In a word, “scattered” — that’s what mid-March felt like. As the pandemic arrived and SCAD, like most universities in America, transitioned to virtual learning, a great stillness set in as the country shut down. The background noise that is the soundtrack of everyday life disappeared, replaced by birdsong, rustling leaves, and the lonely bellows of trains easing through empty intersections. I, too, found myself at a crossroads.
So, I did what I’ve done in such moments for 20 years as a university president and for four decades as the founder of SCAD: I picked up the phone. I knew our students also felt scattered — the abrupt social distancing was emotionally jarring, not to mention that we have SCAD Bees in over 100 countries around the world — and I knew we all needed reminders of familiarity, comfort, and stability. Now, the world is beginning to reopen and the noise of normalcy returns, yet I know leaders everywhere, from business to higher education, understand the single most important lesson the pandemic has taught us: the necessity of community. And whether you’re operating a small business with a handful of employees or sitting in the C-suite directing a Fortune 100 company, here are three timeless strategies to foster esprit de corps, now and after the pandemic.
1. Pick up the phone
Perhaps we’ve been social distancing ourselves for years without realizing it, what with email, text messages, and instant messaging platforms like Slack. While efficient, such media don’t clearly convey emotion like an organic, dynamic phone conversation. Now, though, we have time to talk, and we must remember the power of our voice to sooth and strengthen others.
Research tells us that silence can be isolating, and isolation can be debilitating. While Zoom meetings and Google hangouts are all the rage right now, the personal phone call evokes a deeper level of dedication and commitment. Additionally, video calls, for some, provoke feelings of self-consciousness. Which is why, in mid-March and again in May, SCAD leaders and I personally reached out to each of the 14,000-plus students enrolled during the spring quarter. Our message was clear: we called to listen.
One of the phenomena of the pandemic is the sudden return of the phone call. Across the country, wireless carriers have reported surges in voice-data usage, the likes of which haven’t been seen in years. That means, of course, that people enjoy catching up with old friends and family, yet it also means that people need to vent and be heard.
SCAD leaders and I placed thousands of calls — an initiative we called Peace of Mind — with the sole goal of listening. It’s no secret that the pandemic has generated historic levels of anxiety, stress, and mental health challenges, and people facing such strain benefit from a sympathetic ear. Which is why we used these phone calls to make our students partners in our response to COVID-19.
As we talked to our students, we learned that they appreciated the personal outreach and that they had some keen observations. Specifically, they much preferred synchronous virtual learning, SCAD’s digital environments that placed them, their peers, and their professors in the same space at the same time — the best substitute for the communal, in-person feel of the classroom. This was a striking discovery, especially given that SCAD’s asynchronous courses allowed our students learning in myriad time zones to engage on their own schedules. So, when SCAD begins the Fall 2020 quarter, we will offer more synchronous courses that pair virtual classrooms with physical classrooms, to prioritize health and safety while maintaining community.
Reaffirming a sense of connectedness will continue to be our priority going forward, and it should be yours, too. As SCAD’s own research has found, and as our industry contacts confirm, business travel is going to remain limited even after the curve is flattened. This means fewer in-person interactions and the temptation to spend much of our days on Zoom. Video calls have their place, and I certainly use them. Yet I’m also encouraging our faculty, staff, and students to break from the screens. Pick up the phone. Dial some digits. Surprise and delight someone with an unexpected conversation. Hear your relationships deepen and your communities strengthen.