Adaptive Work in Research Administration During COVID-19: Part 1
Adaptive leadership is defined as leading change in a time when both the problem and the solution are unsettled, and new learning is required by everyone on the team.1 An adaptive challenge often requires everyone on the team to change daily activities, workplace strategies, and professional preconceptions in order to adapt, survive, and thrive in a changing world.2 Does that situation sound familiar? The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) represents perhaps the largest global adaptive challenge humanity has faced in the last century. Many have speculated that COVID-19 has fundamentally transformed the way in which we live and work, forever reshaping the traditional office.
Adaptive leaders perceive that they are supporting and encouraging major shifts in the workplace status quo, ultimately leading to an unknown and uncertain future.3 Over the last year, the research administration workplace, federal and state education funding, and scientific funding have shifted wildly. This has forced us to consider every aspect of our individual and professional lives. It is frightening, confusing, and exhausting to adjust and respond to each new challenge month after month as the saga of COVID-19 continues to unfold. In research administration specifically, tough decisions were made about which services to provide, how to provide them, and who provides them.
Here is an overview of common elements of adaptive work such as adaptive challenge, demand for learning, responsibility shifts, cultural theories, and the timeframe of adaptive change within the context of the research administration profession during COVID-19.
Adaptive Challenge: Learning, Stakeholders, and Experimentation
During an adaptive challenge, it becomes necessary to note the difference between technical and adaptive work. Technical work can be solved by a calculator, a textbook, or your subject matter expert. Adaptive work is more complex and ambiguous. It requires new learning and stakeholder connections, rather than existing methodology or authority.2 Adaptive work also requires experimentation and smart risk-taking, rather than the execution of current policy, to see positive results.2 The first step in approaching an adaptive challenge is recognizing the gap between the desired state and the current state. During COVID-19, for most of us, the desired state was a discussion on adaptive work regarding which services to provide, how to provide them, and who provides them.
Demand for Learning: Retooling the Way We Think and Operate
During an adaptive challenge, people themselves often become a problem. Suddenly, our daily activities, our go-to workplace strategies, and all our professional preconceptions have drastically changed. In order to adapt, survive and thrive in a changing world, we must retool the way we think and operate as professionals. During COVID-19, working from home and communicating via video-conferencing platforms quickly became the norm. Teams had to learn how to think and communicate in this new virtual world. For many, there was a steep and continuous learning curve in order to continue to meet demand and reach the desired state.
Responsibility: Shift from Few Authority to Many Stakeholders
Often within adaptive work, the responsibility shifts from a few key leaders to the employees, faculty, staff, and students within the scope of work. Employees are mobilized and emboldened to take on new responsibilities with little oversight, often moving beyond expectations and traditional authority.2 During COVID-19, the shift to remote working standards brought new employee freedoms to the workday and shifted traditional oversight authority from authority figures to stakeholders themselves. Research Administrators around the world became deeply engaged with workplace issues and personal problems of loss, competence, and flexibility that were embedded within the current pandemic.2 Employees were mobilized in new ways and found a different way of taking responsibility in an extensive and widespread manner.
This year we found ourselves leading change in a time when both the problem and the solution are unsettled. During COVID-19, difficult discussions regarding which services to provide, how to provide them, and who provides them became a monthly, if not weekly, occurrence as teams learned how to communicate in this new virtual world. This is the first part of a two-part article aimed at describing the common elements of adaptive work. We will continue the conversation in Part II to discuss cultural theories and the timeframe of adaptive change within the context of the research administration profession during COVID-19.
- Guillaume-Koene, E. Six Principles for Leading Adaptive Work. The Network https://network.crcna.org/classis/six-principles-leading-adaptive-work (2016).
- Heifetz, R. A. Adaptive Work. Demos Collection 19, 68–78 (2003).
- Waetzig, E. Adaptive Leadership in the Time of COVID-19. Change Matrix https://changematrix.org/adaptive-leadership-in-the-time-of-covid-19/ (2020).
- Masters, R. Nature of Politics. (Yale University Press, 1989).
Authored by Holly R. Zink, Project Development and Education Manager
Children’s Mercy Hospital