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Campus & Community

In HR, preparing for a challenge

7 min read

Rise of coronavirus prompts considering new approaches to work, fresh concerns for those doing it

Harvard announced Tuesday that it would switch to teaching classes online effective March 23, with the goal of limiting the spread of coronavirus in the University community. But the spreading disease will change more lives than those of the students departing their residences and classrooms in the coming days. It will affect thousands of faculty and staff members across Harvard. Those employees are now hard at work making the switch to distance learning, keeping the University’s labs and health care facilities safe, and ensuring that important services and programs remain available.

To learn more about what the coming changes are likely to mean for Harvard’s employees moving forward, The Gazette talked with Vice President for Human Resources Marilyn Hausammann.


Marilyn Hausammann

GAZETTE:  What can you tell us about the impact of recent events on the large community of people who keep Harvard up and running every day?

MARILYN HAUSAMMANN: First, I’d like to reiterate the words of University leadership by saying that the health and well-being of our entire community — and that of course includes students, faculty, and staff — is our main priority.

In HR, our overarching goals are to provide a safe and healthy workplace, and to enable Harvard’s mission. Right now, that means mitigation of COVID-19 through a variety of steps that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are asking all employers to take: promoting hygiene, cleaning, having generous and humane policies for paid time off, limiting travel, and, increasingly, social distancing. That means minimizing and limiting the size of meetings. But we’ve also been planning for larger-scale social distancing by asking everyone to prepare now to work remotely, if their job duties permit it.

We are incredibly grateful for faculty and staff members who have been working around the clock to ensure that the University is able to transition to virtual learning, while remaining open and operational throughout the process. In many ways, we’re in unprecedented territory, and we wouldn’t have been able to make this critically important shift without the expertise and hard work of our colleagues.

with Vice President for Human Resources Marilyn Hausammann.
Vice President for Human Resources Marilyn Hausammann. Rose Lincoln/Harvard file photo

This is a novel virus, and we are constantly integrating new information and guidance for employers into our contingency planning.  At the same time, we are trying to anticipate the emerging issues and concerns of faculty and staff, and to provide practical solutions and responses. To do that, we are in regular consultation with the human resource deans and directors in the Schools and units across Harvard to determine what kinds of issues we are facing and what kinds of strategies, policies, and information would be most helpful.

And while we approach our contingency planning with a “One Harvard” mindset, we will rely on the good judgment and goodwill of our managers and colleagues across the University.  We recognize that there are thousands of different, sometimes very hyperlocal situations. For those, we need to rely on the expertise and commitment of managers and staff working together to take care of each other, to support the mission, and to protect Harvard’s vital capabilities.

GAZETTE: Many people who work at Harvard may be concerned about what it means for them to stay on campus, while students are being asked to leave. What can you say to them about this? Have there been discussions about closing the University more broadly?

HAUSAMMANN:  To begin with, the University’s decision to move to remote learning is designed to keep everyone safer. As my colleague, University Health Services Executive Director Giang Nguyen, has explained, this decision is based on the public health concept of social distancing, which shows that reducing the concentration of people in an area can lower the risk of infection for all involved.

Obviously, health and safety measures for the workforce are a bit different than students, as employees do not live together in congregate housing. For the workplace, we are focused on measures that will be most effective, some of which I’ve just mentioned. If needed, Harvard will take additional steps to increase social distancing, by reducing the density of work spaces in terms of occupancy, and, as we are now, encouraging those who can work remotely to be prepared to do so.

To be clear, Harvard would make a specific announcement if and when we were to move to large-scale remote work. That decision has not been made. For now, preparing to work remotely should be accelerated where possible and tested to make sure all the technology and connections work. Can you get and respond to your phone calls and email?  Can you access your work files? Can you send confidential information using encryption?

And it may be that individuals who are more susceptible to complications from the disease will make changes sooner. We’ve asked employees who believe they would benefit from a change in job duties, schedule, or work location to consult with their local HR. And employees who are sick should not come to work.

“In many ways, we’re in unprecedented territory, and we wouldn’t have been able to make this critically important shift without the expertise and hard work of our colleagues.”

Marilyn Hausammann

GAZETTE: Should employees be concerned about the status of their jobs?

HAUSAMMANN: Our faculty and staff are needed to fulfill Harvard’s mission, even as we shift to distance learning in many of our academic programs. Said another way, the University remains open. Staff should know that the University is committed to sustaining pay continuity for the core workforce — and by that I mean the non-temporary workforce. People who continue to work, whether remotely or on campus, will be paid as they are normally. Additionally, Harvard’s regular and newly expanded workforce policies provide many different kinds of paid time off.  Through these benefits, we ensure the continuity of pay during illness, self-isolation, quarantine, disability, or times when dependents need care because they are ill or their care arrangements have been disrupted.  We’ll continue to revisit these commitments as the situation evolves.

GAZETTE: Can you provide any more advice to employees who may be unsure as to how they should approach their decision to come to work?

HAUSAMMANN: This is a stressful time for all of us, and since we are in uncharted territory, we may feel more anxious than we otherwise would.  I hope it goes without saying that we encourage and fully support self-care during these times, and encourage people to rely on the many services we offer. They are extensive.

If staff members begin to feel concerned about their health status or the health status of those who may be close to them, I encourage them to remember that Harvard’s health plans offer comprehensive coverage for both physical and mental health care. Employees can also contact the Employee Assistance Program at 877-EAP-HARV (877-327-4278) for help with feelings of stress or anxiety about these events.

If you’re in doubt about whether you should come to work, talk to your managers. Consult with your own primary care physician if you feel you may be experiencing symptoms.