By Josh Bowen
Surprise! School is closed
On March 15, 2020, the Government of Alberta suspended all face-to-face post-secondary classes in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. At the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT)—a polytechnic that sets itself apart through technology-based experiential hands-on learning and its connection to industry—this meant fundamentally disrupting almost 34,000 learners and staff in the middle of the semester.
Within four days, NAIT pivoted 93% of face-to-face programs to online delivery; transitioned student support and counselling services to a virtual environment; resumed essential industry-partnered applied research; and engaged emergency management teams at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions and government agencies to coordinate our responses and share lessons being learned on the fly.
As emergency managers know, the response phase can be intense, all-consuming, and changes daily. By April 6, the case count had started to plateau with less than 50 new cases per day, and NAIT was in a steady-state with minimal on-campus activities for the summer. NAIT’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) team stood down after logging nearly 2200 hours, handing over responsibilities to a Continuity of Operations team. This team was tasked with maintaining the status quo until restrictions were lifted and regular operations could resume or the situation escalated again.
Our “new normal for now”
The assumption in many circles was that the pandemic would be over before the start of the fall semester; however, rapidly rising case counts around the world in April and May made it clear the pandemic was going to last longer than many early predictions.
By mid-May, the decision was made that fall courses would be delivered virtually wherever possible while some shops and labs would be held face-to-face to meet key learning outcomes. The “new normal for now” meant that less than 6,000 people would come to our four campuses each week, down from nearly 20,000 per week in fall 2019. This approach enabled hands-on learning objectives while minimizing on-campus activities to prioritize the health and safety of our community. NAIT’s challenge became this: ensure hands-on learning in shops and labs, and industry-partnered research is done in a safe, coordinated way… in the middle of a pandemic. The focus of this article is on the actions taken to meet this challenge.
The right team(s)
It’s been said the wrong team can cause the best plan to fail while the right team can work miracles with a bad plan. In many large organizations, the teams working on projects of this strategic importance are often selected based on where they sit in the org chart.
Reopening our doors was a strategic undertaking that touched all areas of our institution at all levels. What we needed was the right teams with the right mandates and authorities to refine, implement, and iterate—all while wading through the “unknown-unknowns” that came with COVID-19 and with hitting the reset button on such a large organization. We adopted a “both, and” approach in establishing two teams to operationalize NAIT’s relaunch.
Figure 1: NAIT’s coordination structure ensured that everything related to COVID-19 was coordinated through the RAC and RCT leaving the EOC able to respond to any non-COVID-19 incidents.
Relaunch Advisory Committee
Comprising senior leaders for each business unit within NAIT, the Relaunch Advisory Committee (RAC) was tasked with communicating and enabling the coordination of the strategic direction and operational activities across schools, departments, and portfolios, ensuring a whole-of-NAIT lens was applied to planning. These leaders held the authority to make decisions for their respective areas.
Relaunch Coordination Team
Comprising representatives from across NAIT selected to bring a deep understanding of their respective areas, the Relaunch Coordination Team (RCT) was tasked with leading whole-of-NAIT coordination of relaunch activities. Members of the RCT were invited based on specific character traits:
- collaborative and team-focused;
- able to bounce between 30,000-foot and 1-inch views without getting whiplash;
- understand the organization (across multiple portfolios); and
- a sense of humour.
Most critical was that their absence would be noticed. In other words, we built a team of people known for making things happen across the institution. Finally, we were intentional with people’s time. We fully seconded many members of the RCT, and partially seconded key enabling members to ensure the team wouldn’t be pulled away from the critical tasks at hand.
Level-setting expectations early: Up, down, and across
From the outset of relaunch planning in May, NAIT adopted a Build Back Better framework to ensure the short-term “new normal for now” didn’t eclipse the longer-term organizational transformation process that was already in progress before the pandemic began. While the framework helped set the strategic context, we understood that this endeavour would be a slow turn of the dial rather than a flip of the switch.
Figure 2: NAIT’s strategic framework for relaunch focussed on ensuring all areas of NAIT were brought together in a coordinated fashion.
With almost 34,000 staff and students, we had to deliberately level-set expectations across the whole organization. A consistent, coordinated, whole-of-NAIT approach was adopted. The strategic guidance from our executive team fed into explicit mandate letters for the teams tasked with coordinating our relaunch. Guidance for safety, space planning, and communications was produced for use across the institution. Mandatory COVID-19 awareness training was developed for our staff, students, and contractors.
All of this was published on a dedicated public-facing website to ensure everyone inside and outside of NAIT had access to all the information they might need. We continually updated it as new information came to light and as things changed on our campuses and with public health restrictions. The site became our single source of truth.
Figure 3: An example of communications developed for our community and released publicly for anyone to use.
Communication is the glue
Coordinated communication has been a key priority. There were significant changes to what had been routine as we moved through the new normal for now and these changes needed to be communicated consistently and effectively to ensure we could reopen safely. Throughout the pandemic, communication has been the glue that holds the response and recovery efforts together.
Dedicated communications resources and clear mechanisms for passing information were critical to our success. Further, these dedicated individuals were heavily supported by our Communications department. Key messages were shared directly by leaders and across multiple channels to ensure our community received consistent and timely information. Innovative campaigns reinforced these messages.
Figure 4: Our “Stay Home If You’re Sick” campaign reinforced messaging to curb the spread of COVID-19 while reminding staff and students that we will support them through COVID-19 related absences. This background image was developed for use in Microsoft Teams meetings.
We anticipated the need to address emotionally charged scenarios, preemptively developing two sets of messages focused on outbreaks impacting our community and a fatality related to COVID-19. This ensured that if those messages were needed, we would have them ready and would not have to craft messaging while also dealing with the emotional impacts of the situation.
What are we missing?
As we worked through the plans, safety procedures, and communications for the initial relaunch activities that brought limited numbers of staff and students safely back to campus in July, the RCT adopted a meeting wrap-up question: What are we missing? This question drove us to update, revise, and iterate plans and procedures. It forced us to listen to what each of the sub-teams was doing and think about how the decisions being made would impact the areas we represented.
The question started off operationally focussed, meaning “what detail did we miss, what perspective did we fail to include?” and evolved to a bigger picture and strategic meaning “what important item should we tackle now?” The same question; a different level of focus. This question, posed with enough time left in the meeting to engage in a substantive debate, kept us focussed on a relentless pursuit of excellence.
The next big challenge
Despite the challenges presented, NAIT managed to relaunch all programming in Fall 2020, witnessed widespread adoption of and compliance with on-campus health and safety measures, performed contact tracing and notification (faster than the provincial health authority), and maintained agility in the face of challenge and change. These successes are rooted in an understanding of purpose within the teams assigned to coordinate our relaunch, and our approach to communicating openly and transparently with our community. The lessons we have learned, and continue to learn, are being shared with the aim of fostering a more resilient society beyond our walls.
Figure 5: Our “Kindness is Contagious” campaign was developed to support our community’s mental health and encourage people to reach out and support each other.
So, what’s next? Our team is developing contingency plans for potential future restrictions and what ongoing steady-state operations look like as we continue teaching and working this way through the winter semester. And the next big challenge? Translate everything we have learned into the fabric of the institution and work within the “now normal” to balance between protecting the physical and mental health of our community while continuing to offer invaluable hands-on learning opportunities.
Josh Bowen is currently serving as the Director, Relaunch Coordination Team at NAIT, on secondment from the Centre for Applied Disaster and Emergency Management. He has been involved in emergency management for well over a decade and is passionate about fostering resilient communities and organizations, leadership, and learning.