus Mueller: In fact, we had been discussing online teaching for quite some time at SHU. When looking at it from a global perspective, we can share several examples – and extremes – such as complete online universities notably in Asia, and of course classical physical campuses. There is also a hybrid model, which combines both strategies. The question was: “where do we position ourselves and how far do we go?” Moreover, a robust infrastructure is needed to provide online courses. We benefited from the expertise and exquisite support from our IT department in the United States.

Teaching uses various channels of communication – hearing, seeing, doing. Confucius has been credited with the saying “I hear and I forget, I see and I may remember, I do and I understand”. That is why our teaching style at SHU is very interactive. We make people “do” so that they will retain the knowledge they are being taught, from case studies and projects to asking open questions, class discussions and presentations. This is particularly effective in classes with high degrees of diversity and that is what we have at SHU – exceptional diversity in terms of age, culture, disciplinary background and gender.

 

What are the main implications of this change? What about the main challenges?

MM: Personally, before this Covid-19 crisis, I had never taught a full course online. I therefore had to re-design my courses to fit an online format. What is the learning experience I want the students to go through? What do I need to change? How can we all together achieve the course goals? In fact, when translating the teaching approach from physical classrooms into online media, you lose an important channel of communication – the direct experience of the presence of other people. Quantum physics suggests that people are “magnetized” to their environments. This effect energizes, boosts, powers classroom teaching and interaction through fueling students’ attention. When moving online, this effect falls to the wayside, negatively impacting students’ attention – in both dimensions: length and intensity. These less intense and shorter attention time spans need to be addressed in course and class design. Here are some optional features of re-design: having more but shorter online classes, combining online recordings with live teachings, providing (a collection of ) slides as guidance before class, exporting class content as before class preparation exercises by students, have frequent breaks, etc.

EC: The main implications are the effort it takes to maintain the right quality of teaching and interacting with the students. The material you provide during class needs to help the students to gain insights, but when online, how can you make sure they have the same experience as in the offline situation and actually get all this knowledge and insights?  The main challenges therefor are time management, as we need to re-work our material for online, where we are used to working very interactively in small groups and have to understand the impact of the change on the learning process of the students. Of course, there are some technical mishaps and hiccups that need to be managed too. We want the students to continue their program with as little interruption as possible.

MM: The current situation also echoes with “opportunities”. It facilitates thinking outside the box and enriching our physical teaching environment.

 

How did you succeed to redesign your course? Can you share with us a couple of concrete examples?

EC: A couple of things were needed to be solved, such as plenary discussions, breakout sessions, using whiteboards and other communication tools, etc. For instance, we use Microsoft Teams, making it possible for the students to work fully collaborative. We use Zoom meetings using Breakout rooms, we use Project Management collaborative platforms and free online design programs for Brainstorming. By the way, using these tools allows us and the students to collaborate better than before. Moreover, students found several other useful tools on their own and shared them with their team members and invited me to their group apps to understand their work processes. Finally, you need to allow more time to work on the assignments, to collect and communicate in small groups, not overload the participants with too much information in one go.

MM: Based on student feedback, online teaching has been received very positively. From my perspective there are a couple of aspects to be considered. It is prescribed by a third party, the government, and therefore not contested. It is new and therefore intriguing. It is convenient and therefore acceptable. As a result, we have not had complaints. Also, class attendance has been very high.

From a learning perspective, I have had to make adjustments on the fly. Even though I had been using Zoom as a teaching tool for feedback sessions and tutorials before, moving an entire course online is different. You move from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have’. Students who do not fill out surveys before class, forming project teams as students may not have met physically (lack of trust), you cannot implement experiential exercises (playing a card game and changing the rules half way through). At the same time, teaching has become much more personal. Also, from my perspective, teaching has become more interactive. Not being “magnetized” to the students in the classroom seems to make people feel less threatened to speak up and share their ideas and perspective.

All in all, I think this is a great opportunity for us as an institution to explore new ways of teaching, that is, increasing customer (learning) experience, possibly opening up new strategic options for SHU Luxembourg.

 

From your perspective, as a well-being specialist, how do you feel about employees working from home? What are your best practices to be efficient when working from home?

MM: Working from a home office has been on the agenda for quite some time. There are many studies out there suggesting that employees are more productive and happier when they work from home. What, to my knowledge, all these studies have in common is that employees were given the option to work from home 2-3 days a week. Currently, we are forced to do it and this makes a big difference. In the near future, we will look at the statistics of the “coronavirus period” and look at psychosomatic data, depression, home violence, blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, etc. In other words, working from home might not be that wonderful when you are forced to do it. People will perceive their freedom as controlled by the government instead of self-endorsed. Some will have too much interaction with close family and too little with friends and co-workers. Moreover, there is an element of a lack of recognition and appreciation of work. It makes a big difference whether I receive an email saying “thank you” or having a smiling face peeping through my office door.

This leads me to believe that it will have a lot of negative implications for the health of employees. The ill-being and cost to individual employees, their families, their communities, their companies and Luxembourg may be difficult to quantify. However, I think it is fair to suggest that the medium-term, psychological consequences and physical health implications of the lockdown will cost the country substantially more than the Covid-19 crisis itself. There will also be an important difference between blue-collar and white-collar workers: the first ones cannot, most of the time, work online and are basically excluded from it, while having more kids and less space…

In this situation, companies can show that they really care about their employees and promote social exchange of teams, offer online training and development, and also relax some of the guidelines and rules they have been enforcing for years or maybe even decades. Companies should not hide behind GDPR and cybersecurity and should rather promote the use of new collaborative tools: it is much more important to care about employees and to be available for them to make them feel better psychologically.

 

What is your advice to companies to succeed in this unprecedented period of change?

MM: I think this crisis is an opportunity for companies to make a difference to their employees because the future is about people: they are the solution and not the problem. At some point, this crisis is going to end and companies will need to pick up where they left. How they took care of their employees during the crisis will define how companies will come out of the crisis. Everything else can be copied, but the way people relate to each other cannot. How employees feel about the company is an incredible competitive advantage. It also impacts the business: look after your people and they will take care of your business.

EC: Our world is shaken and has been turned upside down. While we are considering how to get back to “normal”, why not see it as a huge opportunity to shake down everything that doesn’t work anymore… and do things differently? Why not reconsider the way people work together? How we treat customers, partners and providers? How normal was normal? We should aspire to figure out the future best way of working. Luxembourg is seen as an innovation hub where we have been busy talking the talk, now we need to start to get walking the talk.

MM: I like to use the analogy of a tsunami, which leads generally to extreme reactions: you can either build a wall to protect the assets of your company or work with your people or try to surf the wave. In Luxembourg, it seems we have a tendency to be too defensive and conservative: I think this is a great opportunity to turn “let’s make it happen” into reality

 

What are the basic rules of managing change?

EC: This is a period of major changes in our private life and professional life. The first basic rule is to understand the dynamics: how are we? What is happening to us? How does it make us feel? I call this first rule “safety first”. Once it has been done, people need to find their energy back and address the situation. Become actively involved in shaping your new ways of living and working, do something, whether it is act, react or be proactive. It will make it easier to digest. It requires a lot of energy, therefore, pick your battle and be smart: talk, investigate new corridors, think outside the box. Be realistic in what you can and cannot change and try to see the change rather as an opportunity than anything else.

MM: This crisis is a great opportunity for change. In the traditional change management process, you need to explain why change and face a lot of resistance from collaborators, which requires a lot of energy. Now, with the Coronavirus pandemic, the need for change is obvious and you can use that energy more productively.

 

Interview by Alexandre Keilmann


Publié le 22 avril 2020