As leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has presented us all with unexpected challenges. Facing these unprecedented circumstances head-on has led to many stories of great leadership across all industries and sectors in Nelson, Tasman, and Marlborough. Our ‘Leading Through COVID-19’ interview series is designed to inspire and support a sense of togetherness as our region moves through and beyond this challenge.
In this interview, we talk to Liam Sloan, Chief Executive of NMIT. Liam shares how coronavirus and the lockdown have impacted NMIT, how they are keeping their people engaged and connected while working from home, and what might change for the organisation in the future.
How has COVID-19 affected your business overall?
Interestingly, COVID-19 has had both positive and negative impacts on NMIT. It’s very easy to focus on the negative and just as important to focus on the positives. Here’s my take on both aspects:
COVID-19 has made us review our way of working. We have always embraced online learning but never considered ourselves as an online learning institute prior to COVID-19. However, we have built confidence and capability to enable Team NMIT to work remotely and most importantly to facilitate excellent learning online.
To make sure we achieved that goal, NMIT has had to invest in even more technology to enable effective delivery.
Strangely enough, using technology has actually brought the team closer together to some degree as we communicate far more and that communication has had to be more relaxed than usual as people cope with a “bubble” scenario that often includes children and extended whānau. It has facilitated a greater level of connection.
Our learners didn’t sign up to an online learning environment and often they chose NMIT for the hands-on learning experience and support we provide. It hasn’t been possible for us to deliver in that way during the lockdown. When we are able, we are committed to supporting our students to catch up on lost time.
Lockdown isolation can have an impact on stress and anxiety levels and equally the lockdown juggle dealing with whānau, homeschooling and working can have the same impact. Every organisation has team members in each of these categories and it’s important to be aware of the impact each scenario can have on an individual.
COVID-19 will also have a significant impact on our financial situation, and it was not something that could have been planned for. This isn’t a normal downturn or reduction in student numbers that should be factored into financial planning as a matter of course. This is a massive and unexpected hit. NMIT could potentially lose between $1.2M and $1.5M in income from international and local students but will embrace opportunities to explore other income generation opportunities.
As a leader, what has been key in keeping your team engaged?
Communication. It has been at the heart of everything and is key. This is a situation where you can never over-communicate. We were lucky that we had strong existing internal communication channels that are accessible via the intra/internet. We use an intranet system called Polly and we encourage all team members to use this as the “one source of truth”. If it’s not on Polly, then it’s not verified information. We also make sure that all messaging delivered through Polly is simple and direct.
We very quickly developed a COVID-19 platform on the intranet – it’s the one-stop-shop for up to date info.
We use a range of channels to help deliver messaging so that delivery doesn’t become stale. I record a weekly vlog that is available on the intranet and it means the team can hear messaging directly from me. This also helps maintain a visual connection. Given that we are all in lockdown it’s also recorded at home so the team can see we are all in the same boat – this also makes the communication feel a bit more informal and friendly.
Our weekly eNewsletter is also being delivered to the team’s inbox. This provides a run down and summary of the week’s activities with hyper taking readers directly to key articles of their choice.
Like everyone else, I have been living my life in a virtual world and zooming and skyping are part of my daily activity schedule. We are using Zoom for team meetings and have had up to 160 team members on a single zoom session. It really helps to maintain that physical connection. I hold my manager’s meetings via skype. I’m not sure I would go back to holding nonvisual teleconferences as the ability to see peoples faces and response gives an insight into how they are feeling. You don’t always get that feedback from a phone call.
We have tried to keep up the social connection between the team so that we don’t lose that incredibly important aspect. We have held bingo nights and had Friday night virtual drinks all via zoom. We have also tried to come up with fun activities like weekly cooking slots and photo competitions. There has certainly been a willingness to participate in these sessions – perhaps more so than usual as people look for ways to maintain that physical human connection.
I have also tried to ensure that we continue with our culture of celebrating success despite the fact that we are separated by distance. We have continued with routines like Chocolate Fish nominations and acknowledging people who go the extra mile. It would have been easy to let those things slip. If they do slip, I think it raises questions about how committed you were to acknowledging success in the first place and also it’s very hard to go back to these activities when we do get back together.
We have also rolled out a Pulse survey during lockdown to check on the team’s wellbeing. Where issues are identified we have been able to follow up and close the loop.
Any learnings or advice you can pass on to other leaders?
It is essential to collaborate with others wherever possible. No one person can take this kind of challenge on by themselves – it’s not something that any of us could have foreseen or anticipated so my motto would be share the love and the workload. There’s no point in everyone doing the same job and duplicating work.
Engage your team when making decisions – big or small. It is easy to make decisions on your own when you’re working remotely and forget the need to consult and engage but this is a prime opportunity to delegate and share decision making to improve engagement. Hopefully, some of these habits will continue into the future so we actually come out of this situation with new leadership learnings that work well when we are back on campus.
It is also important to look after your own personal health. I have made a real effort to make sure that I get out for walks and take time away from my desk. When you are working at home it’s too easy to just slip into the habit of working 24/7 because the laptop is open on the kitchen table. You have to have as much discipline about not working all day as you do about retaining focus on work.
Have you been able to identify any opportunities for your business as a result?
NMIT will definitely look at how we use technology on an ongoing basis to keep the best parts of remote working and technology use. This will mean we can best use campus space and office space. Without being thrust into lockdown it may have taken us all a lot longer to get to the point where we could undertake this alignment.
Unfortunately, Te Tau Ihu have seen some redundancies, thankfully none of them at NMIT. At this time we have been able to offer re-training opportunities to individuals in that situation. We are working with employers to ensure we are able to support the region in relation to training needs.
We have also been working nationally on the development of microcredentials. Micro learning builds slivers of knowledge about process and systems as opposed to ensuring credential accreditation. This knowledge helps learners feel supported and comfortable with “having a go”. On the wider learning spectrum, micro learning delivers short, sharp and useful information and knowledge about one specific aspect of a much larger and complex process. Going forward this is going to play a huge part in the way we offer training and the way learners choose to learn.
Any thoughts on what will change for your business as a result of this disruptor?
- I think we all now know that being on-site isn’t a necessity for delivering great outcomes. We will definitely be looking at our remote working policy so we can take out the best bits that have evolved over the past two months.
- I anticipate we will reduce our carbon footprint by engaging more in digital meetings rather than travelling.
- We will continue to prioritise the development of online learning which can be part of a blended learning programme of study.
- We will be able to further demonstrate our ability to respond to and meet the needs of people across our region.
Enjoyed this interview? Read more from our Leading Through COVID-19 interview series here.