In recent weeks, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues who are grappling with the profound impact of the pandemic in the coming year. Regardless of position or institution type, we all see an increasingly ominous future for higher education in general and international education in particular. The scale of planning and decision-making required to navigate this landscape is outside our experience, and we turn to each other as resources to share information, advice, and insights.
By now, you have seen how most providers, including IFSA, responded to the escalation of the pandemic. Some of you are facing tough decisions of your own in the near future, or your institutions are. For others, you may want insight into how leaders go about significant change in troubled times. It can seem sudden or arbitrary; I assure you, it is not. For my colleagues and friends who are wrestling with future decisions, and for those of you who want to understand, I am writing this to share one approach in hopes that it helps you.
From 60 to 0
Planning for our future during a pandemic at an organization like IFSA necessarily works differently than planning at a higher education institution. By early March, the likely outcome of the growing global crisis became plainly evident. Pandemics do not resolve quickly. State Department Level 4 Travel Advisories do not deescalate quickly. The cumulative effect under the best of circumstances would radically impact the coming 12 months. When we suspended global operations on March 16, 2020, our worst case scenario for the coming year became our most likely scenario: little or no summer and fall 2020 enrollment building back toward recovery in 2021. Technically, we still have 1100 students enrolled with us in on-line Spring 2020 courses, but effectively, we went from 60 to zero in a matter of weeks.
Under these circumstances, IFSA can, and must, respond to this magnitude of change faster than colleges and universities. Like institutions, we have financial reserves to weather disruptions, but no one anticipates a full shutdown that requires such a prolonged recovery. To preserve our mission into the future, we focused first on all possible budget reductions that did not impact staff, applied for federal stimulus package aid, and we continue to seek relief globally where available to us.
Given the nature of our work, most of our costs are related to staff. In the end, we were forced to make changes that affected our people, which was the most difficult planning process of my career. On an organizational level though, the process was thoughtful, comprehensive, and as caring of our staff as we could be under the circumstances. What follows is my best advice as a leader who recently went through this process and continues to lead through the aftermath of the pandemic.
Understand your potential futures as early as possible
Even if you haven’t been asked to do this, I encourage you to set your own best/worst/most likely scenarios for the coming year. Some campuses will never need it, others may. We made better decisions for the long-term because we confirmed possible futures early, and had time to think critically about how our work would need to change.
For larger offices, think outside organizational structure
For a period of time, our work will be quite different and variable. IFSA leadership agreed that we should focus on the collective talents, expertise, and competencies we need, not the structure laid out by our org chart. Our staff, like yours, have many talents related to and external to the position they currently hold. This approach allowed us to leverage those talents more effectively, including across our global team.
Act only once if you can
If you have to implement any kind of change, it is most likely out of your control. Someone will tell you how much to cut, or that furloughs are being implemented. If you do have the authority and budgetary accountability, then you may face the difficult choice of incremental but smaller reductions versus one larger action.
If you are in a position to act once based on the year you anticipate, there are several benefits. It allows you to assure staff there are no further reductions planned, which in turn focuses your collective energy on stabilization and rebuilding trust. It also allows you to make better long-term strategic decisions when you have already prepared for what would normally be disastrous circumstances. We can all focus productively on the future when we are not worried about being slowly dragged over a financial cliff in the present.
Once you decide, take action with compassion and respect
In 20 years on university campuses, the HR situations I experienced focused on avoiding institutional liability, not care for affected staff members. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Institutions tend to offer severance to mitigate the immediate financial impact. Outplacement services or recommendations can help released employees with resources and support through the next steps of seeking new employment.
How we communicate shows compassion too. Explicitly stating that separation is not a reflection on the employee’s work or employment and calling out special contributions they have made addresses a natural fear that anyone in this situation would have. If you can, give them time to say good-bye and transition work responsibilities. Humanizing this process may ease the transition for released staff members and it is important for your retained staff, who will know how their friends and former colleagues felt about the process.
Communicate regularly and foreshadow that change is coming
Err on the side of additional communication during periods of disruption. Increased communication about what you know and what you don’t is important. It helps to reinforce that we are all one team, with one set of challenges. Speculation is less helpful though. Being a leader requires consideration of many options simultaneously; to be transparent about all of them all the time creates stress and uncertainty for those who are not making the decision.
If change will be necessary, foreshadowing (assuming your president doesn’t do it for you) helps people track with you and mentally prepare, although the certainty that change is coming creates new anxieties. Once the worst news is out, keep communicating, because that is the moment when staff will be most worried about what else they may not know. Create regular space and multiple options for questions. If you can’t answer something on the spot, commit to circling back when you have an answer. Certainty wherever possible will help your team cope with the many uncertainties that are out of their control.
Share your vision for the future
Articulating a vision for the future is more critical now that ever. Our field, and our world, is reeling. The aftermath of staff reductions only exacerbates that feeling for all concerned. In the midst of managing through significant change, it is important to remind everyone that we still have significant contributions to make – the inspiration and aspiration of your organization once you move from triage mode to future-focused mode. Initially, those references are just reminders that someday soon, we will make lemonade out of the current pile of lemons life handed us. Those ideas will become dreams and then plans that keep the spirit of the organization alive.
Lead by example
We all know this, but it shows up in new ways now, when trust may be less of a given than at other times. If you say change will happen in decision-making, then prioritize implementation as soon as possible. If travel budgets are cut, then ensure that yours is cut at least as much as your team’s, if not more. If furloughs or pay cuts are implemented, let staff know that you are in it with them. Be prepared to answer how any changes affect you and the leadership team specifically. Showing solidarity and fair treatment can help to ease the impact of staff changes.
Plan for the toll this takes on you too
As leaders, we naturally think about how to support our staff through difficult experiences. We don’t necessarily think about how this will impact us before, during, and after. How do you react to extreme stress? Recognizing your stress reactions will help you be mindful of your own health and wellbeing. It can also signal when you may want to minimize important meetings or decision-making on other stressful topics around the same time period. If your stress shows up unexpectedly, remember to treat yourself with compassion. Leaders are human too, and we need space to recover like everyone else does.
A large-scale staffing change is incredibly stressful and emotional; it is personal for everyone involved. It takes time to recover from such a heartbreaking experience. As we gain distance from that moment though, I find comfort in knowing that we prioritized respect for our people and our mission throughout this process. The decisions and actions themselves now feel like the storm we had to weather, with calmer waters ahead in spite of the pandemic. For the sake of the eager students who still dream of going abroad, we hope for the best in fall 2020, but we’re also prepared if the pandemic won’t allow for global mobility yet. In either case, we will continue to channel our energies into the future-focused innovations that inspire us.
|Heather Barclay Hamir, Ph.D.
IFSA President and CEO