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A Year of Struggle – and Innovation

A Year After COVID Forced Shutdowns, Reckoning with the Aftermath

March 12 marks one year since AAU, like many organizations, pivoted suddenly to an all-virtual operation in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Like our member universities, we as an association have learned a lot in that time about how to be nimble and responsive to our constituents’ needs. Those are lessons that will serve us well in the future.

In AAU’s case, we had to shift rapidly not only to remote operation for our day-to-day office work, but also to becoming an online convener for our constituent groups. Thanks to excellent work over the years by our IT and operations teams, shifting to all-remote daily work was fairly seamless for us. But shifting to remote constituent meetings was more challenging. After all, how does one offer an adequate virtual facsimile of the regular in-person meetings and seminars and networking events from which our members derive so much value?

But our meetings team – with assistance from other AAU staff members – was more than equal to the challenge. Indeed, not only did they manage to provide valuable online meeting and enrichment experiences for our regularly scheduled constituent group meetings, but participation rates in those meetings actually improved over their in-person versions. While we were presented with a crisis, it allowed us to engage with AAU members who have not been as involved in the past – and I’m thankful for the talented staff whose hard work made that possible.

At the same time, AAU realized that we would need to not only convene our usual meetings in a new way, but that we would also need to serve as a clearinghouse for important information related to the pandemic and effective coping practices for our members. This emerging role for AAU included hosting whole new categories of meetings specifically related to the pandemic and its effects. As of the end of 2020, we had hosted an additional 53 online events for AAU members outside of our regularly scheduled meetings.

We have worked diligently during this difficult year to take good care of our staff, who have worked tirelessly amid an additional workload and challenging circumstances (particularly for those with children learning at home). This has included regular care packages from AAU to staff members, monthly online social events so our staff can enjoy each other’s virtual company outside of required work and meetings, and other creative ways we have attempted to keep staff feeling appreciated and engaged in AAU’s mission.

As we make plans to return to the office (we hope sometime later this summer), we have pledged to continue caring for our staff. As part of this plan, we established a return-to-work task force composed of a broad cross-section of AAU staff. This team is taking into account our employees’ physical and mental health, convenience, and home considerations as we plan a safe return to in-person work.

We have also heeded the call of our health insurance carrier, CareFirst, in signing a pledge for employers called “ Better Together.” The pledge is meant to unite communities and lead by example to “leave COVID behind.” Employers who sign the pledge commit to prioritize the health and safety of employees, listen and communicate regularly with staff, and lead by example in protecting staff as well as our members.

We know this year has been difficult for AAU members and all kinds of organizations. I’m thankful not only that we have learned so much about how to be nimble in quickly changing circumstances and in responding to our members’ needs, but I’m also thankful that the AAU staff has excelled through a very difficult period. I offer them both my deep gratitude and my pledge that AAU will continue to support them as they meet our members’ changing needs.