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Adaptive Work in Research Administration During COVID-19: Part 2

By SRAI News posted 05-12-2021 09:49 AM


Adaptive Work in Research Administration During COVID-19: Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part article aimed at describing the 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. Read Part 1 here.

Cultural Theory: The Essential and the Expendable
An adaptive challenge often forces people "to distinguish between what is precious and essential and what is expendable within their culture."2 The words Essential Employee have taken on a new and dynamic definition over the last year. During this crisis, research administrators have struggled to take the best from our profession's history, leave behind what is no longer serviceable, and learn new ways to innovate and thrive in this new environment. Adaptive work is a partnership between conservation and progression. We struggle with the loss of competence during technology shifts, loss of familiarity and routine, and loss of traditional methods. COVID-19 has forced research leadership to make tough trade-offs by identifying what is most precious and worth conserving that will make the change less painful and worth sustaining.

Research: Learning Fast from Global Trends
Adaptive work requires constant experimentation in order to refine and better understand both the problem and the many possible solutions. In order to succeed in this new environment, the global community at large is often running multiple experiments simultaneously, learning from one another to find the best solutions. COVID-19 provided a perfect example of this concept. From work-from-home strategies to providing comfort in the unknowns, the community took its cue from global trends. Many leaders struggled with the required improvisation that the various health-related mandates spurred. Adaptive leadership provides the guidance that distributed intelligence can increase survival odds.2 As frustrating as it can be not to know the answers, take heart in your global community—our adaptability depends on our global partnerships.

Timeframe: Sifting Through Change Management
A technical problem can be solved over lunch or at the water cooler with the specialist down the hall. It can be solved in one meeting or with a strongly worded policy change. In stark contrast, adaptive work requires a much longer timeframe before a future becomes both clear and comfortable for everyone on the team. We became work-from-home employees overnight, and yet, a year later, the future is still unclear, and the present is still uncomfortable for most of us. It took time to shift through the essential duties, learning how to retain our work's most critical aspects. It took time to cut what was expendable and mourn the loss of traditional elements of our work life.2 Change is never easy. Adaptive work is doubly hard as it is hard to shift gears from an office's dependent mentality to generating the capacity for self-government that a work-from-home life requires. Sustained periods of disturbance and uncertainty also bring a distinct flavor to COVID-19 challenge.

Evolution: Adapting to the Future for What Purpose?
The objective of adaptive work is simple and straightforward: to thrive in a new environment. A situation becomes an adaptive challenge when our very species' existence is threatened.4 Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have repeatedly been reminded that thriving is more than just coping. The adaptive leaps made by our institutions, our profession, and our global communities led to a profound change in the way we live our lives. In a world where only the fittest survive, adaptive leadership could be the difference in the success or failure of your team. This adaptive challenge has forced many of us to clarify our personal values and assess the habits that challenge the realization of those values.4 For many of us, the work-from-home opportunity offered a vastly expanded range of living beyond the simple production of wealth, and it is likely that we will never return to the traditional work-life balance.

This year we found ourselves leading change in a time when both the problem and the solution are unsettled. Everyone on the team was forced to change their daily activities, workplace strategies, and professional preconceptions in order to survive. An adaptive challenge, like COVID-19, forces us to deliberate on the values by which we seek to thrive as individuals and as part of the larger community and profession. It demands experimentation into the realities we face that threaten the realization of those core values.2 COVID-19 has forced us to move beyond convenient assumptions about reality to readopt the values that we hold precious, clarify aspirations or make new ones, and then complete the very hard work of experimentation and culture change to thrive in this new environment.


  1. Guillaume-Koene, E. Six Principles for Leading Adaptive Work. The Network (2016).
  2. Heifetz, R. A. Adaptive Work. Demos Collection 19, 68–78 (2003).
  3. Waetzig, E. Adaptive Leadership in the Time of COVID-19. Change Matrix (2020).
  4. Masters, R. Nature of Politics. (Yale University Press, 1989).


Authored by Holly R. Zink, Project Development and Education Manager
Children’s Mercy Hospital