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Coronavirus Cover Story Modern Office

The Future of Work

Michael Galat

Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y.

When businesses sent employees home in mid-March, many thought it would be for just a few weeks. Instead, as the pandemic lingered, weeks stretched into months, and now, even as companies are allowed to bring their teams back on site, many have not. The reason? Employers say it makes little sense to risk their people’s health if they can do their job just as well at home. But … if they can work effectively at home, why bring them back at all? That’s a conversation many companies are having as they ponder the future of the workplace in the COVID-19 era.

Big Y Foods is one of the region’s largest companies, with more than 11,000 employees throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been an essential business throughout the pandemic, so it never shut down.

Many of its employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“About 80% of them started working from home once COVID-19 started gaining traction,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y. That shift meant setting everyone up with the right equipment if they didn’t have it at home, and also putting together a best-practices guide for working remotely. “Whether people are working remotely or not, they need to have access and be available to support those locations.”

The lesson learned over four months? They did their jobs just fine. And until COVID-19 begins to subside in earnest, Big Y is taking its time bringing employees — at least the ones who don’t have to work in the stores — back to their pre-pandemic workspaces.

“We’re definitely taking our time. We’re at about 30% in the support center now,” Galat said. “Obviously this is peak vacation time, but we are slowly, and I mean slowly, reintegrating people in the support center.”

PeoplesBank is learning similar lessons about what employees can accomplish at home, said Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer.

“There’s always a concern, when you don’t have someone on site, because you can’t see what they’re doing. Are they working?” she said. “But we haven’t really missed a beat in terms of productivity levels. Some people like working from home — it works for them — while some people prefer working in the office, and they can’t wait to come back. But for overall productivity and meeting the needs of customers, we haven’t had any concerns.”

Roberts doesn’t see a day, post-pandemic, when the majority of bank employees are still working at home. But functioning so well over the past few months has at least gotten HR leaders talking.

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend. But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend,” she told BusinessWest. “But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

Patrick Leary has had those conversations, too. As a partner with MP CPAs, he understands that much of his business is face to face with clients. “But I don’t think we’ll go back to 100% on site.”

Elaborating, he explained that “the model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, we need to have people available, and we can’t have somebody that decides, ‘I want to enjoy my day, so I’ll start the workday at 5 p.m. and work till 1 a.m.’ — although some of the 20-somethings might like that; me, I need to be in bed by 9.”

But while it’s true that employees need to be available to field phone calls and take appointments during core work hours, he went on, it may not be necessary to have everyone working in the same place at the same time.

“I think our ideas about what is a regular workplace have completely changed,” Leary went on, and it wasn’t sending everyone home in March that shifted those ideas; it was how long the stay-at-home trend has lasted.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank has to balance the benefits of working at home with the interactive employee culture it has cultivated.

“If everyone went home, and two weeks later they were back in the office, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he noted. “But we’ve proven in four months that people can work at home, work efficiently at home, and accept working at home.”

These three companies — a supermarket chain, a bank, and an accounting firm — all have totally different business models and customer needs, yet they’re all saying the same thing when it comes to the workplace of the future, and specifically whether remote work is here to stay: nothing is set in stone, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Shifting on the Fly

Shifting to remote appointments back in March was a smooth process, Leary said, partly because all the clients were working remotely, too.

“That part of it was not overly challenging,” he added. “And we had stress-tested our internal systems about a month earlier as good practice, just to see how we were doing. We did some modifications, so system-wide, we were in good shape. We had been using voice over internet for the phones, so when someone called at the office, it could ring at the house. So we were good there.”

The company did need to work through some quality-control issues, however, especially since the team was being physically separated during the heart of tax-preparation season.

“That, to me, was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most people are accustomed to doing that in face-to-face settings, but we did it with everyone at home. We developed some protocols for how that would work.”

The firm created a schedule for individuals to come to the office to pick up packages, scan documents, and send them to the right people.

“The model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way.”

“Then there was the whole PPP thing, working with virtually all our business clients, showing them how to apply for it, and making sure they knew they rules, which were evolving almost daily,” Leary recalled. “We had a core group staying really closely involved and on top of the regulations, and we did a couple of webinars for clients.”

Then there was COVID-19 itself. “We were helping clients through their issues with business being called off — what do they do for cash flow?” he went on. “But the biggest challenge for me was that it all occurred during our busiest time.”

Banking customers were dealing with some of the same issues, as well as their usual needs, and PeoplesBank leaders were quick to make sure employees were set up to work at home.

“In a matter of two weeks, we assigned something like 150 Chromebooks and issued VPN access to all office items,” Roberts said, noting that about 170 people who work in the office were sent home to work. Some, who could not get the access they needed for whatever reason, were paid until the issues were resolved, and they began working from home as well.

These days, the main office is about 25% occupied, with most still working totally from home and others coming into the office one or two days a week. Like Leary, Roberts said discussions have already taken place regarding what the past four months mean for the future of remote work.

“There are definitely limitations, if we’re going to pursue it is a work type,” she said. “We’re going to need technology that ensures full access and takes care of the little things you experience when you’re at home instead of the office, like system slowdowns and delays.”

In short, if PeoplesBank is going to expand remote work in perpetuity — and not just because a pandemic has forced much of the work world home — it needs to the same experience from a work standpoint. “We’ve highlighted things that can be better. But for the most part, it’s been pretty seamless.”

Leary said the current situation has opened his eyes to internet infrastructure needs in the community, especially in places like the hilltowns, which can run into slow speeds and spotty cell service. “If this becomes the new norm, we can’t have someone working in their house who can’t connect to the outside world efficiently.”

Remote Learning

For a company like Big Y — which, between its supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations, is a 24/7 operation — flexible work options on the customer-support side make sense, Galat said.

“We’re able to give flexibility to that employee who may have childcare issues, or is caring for an elderly parent, and it allows us to support our stores while minimizing the amount of people who come in here,” he said, which remains an issue with the pandemic still a threat. “So having flexibility of schedule helps their personal lives and also our workplace.”

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary says a shift to more permanent work-at-home options will require an investment in technology.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s vice president of Corporate Communications, agreed. “Some have even felt more productive at home than here. It will certainly be part of the workplace of the future.”

She was especially impressed that the company was able to shift how it did business — not just moving some employees home, but taking steps to protect the ones in the stores — essentially on the fly.

“We’re used to working quickly, but not that quickly,” she said. “The stores were slammed the first few weeks, and this added yet another element of urgency. But we never stopped; we quickly pivoted to serve our stores and our customers in an unprecedented manner.”

“We made it work, and we needed to,” Galat added. “We needed to stay connected more than ever during this time.”

That said, “there are more discussions to be had,” he continued. “Absolutely, some lessons were learned — we’re able to support our locations — but when you look at the company-culture part of it, you lose that social aspect.”

To counter that, remote employees have been conferencing over Zoom three or four times a week, in some departments every day. Meanwhile, they’ve been issued guidance for working efficiently at home, from creating a comfortable, ergonomically correct work area to setting aside time for mind-clearing breaks.

“Eighty to 85% of the feedback has been positive,” Galat said. “People have been able to get their products done. Some have missed the social element, but for others, there’s value in the time saved not commuting in traffic.”

PeoplesBank has long promoted an interactive, employee-centric culture, and that has to be considered when pondering the future of the workplace.

“We rely on that interaction and engagement you get by being in the office together as a group,” Roberts said.

“Making sure we can continue that interactive part of our culture is something I’m really focused on right now. That’s a tricky one. If you have a completely remote workforce, you lose some of those engagement opportunities, and you have to shift some of the ways you engage. We’re not going to let that stop us from pursuing flexibility, but we have to consider the great culture that we have.”

Home or Away?

While employee culture and technology requirements are certainly legitimate topics of discussion, none of the professionals who spoke with BusinessWest expressed much concern about employee accountability and efficiency — “our concerns about people not doing their work dissipated pretty quickly,” D’Amour-Daley said — meaning remote workers may indeed have a broader role in the future.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” Leary said. “I’ve fallen into a pretty good routine from day one. I’ve tried to make it a regular day: shower, get dressed — not in a suit, but not pajamas — and sit down at my computer. It makes for a more normal routine than saying, ‘I’ll get to work when I get to it.’ And I think most people would feel the same.”

Expanded use of remote work would also open up opportunities for both companies and employees, especially those who want to live in, say, Boston or New York City, he noted. Those individuals could expand their job-search horizons, while Western Mass. could become a more attractive place for businesses to set down roots, taking advantage of the region’s relatively low lease rates while hiring from afar.

All these opportunities can only open up if remote work proves a viable option. And companies of all types are starting to think it is.

“I haven’t had a single client call and say, ‘hey, I was talking to Sally, and I heard a dog barking in the background; it was really distracting,’” Leary said. “I actually think the idea of working from home is good for people. In that time they’d be commuting, maybe they’re exercising or spending more time with their family.

“People do miss the social interaction,” he was quick to add. “Maybe they live alone, or it’s just them and their significant other in the office.”

But the employees of MP CPAs who are back in the office — about half the team — are there by choice, he said, with others choosing to remain at home.

Because it works. And employers like things that work. So, in this era of Zoom and home offices and (sometimes) pajamas, they’re paying attention.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

Nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest issues — and questions — to emerge involves remote work and its future.

Indeed, while many people have returned to the office over the past several weeks, large numbers of employees continue to work from home. And the longer they do that — with generally positive results when it comes to productivity and overall satisfaction among managers and workers alike — the more people ask the $64,000 question: is this the future of work?

The answer right now is, by and large, ‘we don’t know — but we’re certainly looking at it.’ And the reasons for this are obvious. Having large numbers of people working at home could save companies considerable amounts of money on real estate, office design and accommodations, and other expenses. And from some of the early reports, they can do this while making employees happier — most of them enjoy working from home and not commuting — and perhaps more productive, partly because, again, they’re happier and they’re not commuting.

But this goes well beyond real estate, and that’s why this issue deserves the attention it is now getting. Remote work has the potential — the potential, mind you — to perhaps level the playing field when it comes to urban and rural areas, and also perhaps change the landscape when it comes to downtowns dominated by office buildings — and the businesses that serve the workers in those buildings.

That’s perhaps. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but not really. These are the kinds of questions — and scenarios — that are already being talked about.

As that talk goes on, so does the discussion about remote work itself. As noted earlier, most of the early returns are positive. Companies do talk about how they miss the in-person interactions and a loss of the some of the collaborative spirit that comes with having everyone working in the same space.

But generally, they also talk about how productivity has not been impacted by people working at home, and how much employees appreciate these new arrangements. Some companies, like Google, have already told employees (most of them, anyway) they can and will work at home until roughly this time next year.

Whether these arrangements are being made, tolerated, and even applauded purely because of the pandemic remains to be seen. Maybe, when there’s a vaccine, everyone will return to the office and things will be as they were in February 2020.

But that now seems unlikely. COVID has, in many ways, shown the world that working from home is a viable option, one that could bring benefits for employers and employees alike. And this opens up a number of possibilities.

Indeed, individuals now living in Boston won’t have to live in that area to work for companies located there. They can live in Western Mass., where the living is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less clogged (for now). Speaking of roads, do we have to worry about them being clogged again?

Meanwhile, people living in Western Mass. won’t have to work for companies located in Western Mass. Some of them don’t anyway, but now more can enjoy that option.

And what about high-speed rail? Will we still need it if far fewer people will need to travel across the state to work? Seems like the playing field may be leveled without it.

While in some respects these seem like questions for another day, they are appropriate to ask right now. And if the pandemic lingers and people continue to work from home successfully and productively into next year, these questions will be asked more and more — and the answer might well become obvious, if it isn’t already.

There have been many stories to emerge from this pandemic, but remote working may be the biggest of them all. There are many questions still to be answered and research to be done, but this may just be the future of work — or a very big part of it. And the impact could be enormous.

Coronavirus Cover Story

Hard Lessons

Vacant Elms College Campus

‘Extraordinary.’ That’s how one area college president described the massive shift to online learning that colleges and universities nationwide were forced to undertake back in March. And he’s right. But these are extraordinary times — and beyond the questions about when students can safety return to campus, and concerns about declining enrollment and revenues going forward, are a series of equally extraordinary conversations about what higher education might look like on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, and why.

Back in March, when colleges and universities everywhere began sending students home, the obvious question was, ‘when will they come back?’

That’s still the question — or, more accurately, one of many, many pressing questions.

Here’s another one: when students do eventually come back, how many will not? At a time when enrollment is already declining nationally, mainly due to smaller high-school graduating classes, some trade groups, like the American Council on Education, are predicting a national enrollment drop of 15% this fall, higher for international students.

“On one hand, it could be anxiety about students returning to the campus environment or students wanting to take a pause and see how things are going,” said Harry Dumay president of Elms College. “Then, their financial circumstances might make it difficult for them — although, with the stimulus funds, we are working with families to help them with those concerns.”

Dumay said Elms leaders are preparing for all contingencies when it comes to how and where summer and fall classes will be delivered, though it seems likely that at least the initial summer sessions, starting in May, will have to be remote.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue. Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

“What’s less certain is what will happen in the fall. A number of factors go into making this decision, beginning, of course, with when it’s safe for our students, safe for our employees and faculty, and safe for the general public,” he noted, adding that Elms leadership constantly tracks the guidelines it receives from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will not reopen the campus if doing so would provide an opportunity for the pandemic to spike, even if the curve is starting to flatten now.

Working in Elms’ favor, he noted, is the fact that it draws mainly from the Greater Springfield region, and in this current environment, graduating high-school seniors, whether in 2020 or 2021, and their families might prefer to choose a college closer to home.

“Those are discussions seniors and their parents are making around the kitchen table,” Dumay said. “We are certainly working with all of those students who have been admitted to Elms, trying to answer their questions so they can continue to pursue their dreams in a safe manner, and guide them in making those critical decisions in this critical time.”

From its perspective, Elms — and all colleges, for that matter — is making contingency plans of its own if enrollment does come in lower than the target.

“We’ll have a plan-A budget, a plan-B budget, and a plan-C budget. But Elms is on solid financial footing. We’re not wealthy — we don’t have a large endowment — but the institution is financially healthy, and we can withstand some shock in enrollment.”

Carol Leary, who is stepping down in June after 25 years as president of Bay Path University, certainly didn’t expect to spend her final weeks communicating with her staff remotely.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue,” Leary said of … well, virtually all colleges and universities. “Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

With that in mind, she said, “everyone is doing their business-continuity planning and deciding what to do if there’s a decrease in enrollment for the fall. It’s on the table for most institutions, and certainly, at Bay Path, we’re talking about it. But we’re very well-placed in some ways; we usually use 4% or less of our endowment on operating costs. Obviously, when enrollment goes down, it will hit schools harder that rely more heavily on their endowment for the operating budget. I’m not sure that’s going to be an issue here.”

That said, Bay Path may freeze hiring and not fill open positions that aren’t absolutely essential, Leary said, while curtailing travel in the short term as well. “Every institution is looking at how the budget is crafted and may have to make some tough decisions — maybe even some furloughs and layoffs in the future.”

At the same time, she added, most institutions will have to start looking at themselves through a different lens — a topic she recently wrote about in an article marking 25 years in the president’s chair. Specifically, how can higher education, with its ever-spiraling costs, better reach and serve the majority of Americans, including those in lower income strata?

“I think the model and the cost are definitely areas that will change in the future, and the COVID crisis has forced all of us to look internally at how to begin to address those two issues,” she said.

With that, she raised perhaps the most intriguing question of all — how will higher education look when it emerges on the other side of the pandemic, and students do return to campus? Because most in this critical industry — and all four area presidents BusinessWest spoke with for this story — don’t believe it’s going to be status quo.

Digital Dilemma

Before considering those questions, John Cook took a moment to appreciate what a momentous challenge it has been for an entire nation’s higher-education system to go online with very little preparation.

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment forecasts and developing budget options that consider all contingencies.

“It’s been extraordinary for higher education, and certainly at STCC, to make such a comprehensive change,” said Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College. He explained that the college, like most others in Western Mass., was fortunate to be able to leverage spring break to transition to distance learning.

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), said it was a challenge to help 4,500 students, many of whom had never experienced online learning, to become familiar with all the technology, software, and scheduling. At the same time, many students were losing their jobs — for example, in restaurants and hospitality — and exacerbating issues of food and housing insecurity among lower-income students.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that,” she said, adding that HCC has hooked students up with Chromebooks and other equipment as needed. “I’ve done several town-hall meetings with faculty and staff, and meetings with students, to answer their questions and validate their feelings and acknowledge the uncertainty they’re feeling.”

Dumay was similarly thankful for the spring-break cushion that gave professors extra time to adapt their courses to the online environment.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that.”

“The faculty were amazing, and they turned it around,” he said. “The courses are being delivered in different ways — some are using live Zoom sessions, some are using asynchronous Zoom sessions, and some used narrated PowerPoint delivery that students can access on their own time.”

Elms recently reached out to all students to poll them on how classes were going, and 30% responded, Dumay said. Of those, the vast majority said they had what they needed to continue their learning online, while about 2.5% reported difficulty with Internet access. In response, Elms is keeping its library open for that reason — with social-distancing measures in place, of course.

“More than 86% feel confident being successful in the online environment; some students said this is a lot more work,” Dumay said, conceding that in-person learning is preferable in most cases, and for myriad reasons. “Elms is a lot more than being academically successful. Part of the value proposition for Elms College is its small, very intimate environment that emphasizes growth of the whole person — the spiritual component, the psychosocial component.”

Trying to replicate that online is difficult, Dumay said, but the college is doing what it can to build an online community where students can connect with each other and access the campus resources they need.

Perhaps no institution in the region was more prepared for the online transition than Bay Path, which has been offering its graduate programs almost entirely online since 2006, and its undergraduate American Women’s College is totally online as well. Leary feels like that’s a path forward to help all students afford an education.

“There will always be people who can afford institutions like Harvard and Princeton and Yale, but the majority of Americans can’t afford that type of education,” she said. “That’s why we’ve created a very low-cost model in the American Women’s College, putting together a well-crafted curriculum and a model that supports students, so very few will fall through the cracks.”

For now, she added, the percentage of classes that will continue online is up in the air.

“Most of us are thinking that summer school will be online, and then then we start looking at the fall. Even if social distancing is lifted, we don’t know what the impact on the college will be — on the residence halls, the classrooms, the dining rooms. As we look to the fall, we’ll be prepared to open, and we’ll also be prepared to go online. We have to be nimble.”

Profit and Loss

Leaders of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts have kept in touch about when they might open campuses up, and even then, under what kind of social-distancing parameters, Royal said. As for summer programs, HCC’s first session has already been moved fully online, but because a handful of second-session classes will be more difficult to deliver remotely, that decision is in limbo — not to mention what will happen in the fall.

Christina Royal says many students are dealing

Christina Royal says many students are dealing with not just a shift to online classes, but job loss and food and housing insecurity.

“It’s hard to say definitively what the situation will be in September or October,” she told BusinessWest. “What I’m trying to do is position us so that, whatever the situation, we can pivot on very short notice, and respond even faster than we did this time around, because all the parameters are in place to do so.”

Cook said STCC is currently modeling enrollment projections and working with trustees on a budget that takes into consideration a possible enrollment hit. He noted, however, that community colleges in Massachusetts tend to do well during economic downturns.

Royal noted that trend as well. “We run counter-cyclical to the economy. When the economy starts to go down, people start thinking, ‘what do I need to retool myself, and how can I prepare for a career change?’ — and our enrollment goes up.”

She noted the trend becomes noticeable about 12 months after a recession begins, and, indeed, 2010 — the height of the Great Recession, which began in late 2008 — was HCC’s most recent enrollment peak; as the economy has improved, enrollment has steadily declined.

The question, both she and Cook said, is whether the same rules apply in the current environment, which is not a slow-building recession, but a full-stop economic shutdown that could, in turn, lead to an extended economic lull.

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment,” Royal said. “It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

One wild card in the mix is what she called the “emotional recovery” from what’s happening now. “People have been jarred to their core; they’re concerned about their own safety and concerned about engaging in the world.”

That said, HCC was already planning for a 5% enrollment reduction this fall — largely due to demographic trends — but is now thinking in terms of 10%. “We have to plan for that contingency, and we have to deliver a balanced budget to the trustees. So that’s what we’re looking at.”

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment. It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

If enrollment does decline by 15% nationally, that represents a $23 billion revenue loss for colleges — money that will be only partly offset by government relief funds. For example, more than 80 colleges and universities in Massachusetts will collectively receive more than $270 million as part of a federal relief package intended to help schools and students during the pandemic. UMass Amherst tops that list with an estimated $18.3 million in aid. Nationally, the Higher Education Relief Fund allocated $12.5 billion to 5,125 colleges and universities.

Collectively, the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts will receive $48.8 million in aid — certainly a help, but not enough to ease enrollment concerns going forward. Cook agreed with Royal that community colleges shouldn’t assume the sort of enrollment bump they usually see during recessions, even though they offer a more affordable model than private, residential colleges.

“This isn’t like any economic downturn the nation has ever experienced in the past, even the Great Recession,” he said. “Because of the public-health impact on people’s lives, it’s hard to assume enrollment will be up in the near future. People are dealing with so much else in their lives, they’re not able to turn their attention to education and workforce development.”

Future Shock

If there’s a positive lesson from the pandemic to bring into the future, Royal said, it’s the massive potential of technology to streamline education and make it more affordable and accessible.

“What’s happening now isn’t online learning; it’s emergency remote learning. I don’t want people to think that someone having to pivot and put together course materials with one or two weeks notice to deliver for the second half of the semester is the bar of online learning,” said Royal, who has a Ph.D. in instructional design and spent years heading up distance learning for a large community college in Ohio.

“I think of the potential for more innovative learning designs, highly interactive simulation labs augmented in virtual reality — those are more sophisticated than what we see in online courses now,” she added. “I believe the promise of online learning will be realized someday, but that’s going to require more inclusion and investment and professional development to really expose our educators to the possibilities.”

Some good can come out of every crisis, Leary said, citing in particular the rise of telemedicine, which will likely get a permanent boost from the COVID-19 crisis, as well as companies learning the value of remote work, lower emissions generating cleaner air in cities right now, and, yes, a greater focus on how to not only teach students remotely, but do it better.

Another takeaway, Royal said, might be a new focus on process improvement that extends well beyond remote learning. “If something takes six steps but we’ve learned how to do it in three, why are we going back to six? So, when we open our doors again, we’ll be looking at how we can streamline processes — and how to offer more virtual services in general.”

She’s not speaking about classes here; rather, it’s the routine business of paying bills, getting forms signed, and other administrative functions. “They might want to do that remotely, at 8 in the evening, at their computer, while they’re thinking about it. So, I see a lot of room for process improvement and streamlining student services overall.”

STCC is also learning it can offer value through streamlining its admissions, enrollment, and financial-aid operations online, “to make it more seamless for our students to work through the experience of getting into college and staying with the college,” Cook said — even while continuing to promote the face-to-face value of its campus advising center.

Meanwhile, through the online transition, “we’ve learned that we can move pretty quickly,” Cook said. “Sometimes higher education gets painted as slow to respond, slow to adapt, but we’ve demonstrated that we can move quickly and with a degree of grace when we need to.”

Dumay said lessons learned from the COVID-19 shutdown might change college life in America in ways both good and bad. On the positive side, while online learning can’t replicate the important interpersonal development built by campus life, going online has demonstrated there is a bigger place than college leaders might have imagined for remote programs.

“This will alleviate a lot of the fears people have about the efficacy of online learning. They’ll realize they can do it where it works, so we can have a lot more learning in the online environment,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean education will move completely online. The residential experience is a rite of passage for the growth of a lot of American youth. It would be a loss if we didn’t return to that at some point in the future.”

More worrisome, Dumay said, is the potential this crisis has to shut down many schools completely.

“It may be that some don’t make it and close their doors,” he said, noting that the most vulnerable colleges include many that serve lower-income, first-generation students, often students of color. “If higher education became less accessible, that would be an unfortunate casualty of this pandemic.”

Grade: Incomplete

The presidents who spoke with BusinessWest had a lot to say — much, much more than could fit in this story — but, while their comments were insightful, they were in many cases less than definitive. After all, it’s hard to speak definitively about a pandemic — and an economic shutdown — that offer no sure timeline.

“Within our student body and our employees, people are really hoping for clarity — that’s the element in short supply right now,” Cook said. “As we continue to work with these health guidelines, as we flatten the curve and pay attention to social distancing, when and how will that allow us to get back to some version of where our value lies — leveraging on-campus resources like labs and simulation?

“No one knows when we’ll get back to leveraging those resources,” he added, “but there’s still a lot of hope around that — and worry, because those are incredible resources for our students.”

In short, it’s impossible to deliver all the value a college offers over a computer screen, from miles away. In the meantime, everyone is learning valuable lessons — which is, after all, the point of higher education.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]