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How Will We Work?

By Dr. Peter Hirst

MIT is among the thousands of universities in the U.S. and worldwide that shifted their teaching and learning to online. While tech savvy and level of comfort with distance learning vary widely from department to department, we all are facing major disruptions in the way we work now. And we all are trying to remain productive and motivated.

While MIT Sloan Executive Education faculty and staff have plenty of experience in different formats of online learning, prior to COVID-19, two-thirds of our open-enrollment programs and the majority of our custom engagements were delivered face to face in classrooms on the MIT campus. Add to that the fact that everyone who could has been working from home, with all the logistical challenges that entails. We believe that sharing lessons learned, even if not fully processed yet, can continue to be helpful for us all and is very much in the spirit of UNICON.

Adjusting to market demand

Our thinking at the beginning of the pandemic was that if we had any executive education customers who wished to keep learning, we would keep teaching. Many of our classroom-based programs are offered several times a year, so we made the decision to move those scheduled in the near future to a “live online” format. In most of the short executive education programs we offered in March and April, 10-12 of learners enrolled switched to the live online format (enough to make them pedagogically viable), and most courses managed to capture a few new participants as well. In some cases, we had up to 30 participants live online, and they mostly reported that they found the experience engaging and valuable. We were able to run about a quarter of the open enrollment programs that we had originally scheduled for March and April. Based on the overall success of this experience (for ourselves and our customers!), we decided to run almost all of our June and July programs live online as well. And, like most other schools, the fall is going to be more of the same.

Meeting people’s needs

We understand that people’s attention—and, frankly, their ability to actively participate in yet another video call—is at a premium, and we have been adapting our deliveries to meet these challenges and to fit within the narrowing attention spans. We also are keenly aware that, sadly, many people right now face immediate individual career and/or business challenges like never before, are hungry for new (and not so new!) ideas that can help, and yet have even less time or available budgets for learning and development. So, in parallel with moving existing programs online en masse, we increased the frequency of our popular and free Innovation@Work webinars from quarterly to weekly. Our amazing faculty colleagues and the Executive Education team have really stepped up to this challenge. They were also very thoughtful about the realities of time scarcity everyone is facing with all the multitasking that comes (for most of us) from being stuck at home. Since we launched our 30-minute “express” webinar format in April, we are pleased to see this becoming a new standard. Another innovation in our new webinar format, with a focus on accessibility and inclusion, is the addition of real-time closed captioning.

Keeping the lights on

At a crazy time like this, rather than completely hunkering down, we think that it’s vital for us to keep going, and, along the way, keep building skills and capabilities that give us the experience of doing this. It was important to remember that this was not a “staycation.” People who were of that mindset might be having a much harder time re-entering the world of work as the immediate crisis eases. By continuing our executive education operations, all of us are doing our part in keeping the economy moving, even if at a somewhat slower pace. More important, we are remaining prepared to thrive in our new economic reality.

Setting new business standards

Human beings do get used to things—that’s arguably one of the secrets of our success as a species. In the coming months, we will at times be in crisis mode due to economic upheavals, family disruptions, social-distancing lockdowns, and the realities of the pandemic itself. In less dire moments, we will prove our collective ability to adjust. And, I believe we will raise our expectations of how effectively organizations and institutions will leverage technology. In other words, we are not going back to business as usual anytime soon.

Remaining flexible

For our team at MIT Sloan Executive Education, working from home, on the road, or outside our office space on campus has been the norm for several years now. Our flexible work guidelines were intentional and systematic, and everyone adjusted to them to fit their needs and preferences. Of course, we find ourselves now in more complex circumstances, as people’s partners and children are also working or studying from home. Those who live alone, on the other hand, are adjusting to the impacts on their colleagues and clients and may be struggling with the effects of social isolation. With that in mind, we all are doing our best to cut each other some slack, to treat an occasional interruption by a child or a pet as a welcome moment of levity— or as much needed tech support if that child happens to be a tech-savvy teenager! 

Prioritizing empathy, humanity, and good will

In any time of crisis, keeping busy can provide some insulation from fear, worry, and anxiety. Especially in societies that prize work above other aspects of human experience, it can be tempting to focus all attention on getting work done at the expense of neglecting our humanity. I believe that now more than ever, it is important for all of us to be our best human selves so that we can continue being successful professionally and personally in the post-pandemic future.

So, how will we work? After the worst is behind us, will we bounce back to what we know, or will we adjust permanently to new ways of working and living? What we are discovering about organizations and how we are getting work done now may very well determine how we will work in the future. Above all, one thing we are learning from this experience is that we need to work together to solve this and other great challenges of our time.