Home Office During the COVID-19 Pandemic – a Driver for Digital Change?

31 Mar 2020 | Published by Line M. Sørsdal and Karolina Półtorak

Illustration: Colourbox

The coronavirus is spreading rapidly around the world with unexpected challenges for how we live, work and interact. Many public and private institutions in Europe have been locked down, including the Norwegian universities which were closed on the 12th of March. As a result, approximately 17000 students and almost 4000 employees of the University of Bergen (UiB) were told to work remotely and digitally on their assignments, teaching, exams and research projects, which is a historic event and a situation that none of us had ever experienced before.

The first two weeks of remote home office at the University have included many challenges, but overall both students and employees have shown willingness and skills to adapt to become a digital university. According to the head of administration at the Department of Administration and Organization Theory – Charlotte Lillefjære-Tertnæs, the biggest challenge during the first week of the lockdown was the capacity of the digital solutions themselves:

The biggest challenge was not, as we might have though, people’s digital competence, nor the lack of technical equipment – that was resolved fairly quickly (…). What proved to be the biggest challenge was the enormous increase of users which caused some programmes to experience frequent downtime, errors or login issues.

All UiB students were already required to have personal computers or laptops at their disposal and were, as such, not dependent on university computer rooms or being physically present on campus. Programs for online teaching and webinars can be downloaded from the university website, and, although there have been some challenges in making sure that all our licenses were renewed and fitted for the increase in number of users over the last weeks, the applications are available. The number of digital users at home also created challenges with heavily increased traffic on servers and the Internet becoming a stress test for different networks. The current situation also demonstrated that our remote teaching and administrative systems were not sufficiently scaled up to allow everyone to be on at the same time. This shows how dependent we are on the digital platforms in our daily work, and how vulnerable they can be when circumstances change and capacity is low. As described by Lillefjære-Tertnæs:

When the Wi-Fi is down, there is no other door into the virtual meeting room.

In the first two weeks of the university lockdown, working from home has not only created digital, but also social or human challenges. The new “home office reality” involves balancing family life, finding the space, flexibility and concentration to work, reducing interruptions or accommodating the need to also step in to help with home-schooling. However, the university employees have, as described by Lillefjære-Tertnæs, managed to find ways to adapt:

There has been a wide variety of approaches to this new online working, teaching and supervision reality, people have chosen the strategy they felt most comfortable with, but at the same time so many have surprised me by showing a digital competence I never thought they had. This crisis has surely given us a head start into a more digital university.

Part of the explanation as to why UiB employees were able to switch to remote office and online teaching in such a short time is that several digital solutions were in place prior to the crisis. Physical office phones had been replaced by Skype for Business, enabling access to “office phone” and video meetings regardless of the geographical location. Programs like Office365, including Microsoft Teams, were already being used by some employees, which facilitated co-working with cloud-based tools. New applications for managing online lectures and meetings were, however, also introduced after the lockdown, which required adaptation for the employees – from installing programs, taking online tutorials to sharing technical know-how with colleagues and students. We now use daily a number of digital tools and programs like Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom and other apps which many of us had not even heard of before the pandemic.

Another learning point from working digitally from home is that community really matters. Taking the UiB as an example, physical distancing and isolation does not necessarily equal social distancing and exclusion. The crisis situation has instead created a need to interact with colleagues more often, precisely because most employees are working from different home locations. This has inspired a number of new social activities – e.g. organising digital lunches, creating support groups on how to efficiently work from home, sharing photos of home offices via common hashtags on social media, and many more activities that would not be possible without ICT tools.

The ongoing pandemic does not only impact global health, politics and economy, but also affects daily lives of many Europeans. Our routines and ways of working change. The unexpected circumstances have shown the importance of adapting by developing digital skills and tools. The recent weeks have also highlighted the importance of TROPICO research questions such as how digital tools influence our way of working and collaborating, and how digital solutions are being used by the governments to communicate, collect and control citizens behaviour. In this rapidly changing world, the use of digital solutions over the last weeks has for many moved from being new and challenging to becoming a natural part of the way we work.