On Thursday April 12, the SYL office was holding sector meetings on social policy and communications. It was then that the severity of the coronavirus pandemic became evident in Finland, as well. Some of the people who had taken part in the sector meetings returned to their home towns just the next morning. I also had a suitcase with me at the office that Friday, because I was supposed to go to Kuopio for the annual celebrations of the Student Union of the University of Eastern Finland. The event was cancelled the very same afternoon. On Friday we headed out for an after-work drink to digest the news and realized that this might be the last time we could drink beer at a bar like this for a while. And that turned out to be the case.
The coronavirus brought with it two new matters that required support from management: on the one hand, it was critical to support personnel and board members in remote working, but crisis management and crisis communications with students on the effects of the pandemic also became part of our agenda. We immediately switched to remote working with the SYL office’s personnel in mid-March, and at the same time, concerned students needed support from those representing their interests.
The first two weeks of remote working were somewhat chaotic. As Secretary-General, I immediately realized that it was crucial to make sure that people were coping with the situation. The available information was limited, but there was a whole bunch of questions and people who had them from many different perspectives.
At that time, I read on social media that during a state of emergency and after switching to remote working, management staff definitely do not have time to “finally tackle their to-do-list”. Instead, such a situation requires that you concentrate on supporting the rest of the work community. This was an important message for me. During the first few weeks, I had a weekly conversation with each employee and asked them how they were doing. We rearranged our weekly routine to better suit remote working and developed our internal communications to stay on track of each other’s work and current issues. Nevertheless, I am sure that every single one us needed the break that came with the Easter holidays.
During such exceptional times, peer support and tips are priceless. I went through our successes and failures together with other student associations’ secretaries general and executive directors. We also discussed what were good practices in supporting remote working. I got tips on organizing joint coffee breaks and other meetings and developing internal communication.
We at SYL openly shared our feelings on remote working. By setting my own example, I try to create a working environment where it is okay to say if you cannot get on with your work some days. Motivation and coping while working remotely seemed to vary quite a lot on the individual level among staff, so I was not alone with these feelings. What is important to understand about working remotely is that there is no need to be ashamed if the job you love does not motivate you in quite the same way when it no longer includes spontaneous conversations and encounters with other people.
Tips from experience for leadership while operating under exceptional circumstances and while working remotely:
- Clean up your desktop and concentrate on supporting and managing the rest of the work community.
- Get peer support or external support.
- Be flexible and agile. Change your routines, move your assignments for later and prioritize crisis management.
- Lead by setting an example: share your own feelings, participate in coffee breaks and be present.
- Cheer up and reward others. Simple things like saying thanks and paying attention to others will help to maintain a positive atmosphere!
I am extremely proud of our employees and board members. They have been patient and understanding towards the management, and also flexible and ambitious in their own assignments. We have worked hard this spring to secure the well-being, livelihood and studies of university students. All of that work may not be visible from the outside, but after surveying the contributions of every union employee, I can wholeheartedly tell you that the best interest of students has been on our minds day and night.