Transitioning Virginia Tech to a virtual workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to changes in our lives and our workplaces that no one could have foreseen. In early March, it became clear that the spread of the coronavirus in the United States was going to have a significant impact on the country, our state, and Virginia Tech.
Other state and federal actions, such as school closings and social distancing guidelines, were early catalysts that began the process of downsizing the on-site presence of employees across campus and began the shift from in-person to telework. Then, on March 30, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide stay-at-home order, triggering the university to move to essential operations.
“We had to make the move from reduced to essential operations – meaning we had only a minimal number of employees working on-site to staff essential functions – in a matter of days,” said Bryan Garey, vice president of human resources.
Two considerations were top of mind as the university shifted operations:
- First was keeping faculty and staff safe. Moving the majority of operations to telework ensured employees could safely perform their job from home. The university also had to manage critical on-site services, such as dining halls, housekeeping, facilities, police, and other first-responder functions, with the smallest number of employees possible to protect them and adhere to social distancing guidelines, and provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE) where needed.
- Second was keeping the university’s critical missions of academics and research operating.
“Serving the students who remain on campus cannot be done without our frontline employees,” said Frank Shushok, vice president of student affairs. “Our on-site employees are maintaining campus operations in Dining Services, Schiffert Health Center, Facilities, and Housing and Residence Life. Needless to say, these are remarkable people who care deeply about students. Operational changes were made through cross-functional efforts to ensure employee safety using PPE, training, and social distancing. It is humbling to watch the dedication and excellence with which these colleagues carry out their work every day.”
“The move to both remote instruction and essential operations was certainly challenging, because we had little time to accomplish the work,” said Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs. “Through the support of partners from across the university, including our many IT support colleagues, Human Resources, college administrative staff, and others, our faculty and staff were able to successfully move courses and academic support into an online environment.”
Using the guidelines laid out in Presidential Policy Memorandum No. 309, Human Resources collaborated with university leaders, and college and business unit leaders and HR partners across the university to create plans that identified essential functions that had to operate on-site and functions that could move to the telework environment. In addition, employees were identified as needed on-site or able to telework.
“We were already reducing the number of employees on-site before the move to essential operations,” said Garey. “Thanks to the hard work of our leaders and their HR partners and the flexibility of our employees, we were able to move 80 percent of our workforce to telework, leaving less than 20 percent of employees working on-site.”
The university successfully transitioned the majority of functions online; however, unique challenges arose from the change that put the university’s ability to continue operating at risk in this new, largely virtual environment. The Division of Information Technology (IT) worked across units to support the move in a number of ways.
Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS) marshaled efforts toward assisting faculty with moving to remote teaching. IT communications and 4Help pulled together online resources for working remotely, optimizing internet connectivity, and to answer specific questions from students and employees as they arose. IT procurement and network specialists worked with vendors to quickly expand access to high-demand software and VPN connectivity. IT employees worked to meet a variety of unique needs, such as providing university employees and students with computers, deploying specialized software, and improving connectivity of local internet providers to Virginia Tech. This work was all accomplished while most of IT’s employees were, themselves, moving to telework.
“While there were a few bumps, the move to remote teaching and work-from-home was relatively smooth,” said Scott Midkiff, vice president for information technology and chief information officer. “This was due to a robust technology base, the dedication and expertise of Division of IT employees, and strong partnerships and collaboration across the university.”
In addition, with the fast shift to telework, there was a great need for resources to help both students and employees with the change. Just a few of the many examples include Human Resources, in partnership with IT, establishing a secure drop box where employees could upload benefits and other forms; Talent Development creating an online virtual learning center to support supervisors and employees in the telework environment; and Hokie Wellness creating an at-home wellness site to serve the needs of students and employees.
“As the saying goes, necessity is truly the mother of invention,” said Garey. “Practically overnight, we had to change much of how we did things. While the current telework environment is temporary, it has opened our eyes to new ways of doing things. The processes that were put in place to accommodate the needs were developed quickly – and may be less than perfect – but they enabled students to continue with their academics and faculty and staff to continue doing their job. These temporary processes also open the door for the development of permanent, virtual solutions in the future now that we know what is possible.”
Human Resources continues to partner with leaders and HR contacts across Virginia Tech to monitor operational and employee productivity in the telework environment. This ongoing work helps understand what functions can and cannot be done efficiently from a remote location, identify process improvements, and enable efficiencies. There is also work being done to help employees plan their time and stay focused on their goals. Ultimately, this experience will provide a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be tapped in the future in a number of ways.
“We continue to learn every day from this experience and we continue to improve and will come out stronger on the other side,” Garey said. “While the days and weeks ahead are still uncertain, what is certain is the dedication of Virginia Tech’s amazing employees, those who are teleworking and especially those who are working on-site. Thank you for all of your hard work, flexibility, and care in keeping our university running during this difficult and unprecedented time.”