‘All-weather strategies,’ being agile, and providing experiences that cater to student and employee needs are the lessons of the second lockdown for one New Zealand university.
At the start of the year, governments around the world were forced to face the tricky dilemma of how best to approach the coronavirus pandemic. Some governments adopted a herd immunity approach while others, like New Zealand, enforced a severe lockdown.
In late March, New Zealand went into an alert 4 lockdown, which meant civilians had to stay home and keep movements only within local areas.
Non-essential services and education facilities were also forced to close, and businesses and organisations were forced to enter remote work. Much like the rest of the world, New Zealand organisations had to adapt to their new working conditions.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern justified the decision at the time, saying that a lockdown would save thousands of lives.
“If community transmission takes off in New Zealand the number of cases will double every five days. If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and thousands of New Zealanders will die,” Ardern said at the time.
“Moving to Level 3, then 4, will place the most significant restrictions on our people in modern history but they are a necessary sacrifice to save lives.”
After months of lockdown, the country eventually removed its restrictions due to no cases being reported. The country then experienced over 100 days without COVID-19. Life in New Zealand went back to normal. People ate at restaurants, went to rugby games, and caught up with friends, said Timothy Fadgen, associate director of the New Zealand Public Policy Institute.
Two days after the 100-day milestone, however, four new cases of coronavirus emerged in Auckland. By the end of that week, Ardern announced a second round of lockdown for the city.
“Going hard and early is still the best course of action,” Ardern said at the time.
This placed New Zealand, specifically Auckland, in the unique position of having to revert back into a severe lockdown despite experiencing “normalcy” for over 3 months.
For the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), this meant campuses were forced back into closure; students and employees, respectively, had to move back into remote learning and work.
While going back into lockdown was not an easy process for the university, AUT pro vice-chancellor Kate Kearins said many of the infrastructural hurdles faced during the initial lockdown were already resolved by the second lockdown.
The initial lockdown resulted in AUT’s pipeline for digital infrastructure being accelerated, Kearins said, such as fast-tracking the provision of finance students with licences to use its trading room off-campus.
It also allowed the university to extend the use of existing platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, that were previously not used efficiently.
Earlier this month, Forrester analyst Sam Higgins said as organisations moved into survival or adaptive mode due to the pandemic, they prioritised digital efforts that built resiliency and enabled remote working arrangements.
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Where there was a big difference between the two lockdowns, however, was that most people found the second lockdown to be more challenging despite it being shorter, as people felt like the country had already cracked the pandemic case, Kearins said.
“Don’t relax, don’t relax,” Kearins told TechRepublic.
With the second lockdown expected to come to a close for the entire country except for Auckland, Kearins pointed to the university’s reliance on “all-weather strategies” on hand, being agile, and its provision of “tailored experiences” for students and employees as the lessons of the second lockdown.
“You need to have a strategy that will see you through whether you’re back in lockdown or back on campus, and then it’s about managing the transitions because not everyone wants to come because it’s a bit scary,” she said.
“Students need to be talked to by the people that know their individual circumstances so it’s much more tailored — I think that’s what we learned between lockdown version one and lockdown version two, that actually, you need to have things set up and be able to work on high levels of trust and not to necessarily be worried about the small stuff.”
Where Kearins said there would be continued work is providing digital access for those students and employees with financial hardship, as well as finding that balance between ensuring staff are able to teach adequately but still have enough resources to perform research.
To address this, she said the university provided students experiencing hardship with laptops and data packages to allow them to continue their studies during the lockdowns.
Privacy and well-being are imperative for remote work
Beyond meeting the needs for people to be more agile, Fadgen said that a second enforced lockdown has reminded New Zealand organisations of the importance in providing privacy and well-being to employees.
Fadgen said due to the line between home and work now being more blurred than ever, organisations needed to have security protocols in place to ensure sensitive information is protected.
“I think to some extent, if you’re beholden to your employer’s devices and internet connection at home to do your work, that can create [privacy] problems,” he said.
At the same time, he said organisations needed to strike a balance between implementing protocols and recognising the reality that people may be more stressed during the pandemic.
Referring to certain education institutions in the United States, such as Florida State University, where employees are not allowed to care for children when working remotely, he noted that some organisations have not worked to support the well-being of employees.
By creating a complicated work environment, this can result in personal stress and burnout for employees, he explained.
A collaborative study conducted by the AUT, University of Greenwich, and University of East Anglia found employees felt more inclusive when organisations were mindful of the challenges that remote workers faced.
The study’s co-author, AUT information systems lecturer Lena Waizenegger, told TechRepublic that the second lockdown was more of an emotional drain due to the loss of “normalcy” for a second time, but that there were new insights from the experience.
The study interviewed white-collar workers from New Zealand, Australia, the US, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland across two weeks during New Zealand’s first lockdown. From the study, she found projects that started face-to-face prior to the first lockdown were able to continue quite smoothly online. Once the second lockdown came around, new projects with new clients were much more difficult to start due to the lack of in-person interactions.
Waizenegger also said the study revealed that while there were not too many discrepancies between countries in terms of how people dealt with forced work from home, younger employees have struggled a lot during the pandemic.
Younger employees had this experience as there was often a lack of transparency for when they could ask questions. They also lost the ability to shadow their peers or managers as well as learn on the job, she explained.
The other key demographic that also struggled during the pandemic were caretakers due to the increased amount of online meetings that arose from enforced work from home.
“All of us have different hats, all of us have different roles, so we might be a consultant at work, we might be a mum at home, we might be an athlete in the gym. But now, because literally our whole lives take place in the same location, you pretty much have all of the consultant/mum/athlete hats on at the very same time and this led to quite a lot of role conflict,” Waizenegger said.
Moving on into a more long-term perspective, both Fadgen and Waizenegger share similar sentiments that it is important for organisations to reflect on how to organise IT infrastructure and flexible working arrangements.
“One option could be to not only have in-person meetings or only have virtual meetings, but actually have these hybrid meetings where you actually bring in your onsite workers but also your remote workers, and then have a dedicated facilitator. That makes sure remote workers actually have a part to contribute to the discussion, because then you can actually leverage this asset and have a much bigger pool of knowledge and expertise,” Waizenegger said.
“When we are all in forced work from home, we all face these different circumstances. I think for companies moving forward, it’s important that they don’t have a blanket approach but actually accommodate to different circumstances; actually be much more open and find more individual solutions.”
On Tuesday, New Zealand reported zero new cases of coronavirus for the first time since its resurgence in the country.