Forced evolution: Resilience and adaptation in the face of imposed change

Michel Ouellet, Ph.D. (Microbiology-Immunology), M.A. (Project management) Research development advisor Université Laval



The world has changed.  More than we can know now, the world has changed in a significant way and for a significant period of time.  A microscopic threat.  A single strand of polymer formed of ribonucleic acid, 29 000 units long, with its associated proteins and lipids, not more than 125 nanometers in diameter (that is about ten thousandth of a millimeter),  has imposed on us travel restrictions, quarantines and business closures as it continues to inspire fear, death and dismay all across the globe.

In the face of such seemingly cataclysmic change, there are only a few things we can do.  Accept. Adapt. Adjust. Advise. Advance.  We must accept the reality of this pandemic as we don’t control the virus, only our behavior.  We must adapt to this new reality in our homes, in our hearts and in our work.  We must adjust our behavior, our processes, our way of doing things, to new findings, data, and facts, daily.  We must learn about this new threat and advise our direction, professors, students, and employees with the best of our gathered knowledge, experience and wisdom while recognizing our own uncertainties, doubts, apprehensions, and failings.  Finally, we must advance, in spite and because of everything.  Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and readying ourselves to change and adapt, over and over again.

Now, change hits hard.  Very hard.  Managing change is difficult at the best of times, and even with a lot of preparation, implementing change most often fails.  A change of this magnitude, imposing remote work, remote teaching, new procedures, new ways of meeting, greeting, and showing appreciation, all that in a matter of months?  It can bring most employees to the brink of their resilience and adaptative capacities.  It can bring most organizations to their knees.  But research and higher education must endure.  College, universities and research centers must endure.  They are in fact needed now more than ever. Therefore, we research administrators, and all support staff, must endure.  Facing this new multifaceted threat, we must find those serendipitous opportunities that always arise from such a maelstrom of change, to expose and seize them and then to capitalize on them, for the benefit of our team, our institution, our community.

In front of such a threat - such changes – it is easy to flee, retreat, or retire.  As recurring waves of COVID-19 assail us, we will observe matching waves of retirement and resignations. Remember that change hits hard. It hits the hardest when we did not expect it, when we liked the situation that we were in, when we were comfortable with doing things as they had been done before, when we feel that we had control but not anymore.  Our interventions to manage acceptation and integration of change must be tailored to each individual’s response to how “the” change impacted his life, at home and at work. The unaware must be informed. The unprepared must be helped. The unwilling must be persuaded, convinced, enticed, or coerced.  The unreasonable must be shuffled, suspended, or fired.  In a crisis, it’s all hands on deck.  Everyone is needed.  Everyone must contribute.  Here, as in many things, diversity is a factor of success.  Experience and wisdom certainly matter in managing crises. But creativity and enthusiasm also.  It is not just about knowing the facts. It’s about how we need to react to such facts.  It’s about facing the consequences of our reaction to those facts.  And there lie the opportunities. And there lie the risks. 

Remote teaching.  Remote working.  Remote meeting.  Remote conferences, examinations, and surgeries.  All of these require hardware, software, large bandwidth, and low latency.  Innovations are already occurring, such as new video compression technologies, 5G networks and AI-assisted bandwidth management.  New ways of teaching, learning, testing will emerge. Delocalization of students can mean true globalization of education.  Delocalization of healthcare specialists can mean easier access to specialized healthcare.  Delocalization of work can also mean justification for outsourcing and restructuring.  What will we really do with all those opportunities?  How will we address those risks?  In the end, and most important of all, how will we achieve a stronger, better, more equitable world in the process?

Remote work and education require technology.  A computer or a tablet, minimally a cell phone.  Electricity, ideally on stable grids. Internet connection, ideally highspeed. Most videos today use about 1Gb (1 billion bytes of data or 8 billion zeros and ones) per hour of streaming.  That is about 45Gb for a 15 credits session.   For most of us, all of these requirements do not represent barriers to remote education or remote work.  But for some they do, to some extent or fully.  Those are usually poorer, or living in a remote or rural area, or in a developing country.  Access to higher education and research outcomes should be for these populations also and, in fact, even more.  How can we make sure that remote education and remote work do not lead to a systematic disadvantage for the poorer, more remote part of the population?

A vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 may or may not be available in the short term.  But even if an effective vaccine is accessible to the general population by mid-2021, a very optimistic estimate, how long will it take before society returns to a pre-pandemic state?  Will it ever? Is it even reasonable to think so?  The societal impacts of such an event will vary by region, by province and by country, depending on the gravity of the epidemic in those regions and, maybe even more so, on the population’s perception of its gravity.  We can expect a staggered recovery, in which some regions or countries will emerge relatively unscathed while others will find themselves weakened or destabilized.  The geopolitical landscape will change accordingly.  It is difficult now to imagine the world in which we will live in the next five or ten years but if there is one thing that we can be sure of is that the world will change. To prosper in this new reality as individuals and organizations, we must strive to meet these changes with determination, resilience, a positive attitude, and a good amount of wit.

In the end, our attitude towards change determine our chances of success.  Another factor for success in managing change is certainly a strong, credible, and passionate leadership.  A leader that can navigate uncharted waters, make hard decisions, communicate a clear vision of where we are headed and rally the majority behind the destination. One that can bring people together to devise an actionable plan to meet these challenges and reach the destination.  Finally, one that knows that to achieve this plan, they need to harness all the skills and talents of their organization while providing them with the resources they truly need.  Leaders such as these also understand that communication, trust, and empathy are crucial to manage change and lead to its acceptation and integration.  Leaders such as these are, sadly, quite rare.  Leading in a calm, predictable, sea can be challenging for most.  Leading in a darkening sea, surrounded by fog, reefs and siren songs, is another matter.  How will our leaders rise to the situation?  More importantly, how will we rise as leaders ourselves?