NOTE: This is one in a series of articles published by The Brock News to mark the one-year anniversary of Brock University suspending in-person, on-campus classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To read all of the articles in the series, click here.
In a span of less than 24 hours, Brock University employees transitioned from working on a bustling campus among hundreds of colleagues and tens of thousands of students to working remotely from their homes.
On March 16, 2020, five days after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic, Brock University announced that beginning March 17 it would transition to a modified operational model that required a significant number of employees work from remote locations.
The afternoon of the announcement, employees packed up what they could carry with them and headed out across campus, passing by digital screens lit up in red that warned them of the virus and talked of the importance of washing their hands. They passed through eerily empty hallways; students no longer on campus because in-person classes were suspended three days earlier.
Many left campus that day thinking they would return shortly. They bid farewell to their colleagues, unaware they wouldn’t see each other in person again for more than a year.
The following days were spent setting up makeshift offices on kitchen tables and in basements. Many employees were joined by new, young colleagues — their children, who were now learning from home. Parents balanced caring for their children and supporting them in online classes while also learning how to do their own jobs remotely, in both cases often having to navigate unfamiliar virtual collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Lifesize. Others found themselves alone and isolated from their families or needing to care for aging parents or immunocompromised loved ones.
Pivoting to remote work
Despite the significant challenges Brock employees faced at the onset of the pandemic, it was amazing how quickly they all pivoted to working from home, said Jennifer Guarasci, Associate Vice-President, Human Resources.
“There is no greater evidence of the Brock spirit in my mind than what we saw over the months of March and April of last year,” she said. “We have an amazing community of faculty and staff who just pulled together and said, ‘how do we get this done?’ I think this is something to be really proud of.”
David Cullum, Associate Vice-President, Information Technology Services (ITS), was impressed by how quickly employees adopted to working online and using virtual collaboration technology.
“The increase in numbers on Teams and Lifesize went right through the roof. It was incredible. Expected, but the adoption for all of this overall went very smoothly in my opinion and my team’s opinion, even though there were some bumps along the way,” Cullum said.
In 2020, the Brock community live streamed 394 events via Lifesize and used 7,474,893 virtual meeting minutes. That’s 5,194 days or 14 years worth of calls within one year. Microsoft Teams has nearly 25,000 active users who have engaged in 35,956,894 minutes worth of meetings over the past 90 days. In other words, roughly 750,000 minutes are spent in Teams per weekday. Additionally, users sent an estimated 40,000 chat messages per workday.
In addition to supporting the University community with virtual collaboration tools, ITS assisted employees in their transition to remote work by:
- Enhancing the Virtual Private Network so users could access specialized software through their work computers on campus
- Working with employees to move their documents to the OneDrive cloud
- Rolling out Windows Virtual Desktop, a Microsoft solution that allows students, faculty and staff to access specific software available in the labs.
Client Services continued to support employees and students through a live Help Desk, which was available on campus, through phone or ticket submission. The team also implemented a loaner laptop program, which many faculty and staff participated in.
Putting people first
Early in the pandemic, the University’s senior administrative team drafted guiding principles that would direct decisions regarding workforce planning. The principles recognized some important factors including that, as one of the largest employers in the region and therefore a major economic driver, Brock’s decisions related to its workforce would impact the community, including how quickly the region recovered from the pandemic. They also acknowledged Brock’s employee relations philosophy of putting its people first and proposed that decisions regarding staffing would start with least impactful options, only moving to more impactful options as necessary.
“What that meant for us is we were going to work really hard as a community to find opportunities to keep our people working — doing valuable and necessary work that contributed to the mission of the University for as long as possible,” said Guarasci.
Managers, employees and union partners collaborated with Human Resources to find new and creative opportunities for employees who worked in areas of the University that were dependent on in-person services or did not translate well to remote work. The pandemic presented new challenges and responsibilities for many departments, and many employees were offered alternative work, such as taking on new duties within their department or redeployment to a different role in another unit.
Essential workers remain on campus
While a significant portion of employees left campus to work from home, several employee groups remained on campus to keep the University clean and safe, and to continue serving the small population of students residing and learning on campus.
“The University is a 24-7 operation,” said Scott Johnstone, Senior Associate Vice-President, Infrastructure and Operations. We produce our own power, heating and cooling. We have critical research that’s stored in freezers and vaults of art and library archives that need to be properly preserved.”
He said employees working on campus have had to adjust to changing protocols involving physical distancing, limits on gatherings, mandatory mask requirements and high-touch surface cleaning.
“We didn’t have a playbook on how to deal with this. Staff were incredibly flexible and understanding,” Johnstone said.
In a message released Friday, March 12, President Gervan Fearon said he is thankful to employees for their resilience, resourcefulness and perseverance during the pandemic.
“Whether you’ve been working from home or from campus, each of you has been a part of the success of the University in being able to manage through a very difficult time period,” he said. “Without question, your work has been noticed and appreciated by our students and the community at large. I celebrate and applaud you.”
Ramping up resources
Numerous support programs and resources were made available to Brock University employees and supervisors over the past year, including mental health resources and training, regular wellness initiatives and suggestions for how to manage a healthy work-life balance and set up home offices with proper ergonomics while working remotely:
- Early in the pandemic, Brock University extended its Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) to all current Brock employees. These resources can be found on the Work, Health and Life website or by calling 1-800-387-4765.
- A new Health, Safety and Wellness Toolbox was created on SharePoint, including a page for COVID-19 information.
- The Employee Wellness SharePoint site was continually updated with information and resources.
- Human Resources developed a Telecommuting Resource Guide.
- Health Management and Wellness created a work-life balance bulletin that offers employees tips to maintain a distinct boundary between work and home life.
- Employees were encouraged to assess their home offices for ergonomic considerations.
- The Healthy Meeting Guidelines were updated to the Virtual Healthy Meeting Guidelines.
- COVID-19 training modules were made available to employees working on campus.
- COVID-19 resources were created to support supervisors and departments as they developed their department-specific mitigation strategy for any re-entry of faculty or staff members on campus.
- Free mental health resources, including wellness articles written by Brock’s EFPA provider, were promoted to employees through SharePoint @ Brock.
- The Working Mind mental health training for employees and managers continued to be offered, but in a virtual format.
- Virtual Lunch and Learn wellness events were offered through a monthly wellness calendar and listed on Focus on Learning and in The Weekly Update newsletter.
- Wellness webinars took place during Mental Health Week and recordings were made available to employees.
- Employees were given free access to the virtual ExpressFit fitness classes offered by Brock Recreation.
- Physical activity challenges, such as the Trek Across Canada Challenge, Timed Trek to the North Pole and a Timed Trip to Disney challenged employees to move their bodies.
The future of work at Brock
With the Ontario vaccine schedule rolling out and plans to offer in-person classes in September, Brock’s Senior Administration and Human Resources team is looking at the future of work at Brock.
A working group comprised of managers from a variety of University units will be meeting to plan for a return to work on campus, which will include the exploration of alternative work arrangements. They have been tasked with developing a set of guiding principles to assist managers in their decisions. A policy and related procedures will follow shortly after.
“One of the things the last year has taught us is that we can be productive and effective working outside of a traditional office environment,” said Guarasci. “Any future decisions regarding flexible work arrangements will, of course, always prioritize the needs of our students.”
Cullum said the ITS team is ready for online learning and remote work.
“This has really changed universities and higher education in general, in terms of looking at a hybrid model going forward,” he said. “We created an environment that can handle that going forward.”
Johnstone said having some employees work from home all or part of the time will change how the University uses its space.
“Working from home helps from a sustainability and carbon reduction initiative. Not just greenfield building, but further retrofitting and utilizing existing space to maximize its efficiency is very important,” he said.