In March 2021, Dean Bloomberg charged Associate Dean Squires with creating a reentry plan for the Humphrey School. Squires hired a research assistant, Gordy Moore (MURP 2022) to begin a review of the nascent literature on return to work after COVID, combined with research on return to schools and workplaces in the wake of disasters. Using that review, she designed a set of starter questions for meetings with school leadership and staff. During meetings, participants did a mix of free writing and discussion in response to starter questions and prompts such as “I would be delighted to return to work on campus if….” and “I would be disappointed to return to work on campus if….” Squires and Moore reviewed the qualitative data from those meetings and Squires invited a group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni to form a re-entry working group.
The group met and discussed the literature review, findings from the writing and discussion exercises, and brainstormed other ideas and needs for re-entry. They themselves participated in a version of the writing exercise.
From these activities, the group split into three areas:
- The Rituals of Return group centered its work around the awareness that people will return to campus from a wide variety of experiences with the pandemic and social upheavals of the past two years. Different kinds of support and practices will be necessary to help folks debrief and defuse heightened emotions and deal with the uncertainties of return. Questions that helped guide this group include: What types of spaces do we need to hold for people to share their experiences? What set of rituals, reopenings, or events should take place to allow people time to reacclimate and reacquaint themselves with campus? What resources should be available for mourning, contemplation, or support?
- The Values of Being in Place group centered its work on questions of how to return to on-campus work and learning guided by questions such as: What are the tangible and intangible benefits of sharing a working and learning space? What are the values that shape our community and our desire to interact in physical space? What set of overlapping values similarly guide us to make space for flexibility so that folks can use technology to work and learn remotely? What are fair parameters to make more room for flexibility and build community and robust engagement?
- The Communications group focused on the importance of providing clear, timely information to the community before, during and after re-entry. This is particularly important since there is still uncertainty about the virus and differences in policy across state lines. The Communications group focused on questions such as: What messages and communication practices do we need to reduce anxiety about re-entry? How often should updates occur? What formats and media should be used? What differences might exist in terms of communications needs across different Humphrey constituencies (students, faculty, staff, alumni, community partners)?
Each area worked organically, working with existing data and information from the University and data gathered in surveys created by the Values group; holding discussions with students; and recurring consultations with Humphrey Communications, HR, and Operations staff.
Organizational literature strongly recommends deliberate planning for how people return to a place in the wake of disasters and extended absences. Moreover, our community has voiced an eagerness to return with attention to the uneven impacts of the pandemic and political upheaval of the past two years.
"[I want to] remember the preciousness of in-person connection."
"I want to release the heaviness of constant worry, concern."
"I want to repair the disconnectedness I feel right now to my community."
--anonymous writing responses, Humphrey spring gathering
"I am excited about getting out of my apartment and feeling connected with people again…I live alone and the last year has been incredibly isolating for me (and everyone, I know). I, personally, am looking forward to ditching Zoom as much as possible."
--from Directors’ writing prompt exercise
"I'm a new employee having started during the pandemic, so I need to know where to park, where do I eat lunch, where are the bathrooms, etc. I'd also like to understand what COVID protocols will be used, if any."
--from staff survey
The Rituals of Return group designed a set of intentional gatherings and activities for folks to begin practicing being together on campus in larger numbers. The goal is to provide multiple spaces and times for people to gather and reconnect in smaller numbers before the rush of the start of the semester. Our Rituals group has given us a starter set of opportunities to practice gathering together again, and they are small gatherings at first, test runs. We also invite everyone to think of other rituals of return they might like to design. The Dean’s office will provide support where we can. We also welcome ideas to whole-school gatherings or student-focused events as the semester unfolds. This is not a situation where it’s one-and-done; these gatherings are just a beginning to allow folks to start to wade into the campus waters before being fully immersed in the fall semester.
Currently planned events for August and September:
- Chat and Chew for Faculty and Staff
Thursday, August 5 and Wednesday August 11, 12-1:30 p.m. in the Humphrey Forum
- Chat and Chew for Students
Tuesday August 24, 12-1:30 p.m. in the Humphrey Forum
At the Chat and Chews, hosts from the Rituals of Return group will have discussion questions, trivia, and prizes for participants.
Cookie Klatch & Tour Humphrey
Tuesday, August 10, 3 - 5 p.m. and Thursday August, 12 2 - 4 p.m. During the coffee klatch, we’ll host tours of the building, provide coffee and snacks in the atrium, and encourage folks to visit their offices in groups. We’ll have the big bins for recycling and shredding and other cleaning supplies around if you’d like to do a little cleaning or spruce up your space.
Room of Reflection
The Humphrey School is hosting a physical space for students, staff, and faculty returning to campus, "A Room for Reflection," in conference room 131. It will be open during business hours for people to enter and compose in writing their personal thoughts, feelings, and observations concerning the Covid-19 pandemic. Post-it notes and markers will be provided and post-its are to be put on the walls of the room. The Room for Reflection will be open September 6 through October 1. Afterwards, the notes will be collected and shared with a local creative writer (to be commissioned) to craft a poem to share and display at Humphrey.
Dean’s Reception (Date TBD)
We’re not sure when we will have a new Dean in place, but a Dean’s reception we will have! The emphasis this year will be on welcoming new faculty and staff who started work during the pandemic, and our two Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows who arrive this fall.
Circles of Support (Dates TBD)
Discussions with former Director of Student Advising & Retention, Joel Mixon, and Jan Morse elicited the idea to host a series of Circles of Support for students. Circles of Support are places where folks can gather, share and listen to each other’s experiences, and provide a calm, safe space to support each other and brainstorm ideas for creating a healthier community. Morse and her staff have trained in circle facilitation and will lead each session. One session will be for returning second-year students, one for first-year students, one for PhD students, and one for international students. Gordy Moore will work with student leaders and Jan Morse to create the format and schedule of the fall sessions. If desired, students can request additional sessions. Initial conversations with Jan Morse indicate her team would be available in late September and October to facilitate.
"I miss the fun conversations and learning about things that only come up when there is time to chat in person. I'm much more excited for this year than my first year!"
"Being able to interact with people by happenstance, without needing to be intentional about setting aside time."
"Bonding with classmates and professors, having access to on-campus technology (I took a GIS class that utilized the remote server and it took me 6-8 hours/1 hour of a normal assignment because the computer programs were so slow)."
--Student responses to survey
"Being able to smile, face-to-face, at my colleagues and students."
"Being in contact with each other again. Smoothing difficult conversations in person."
--Faculty responses to survey
"Seeing people, separating work from home, having an actual work space, being in an office/work environment, more daily variety."
"I am excited about being part of the bustle of HHH and UMN community, and reconnecting with any students, faculty, and others in the HHH community who I have not worked with during the pandemic."
--Staff responses to survey
Returning to Work
Many of the responses to the surveys1 and discussion groups center on concerns about providing autonomy and flexibility in work time/space arrangements while maintaining a robust sense of being together in community and providing students with a valuable, well-supported on-campus experience.
Without a doubt, HHH staff and faculty have proven they CAN work remotely, keep things going, and even innovate in many ways. Though there is a yearning from many to be on campus again, folks want to retain the flexibility and agency of remote work. A majority of staff and faculty respondents to our surveys said they believed it would be very fair or fair for each work area to have autonomy and set its own in-office and remote work schedules
- A majority of respondents viewed it very fair or fair for some people to never work at the office if their supervisor allowed it.
- On the flip side, almost 50% of respondents felt it would not feel fair at all if HHH set core hours for everyone
- 83% of staff respondents said it is very important or important to have flexibility in where they work
- 65% said it is very important or important to have flexibility in when they work
- 72% said it is important or important to have flexibility in both when and where they do work
Similarly, 79% of faculty respondents say it is very important or important to have flexibility in when and where they work, and 74% prefer to teach in person if there are no concerns about COVID risk.
A clear majority of faculty respondents (about 70 %) supported each degree program choosing their own in-office hours rather than the Dean’s office setting core hours.
"Faculty should be accessible to students in person if at all possible, but otherwise can work when and where they are most productive. There needs to be someone holding down the fort at the office at all times for students, but that can be job-shared (the responsibility of many staff people)."
"I don't like the idea of set hours/number of days to be in the office for anyone. Flexibility in work hours and locations is a great asset of being in academia and I think everyone (not just faculty) should be able to work when and where they prefer."
--Faculty survey response
In terms of teaching, 73% of faculty respondents said they intend to teach on campus when there are no concerns about COVID. Currently, the majority of fall classes are scheduled for in-person or hybrid format.
Returning to Learn
Students, like faculty, reported that they were eager to be in the classroom and return to in-person learning.
"I do not think that classroom experience can be recreated online (as we are opting to attend an in-person university vs. an online university). Engagement and human connection (vulnerability, safety, etc.) are difficult to recreate in environments that are time bound like semesters and that have large numbers of people. I do not hope to see Humphrey class offered online."
"Group work was much harder online—hoping that if a class has group work of some sort that there can be an in-person element to it. Hoping to connect to other students as well—for me it is easier in person."
"The classes felt rushed and topics felt like they were not thoroughly explained or students did not get enough chance to practice the skills learnt. Sometimes this is through no fault of instructors, but only because online platforms are limiting in different ways no matter how innovative they are."
--Student survey response
Fifty percent of students said they prefer to take classes in person, and 42.3% [44% if you fold in the couple “Other” responses who said they preferred some variation of a mix of in-person and online] prefer a mix of in-person and remote courses. Only 6% of students said they prefer to take classes mostly or entirely online.
In addition, 70% of students preferred a mix of in-person and online opportunities for office hours and advising appointments; 30% prefer online.
Alongside the desire for flexible in-person and remote options for work and learning, a majority in all groups voiced a desire for on-campus engagement to build community, access resources on campus, such as computers, libraries, and study spaces, and understand what is going on at the University at large and at the Humphrey School specifically.
"I am excited about getting out of my apartment and feeling connected with people again…I live alone and the last year has been incredibly isolating for me (and everyone, I know). I, personally, am looking forward to ditching Zoom as much as possible. I think the best collaboration comes from people [being] in the room."
"I look forward to community. Collaboration. The energy of incredible minds brainstorming in a room. The amazing ways we support each other."
--Staff survey response
We asked staff and faculty to say whether on-campus time was needed for a range of community and communicative tasks. Among staff, 50% said they would like at least 1-2 or 3-4 days to brainstorm new ideas. Over 60% of staff respondents said they need a few hours up to 3 or 4 days together to understand the needs of external stakeholders and those they work with. Nearly 70% of staff said they need from a few hours up to 3-4 days a week to understand what’s happening in the Humphrey community.
On the communication and ideation-related questions, faculty again nearly all preferred 1-2 or 3-4 days on campus to communicate with internal and external work partners and brainstorm new ideas, though a couple respondents felt they never needed to be on campus to accomplish these tasks. Communicating with students effectively and accessibly at office hours was something that about 80 percent of faculty felt they needed 1-2 days a week on campus to do, though three respondents (16 percent) preferred 3-4 days a week. Results were more split when asking faculty how much time they need to understand what’s happening in the School. Faculty were close to unanimous (84%) in needing 1-2 days on campus to access various university resources and space attributes, with the rest needing 3-4 days.
Of faculty who took the survey, there was an obvious and fairly even preference for at least 1-2, if not 3-4, days a week on campus in order to work and interact effectively while feeling like a part of the community; 58 percent of survey takers said they need 1-2 days a week on campus, 32% said 3-4 days a week.
A large majority of students, 81.5%, said they plan to come to campus for meetings with staff and faculty. Over 65% said they looked forward to using the libraries and public study areas on campus.
Thus, from students, faculty, and staff, there is a high degree of support for a mix of on-campus and remote engagement, and a shared concern for community building and co-presence to establish and maintain relationships.
"We’ve proven we don’t need to “clock in and clock out.”
--Directors’ writing exercise
"Can we coordinate designated days where lots of people are in the building and “de-silo” the different areas and rebuild community?"
--Staff survey response
"We need to avoid confusion about who is working where and when or we’ll be ineffective."
--Staff survey response
1 SURVEY PARTICIPATION: N=49 for staff; N=19 for faculty; N=168 for students
Pilot flexible spacetime for faculty and staff August 2021–June 2022
- Minimum 16–20 hours on-campus work time
- Each area determines, in consultation with supervisors and key groups and in line with mission and responsibilities, its schedule of on-campus and remote work
- Each area publishes its office and remote availability (via websites, social media, building signage, emails to key groups) by mid-August
- Test phase August–December 2021
- Evaluation phase November 2021–February 2022
- Reflect and refine February 2022–June 2022
The next steps: Supervisors, Area Chairs and DGSes will meet with their teams to begin planning flexible work time/space plans for the fall semester. Initial plans should be submitted to HR Director Gayle Peters and to the Office of the Dean by August 20.
Here are some starter questions you might consider for your team conversations:
- What other units should we coordinate with for open hours on campus and remote?
- What core tasks are best done in person?
- How can we create intentional space for relationship building and maintenance, online and in person?
- How can we create healthy boundaries and clear communication so remote work at home doesn’t become endless/24-hour access?
- Which communication tools and routines will we use for remote work?
Here are some ideas that sprouted in ongoing conversations about flextime:
- Hold every other meeting in place;
- Organize carpooling around shared hours to decrease parking fees;
- Plan in-office hours at the same time as members of other teams closely related;
- Stack teaching time and office hours;
- Encourage team members to gather at Humphrey School public events to facilitate more informal communication;
- Welcome new staff/faculty to unit.
Other resources for planning are available on the OHR Work. With Flexibility website.
"I believe intentionality and clear communication are absolutely vital. There may not be any policies that will appeal to everyone in terms of in-person or remote work, for example. But it is essential that we not be left to wrestle with such decisions on my own and in my team every day."
"I worry about COVID issues if there are still variants circulating and if there is no vaccination requirement."
--Staff survey responses
From information about the how building is maintained (air filtration, water safety) to translating public health and HR updates from central administration, and office schedules, we are going to need a lot of clear, careful communication with each other about what is happening as we return, and what we can expect from each other as well as the institution.
We aim to provide as much information and clarity as possible about guidelines from the University, expectations for the physical contingencies of COVID fears and/or continuing ambiguities; choreographing spaces like common kitchens, lounges, etc. And we need communicative outlets for reconnecting—exchanging our stories, catching up, processing grief, recognizing the gaps in experience not to draw lines, but to remind each other of the need to be mindful of our different experiences and thus different needs and readiness for social interaction. Some people will want to plunge into the lake; others will want to wade in, and others will watch from the shore until the sun warms up the water a bit more.
From our surveys of staff, students and faculty, these themes emerged as the most important items for communication as we re-enter in the fall semester:
- Virus-mitigation measures and COVID procedures
- Ex: building cleaning protocols & PPE use
- Guidelines/general expectations for on campus activity/availability
- Ex: which departments/work groups will be on campus and when
- Physical safety on campus
- Ex: escorts to/from cars or bus & ‘critical mass’ in building to not feel alone
- Clear communication about personal agency in terms of continuing to mask, use additional PPE, choose remote work and learning options
Working with Meagan Pierluissi and her team, Humphrey is creating a re-entry communication plan that will include a specific webpage to host and update information; biweekly email updates; event-specific communication; existing and new wellbeing and safety resources. Note that the majority of faculty, staff, and students surveyed preferred at least biweekly communication on re-entry. Most of the three groups surveyed also preferred either email updates or a specific FAQ webpage for re-entry communication.
Approach the next semester as a “collaborative experiment” in re-entry and gauging new routines, expectations, and reactions to flexible work pilot. Again, the issue isn’t worrying about the work getting done; the issue is creating a flexible work format so that folks have agency, build, maintain and repair relationships, feel safe and have access to the unscheduled interactions that often spark creativity: informal meet ups for coffee or lunch, unexpected paths crossing, spontaneous gatherings and conversations in the halls, and rituals like graduation, retirement celebrations, awards, welcoming new staff and students to the community.
- Expect adjustments of guidelines and arrangements as we learn
- Be curious and compassionate, don’t assume
- Give each other grace
- Think deeply and creatively about needs & expectations of others (students, faculty, staff)
- Incorporate existing and new tools to support communication
- Share ideas across areas