3 ways to engage staff with excess capacity during coronavirus

Expert Insight

3 ways to engage staff with excess capacity during coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended university operations and workflows. On the one hand, new demands have left some teams—like instructional support staff—scrambling to keep up. On the other, campus closures and state-issued stay-at-home orders have created excess capacity for campus employees no longer able to perform their duties. EAB has identified three ways that institutions can redeploy staff whose workloads have declined during coronavirus.

1. Temporarily redeploy staff to critical need areas during coronavirus

First, institutional leaders should identify priority functions or projects that may require additional staff support, like remote learning infrastructure, financial aid, janitorial, or academic medical center operations. Every institution’s ability to redeploy staff to these areas will vary in accordance with collective bargaining agreements, certification and training needs, and stay-at-home orders, but every institution likely has some obvious opportunities. For example, New York University redeployed IT staff from across campus to help the instructional technology office provide technical support to instructors. Similarly, the University of Michigan redeployed public safety and security staff from multiple campuses to assist with screening at their medical center in Ann Arbor.

Of course, not all areas needing additional support will be as obvious as those tied directly to the initial crisis response. For example, admissions and student services teams may need to increase outreach to support current and prospective students through the crisis (and advance retention and recruitment goals). To create additional capacity for outreach, one regional public university redeployed 100 staff members to a dedicated call center. These staff contacted over 14,000 undergrads to hear how they were coping with the abrupt pivot to remote instruction and identify resources that might improve their outcomes and likelihood of retention. 

Surely, unit leaders play an important role in identifying staff who could be redeployed, but they will not have a full understanding of critical staffing needs outside their purview. So central HR teams should consider developing a comprehensive staff redeployment process to collect information on staffing needs and capacity across campus, and quickly match available staff to demand areas.

To facilitate this, UCLA Health developed online staffing request and redeployment availability forms for managers. HR reviews requests within 24 hours and sends a daily email with details about open positions to staff available for redeployment. Similarly, the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Job Matching Exchange Program allows full- and part-time staff to report their skills, experience, and knowledge through Google Forms. HR then uses the information to match employees with specific projects, short-term assignments, or a different role that supports the current operational needs of the institution.

2. Identify creative ways for staff to provide new value-add services

Certainly, not all staff will have the skills or certifications needed to be redeployed to critical areas during coronavirus. Many managers will need to identify alternative ways to keep their newly remote workforce busy, engaged, and contributing to larger strategic goals.

The University of Pittsburgh has created a framework to help managers identify potential new tasks for staff, detailed in the graphic below. The framework prompts managers to think outside the box to keep staff operating at 100% capacity.

Tools and tips for motivating remote staff and maintaining productivity


Engage in strategic long-term planning

  • Updating budgets, timelines, risk plans, and other planning documents
  • Establishing updated metrics and goals for tracking progress against key initiatives
  • Reading university- and unit-level strategic plans and communications to align future activities with institutional needs

Think BACK

Examine data on previous initiatives

  • Reviewing existing data to determine if projects are meeting objectives
  • Collecting new data using survey tools
  • Reflecting on recent efforts with your team

Think DEEP

Take a deep dive into systems currently in place

  • Organizing and cleaning folders, drives, and other document storage systems
  • Catching up on data entry and other backlogs; cleaning data and labels in databases
  • For essential personnel, working through repair request backlog
  • Defining and employing consistent labeling conventions


Brainstorm ways your team’s work can impact others

  • Offering specialty or administrative services to units touched by your work
  • Staying informed of university, local, regional, and national news to keep efforts aligned with changing needs and protocols
  • Keeping in touch with other managers to compare notes on what’s working

3. Provide staff with structured upskilling opportunities

Managers can take advantage of downtime created by COVID-19 to invest in staff professional development. Many institutions have expanded access to e-learning resources like LinkedIn Learning and Coursera. Northwestern University has taken their investment in professional development a step further. Their HR team has created a one-stop-shop with training resources from multiple online learning platforms, organized by topic.

Training topics span compliance, technology, leadership development, specialty skill development (e.g., sales, project management), and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Additionally, Northwestern’s portal provides managers with individual and team learning plan templates to help structure activities and create accountability. Here at EAB, we’ve opened access to our Higher Education Professional Development Resource Center to help managers identify higher ed-specific training tools for their teams. In this center, we’ve curated our most popular on-demand webconferences on dozens of topics, from budgeting and planning to student mental health and well-being. Reach out to us if we can help create a learning plan for your team.

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