Aarhus BSS

Managing at a distance

The coronavirus crisis and the physical lockdown had a huge impact on the everyday life of employees and management. Now the university is slowly reopening, but what has it actually been like managing a large department at a distance? Here, Head of Department Niels Haldrup (ECON) shares his experiences.

Niels Haldrup
Niels Haldrup in his office at home. Photo: Private

How would you describe the last few months?

First of all, I would say that management-wise we have had a lot to do. We have had to solve many new tasks in an unfamiliar territory on top of all our other projects at the department. We have been busy, and I am grateful for the great effort shown by the entire management team.

I am also deeply impressed by how quickly the employees adapted to the new situation and the transition to virtual teaching and exams. They have done an incredible job under difficult circumstances.

How do you remember 11 March when we were told that Denmark was shutting down?

Just before the prime minister’s press conference, I was actually corresponding with a number of worried employees.

Many employees were uneasy about the coronavirus situation, which was already affecting our everyday life, e.g. in terms of how the ban on large gatherings would affect our teaching activities etc. We were in the middle of finding out what to do. With the prime minister’s announcement we got some sort of clarification. However, of course it also opened up for many new discussions and decisions we had to make.

When AU closed down, you suddenly had to manage more than 270 people from a distance. How do you do that?

Many things are possible by means of virtual meetings and by the delegation of tasks, which is already inherent in the structure of our department. I have a number of centre and section managers, who have had the close day-to-day contact with the employees in the sections. We have been very careful not to let anyone slip through the cracks. This also very much applies to our more “vulnerable” staff groups, e.g. our PhD students, non-permanent employees and our many new employees. It is not easy to start a new job - perhaps in a whole new country - without being able to meet your colleagues face-to-face.

On management level, the department management team has held lots of weekly meetings of varying length. The scheduled meetings in the local liaison committee and the departmental forum have also taken place as planned. In my experience, virtual meetings work best when there is a limited number of participants; it is easier to decode opinions and attitudes when you can look each other in the eye.

As head of department, I have tried to communicate on an ongoing basis and to be visible in connection with announcements. I have regularly sent out newsletters and informative emails where I have dealt with some of the issues at hand. I have also tried to offer moral support to the employees in terms of any uncertainties they might have had. We have gathered all relevant communication and department-specific information on the department’s own coronavirus webpage, where we also link to the coronavirus pages of AU and Aarhus BSS.

It must have been difficult to communicate in a time where things were constantly evolving?

It is not easy to communicate and manage a crisis when the conditions change all the time and when you have no foundation of experiences to consolidate the process. For that reason, it was important to coordinate all principle decisions and the subsequent communication across the school. This was also the reason for establishing the Aarhus BSS task force.

As a school and as a department, we are of course always dependant on the decisions made politically and at AU level. During the lockdown, we were dealing with highly complex decisions that have had a huge impact on a lot of people. Students as well as employees. At the same time, things have been developing at great speed, so communicating rapidly while ensuring the necessary coordination can be a challenge. It is all about finding the right balance.

What has been the greatest challenge for you during the lockdown?

For me, it has been not knowing how long the situation would last. I think this a natural human reaction. If we had known the end-date from the start, it might have been easier to handle. The premises for many decisions changed along the way. This particularly applies to our students, who have also been and are still in a difficult and unusual situation.

Now we have reopened many of our activities, but we are still not completely sure of how to organise the start of the new semester and how we can prepare for it. What is allowed and what is not?

I believe that the start of the new semester should be our top priority. Getting a good start to your studies lays the foundation for a sense of community and of being a student, and this is the prerequisite of good learning. There are still lots of uncertainties in terms of the autumn semester and how to plan the courses. And what do we do if there is a second wave of coronavirus? At least, we have now gathered some experiences.

What can we learn from the last two months?

We should definitely draw on the experiences we have made in terms of using digital tools in the teaching. There are pros and cons. We have really had to be innovative and at a very rapid pace, but many people have probably become aware of the many possibilities offered by virtual teaching tools.

It would make good sense to draw on these digital possibilities in our way of working in the future - e.g. by using blended learning where we combine virtual and traditional teaching. This might even solve some of our other challenges such as limited room and lecture theatre facilities - and it could also improve the timetables for students as well as for staff.

What have you missed the most during the lockdown?

  Definitely seeing my colleagues and meeting people informally in the hallways of the different sections and by the coffee machine. Not having to always see each other through a screen, but meeting people face to face. This is something I really look forward to coming back to.