Guest column

Houston innovation expert on life after COVID-19: 'we may never work and learn the same again'

In a guest column, Jan E. Odegard of The Ion Houston, discusses the ways COVID-19 has affected the workforce permanently. Getty Images

When the Houston-area was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and instituting a shelter-in-place to keep residents safe, The Ion's mission to build a world-leading innovation hub didn't change, but the way we advocate and engage with learners has.

At a programmatic level, we're bringing our networking events to a virtual platform, convening our high school STEAM Innovation Challenge program via online meetings, and moving the Ion Smart and Resilient City Accelerator, which incubates technology to support the City, coursework, counseling, and mentoring online.

At a philosophical level, we're exploring and evaluating how current sociological and economic conditions will change and drive the way we'll provide programming and resources. We're not entirely sure what changes we'll institute, what programming we'll need to tweak, since this is a global "experiment" that has not yet played out, but ideas, technology, and offerings are being explored and developed. It's in the Ion's name to keep the ever-forward motion of discovery.

As senior director of Academic Programming, my job will be to implement those ideas and move new programs forward. To do this, the team is developing and pivoting programs we had on the drawing board and are engaging in conversations with academic stakeholders, workforce development programs and executives with innovation-driven hiring needs.

Through the course of the conversations and self-observations, one thing is very clear: we may never work and learn the same again. This is why.

The digital transformation has accelerated exponentially

Universities moved thousands of courses online in a matter of a week, if not a few days. In an era where consumers can order goods or purchase a book with the tap of a button, this may not seem to be a big deal, but for campus centric academic institutions and employers, it is.

To put the technological infrastructure in place and equip students and employees with the tools necessary is momentous. While many organizations were well equipped, some never needed to, and others just had a handful of offerings online, they are now 100 percent online. This rocks the core of their operation and many of the lessons learned during COVID-19 will transcend past COVID-19 and transform these institutions.

What we do not know yet is what the impact of this will be on the student, delivering education and training material online is only half the problem, how students access and learn remains to be seen.

Soft skills matter

Soft skills, or interpersonal (people) skills, are not only harder to define but to evaluate and build, especially from home. Soft skills include communication skills, listening skills, and empathy. When you're alone with three screens up, you're inherently more distracted and maybe more concerned with what's going on there than with the outside world. Working from home not only requires discipline, but also requires you create boundaries.

While Slack channels, video meetings, and online mentorship are critical avenues during a time like this, we must make an extra effort to feel the dynamics of a mentor, mentee or teammate, and to ask the right questions. Probing deeper where needed and recognizing when backing off is the better path forward.

As we look at performance and work habits, changing or tweaking online behavior is different from modifying in person behavior. Critical thinking skills and clear communication and expectations are imperative (most of us have sent what we thought was the "perfect" email, that was not only misunderstood but misinterpreted), as is not losing sight of the person. Refining soft skills can do this, and now we need to do that online.

While developing and practicing soft skills one-on-one or in small groups can be done, the question is how to scale this to larger groups and courses. One way we're seeing this done more successfully is in the format of flipped classrooms. While instruction is often based on completing assigned reading before live class lecture; online recording gives new opportunities. Instead, the time allotted for live lectures, students will watch pre-recorded lectures followed by instructor supported small group Q&A and problem-working sessions.

Learners of all age groups can spend time problem solving or presenting an assignment rather than the material itself (practice and teach what you learned). This format not only offers opportunities for more personalized engagement, but also opens opportunities for more senior students to participate and practice leadership and mentorship by supporting these sessions.

The death of the 9-to-5 work schedule

It's very clear. We're all scrambling. Scrambling to get fresh air when there aren't too many people out. Scrambling to procure food. And for many, scrambling to watch our kids, manage their education, and get our job done.

Work is shifted to the early morning or bleeding into the evening. Without the confinement of going into the office and leaving at a certain time, personal bookends are further moved. In some countries it's frowned upon to send emails outside of work hours — in the U.S. it is a lifeblood.

COVID-19 forced us to work from a home model, and corporations and employees are now co-creating rules of meaningful engagement for accountability and developing the right framework for success and trust to get the job done. Daily video/call check-ins with staff members, as many are doing right now, is suddenly not abnormal (or intrusive) but now an integral part of working together and, helps create a shared purpose. While the job might just be done after the kids fall asleep, or that afternoon stroll, these calls ensure we are connected.

At the Ion, these daily check-ins are not just about what work you did and will be doing, but about building and supporting the individual, the team, and a shared purpose. The lessons learned from COVID-19 will make corporations and organizations more open to working from home moving forward, because we learned how to do it, and lessons learned will survive COVID-19.

Physical connections will be back

I am an introvert that must act as an extravert to do my job. Well, after 4 weeks working from home, I do miss the social engagement offered by the office.

While I can work with the team, and schedule virtual coffee and cocktail hours, it is not conducive to impromptu water-cooler talk. So, while I believe we now have the skills and methods to work from home, we have reinforced the importance of a physical space to convene.

There has been a long discussion about roles of traditional, work and school campuses, and whether or not it is outdated. I disagree, and if there is one thing that stands out it is that physical campuses serve a critical role, even if we tweak how learning will be delivered and work will be performed. Going back to a collaborative setting such as an office, lab or classroom will give us an opportunity to see, create, and build to scale. Physical connection is also imperative for building the soft skills we mention.

Engaging in a conversation on a video call from your bedroom isn't the same or as meaningful as reacting to a question or conflict in-person. If you are a student in an aeronautical engineering course you can simulate something until the wrong button is pushed. But you need to see and feel it "blow up" to react and internalize. Online reaction is still different than in-person reaction.

Holistically, it's also imperative for our health. Loneliness, which can be brought on by the isolation we're experiencing, is associated with physical isolation. Together, in a workplace setting we're sharper mentally, and simply better together.

As a career academic, now in my second act, and deeply embedded in operations and strategic partnerships, these observations give me great excitement. With a city keen on innovation, and partners willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with learners and entrepreneurs, I know Houston will play a part in changing how we learn. I hope the next time you're reading something from me it's about just that.

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Jan E. Odegard is the senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion.

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Ryan Sitton's new book, "Crucial Decisions," touches on an array of topics and how data is the key to making the positive and impactful decisions. Photo via Getty Images

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of need tells us that at our core, humans crave safety and sustenance. When you turn on the light each morning while getting ready for work, or when you check your bank account and see your paycheck arrived on schedule, we expect every aspect of our daily lives to work.

In today's world, we often take these things for granted, until reliability is threatened. Our dependency is revealed in the frenzy over a potential toilet paper shortage and in the panic buying of gasoline in a hurricane. When things in society are consistent, economies thrive. However, when you introduce fear and uncertainty, things begin to spiral. It is in these times that the decisions we make can have the biggest impact on the world around us.

The link between impactful decisions and reliability has brought our society to a pivotal moment in history. We have created a society so reliable and developed that even during the coronavirus lockdown, the basic needs of Americans could be met with only 25 percent of our workforce actively working. By increasing productivity using machines and systems, we have been able to improve our overall quality of life, but not without a price. As a result of such high improvement, we as a society have come to not only expect, but demand, reliability at all times.

When dependability waivers and anxiety rises, those in key decision-making positions are faced with unprecedented situations. Due to distress and a lack of understanding of certain situations, those in decision making positions are often times forced to make decisions based on rapid response and emotion. Because of this, consistency and reliability suffer.

A prime example of an emotional response is the coronavirus shutdown that occurred earlier this year. As a response to the growing fear and panic over the virus, major portions of our economy were shut down; schools were closed; and citizens were confined to their homes.

What followed was the bankruptcy of thousands of businesses, an unprecedented wave of fear throughout society and a disruption to the consistency of our daily lives. We have yet to know what lasting impacts this decision will have on our future economy or livelihood, but we now understand that rapid decision making is often met with long-term consequences.

While there will continue to be disagreements on all sides regarding the handling of the shutdown, what is undisputable is that we as a society have gained an opportunity to learn. We now have the unique advantage of using data in ways that has never been used before in order to make consistently better decisions, allowing us the opportunity to perform at levels we have never thought possible.

Whether it be data advancements in sports (think Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics), or the progression of technology (continuous iPhone updates), we are able to study the improvements of data on society in order to make more reliable decisions. With more powerful data analytics and innovations in data sciences, we are able to positively impact the most vital components of our society in order to make decisions that will drive evolution and reliability.

As the world continues to progress, the decisions we are forced to make have become more complex. With each complicated decision comes the potential for lasting positive or negative impact on society. In shifting from emotional, rapid reactions towards more data and quantitative focused methods, we have the unique and unprecedented opportunity to make our world a more reliable, stable and creative place.

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Ryan Sitton is the founder of Pinnacle and the author of "Crucial Decisions."

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