It’s been more than two months since India went into lockdown. People adopted new habits and changed their ways of working completely during this period. As companies gear up to reopen from next week, we asked our faculty about their lockdown learnings and the new habits they planned to stick to even after the restrictions are lifted. We caught up with Aniha Brar, Dean of the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University, who shared some of her key learnings from this period with us. Read on to see how she has reworked her approach to her job, and also refocused on the need for equity and access in education.

Q. What is the one Harappa Habit—Think, Solve, Communicate, Collaborate, Lead—that you think you have relied most on in this lockdown?

I don’t believe that any of these habits can exist in isolation; to make effective use of one of them means to develop all these habits together. If there is one thing the lockdown and COVID-19 crisis have shown us, it is that a singular approach to problem-solving and adapting to new situations does not work. Thinking is built into every new decision and action that’s been taken over the last few months. To this I would add the additional quality of broad-based and empathetic thinking.

Solving for the issues at hand has required addressing diverse needs, being cognizant of individual situations and access, and planning for a still uncertain future. All solutions, therefore, have had to be collaborative in nature, requiring the support of people from the senior leadership to faculty, IT to finance, and individual efforts at an unprecedented scale.

Perhaps the most complex habit to either develop or reinvent has been to Lead. While subject to the same uncertainties and concerns as others, those in leadership positions have had to provide answers, support and a forward-looking approach while themselves working from home. Even those who may not be in official positions of seniority have had to work as independent leaders, often taking ownership of the verticals they handle, and being decisive when required. Agile organisations have adapted well to these situations only when all these habits, practiced by almost all their workers, have come together.

Q. If you were to recommend one habit young professionals should hone in this period and the time to come, what would it be and why?

As stated above, it’s difficult to pick any one habit, but perhaps communication has been one critical aspect during the lockdown. With everyone scattered in different cities and homes, and a real range of matters needing to be addressed, staying updated and connected has been the need of the hour. Whether it’s setting up regular meetings, putting concerns to rest, staying updated on internal and external developments, or allaying the concerns of various stakeholders, these times have shown us the great value of timely, empathetic, proactive and regular communication.

Q. What are the three good professional skills that you've adopted in this phase?

Even though a lot of us are regular users of online platforms, I believe that I have had to quickly skill myself on the possibilities these offer. Whether it’s for planning webinars or classes, trying to connect with a large student community or simply getting work done without a team on standby, this is one area where I feel I have progressed.

While it may not be considered a skill per se, I think balancing out the responsibilities of work and home while being isolated from people in both spaces has also been a skill I have developed, often through careful planning. Always a multi-tasker to some extent, I believe I have become more equipped at managing the requirements of both personal and professional spaces.

The last skill that I believe I have honed is that of thinking strategically, especially when it came to managing with revised calendars and revised budgets, while still meeting the professional goals and standards I had set for myself. The constant reading on these matters and conversations with colleagues in various other departments has helped enhance this last skill.

Q. What is the one most exciting change in this period for you professionally?

What has been exciting is to see the possibilities that going online opened up, not just when it came to effective use of technology, but also with regard to the number of people that could be reached. Faculty were able to reach out to more resource people, and we were able to conduct more webinars and varied sessions than ever before. It was exciting for me to note that physical distancing actually did not translate into social, academic, or professional distancing; in fact, it was quite the contrary.

Q. There is a lot of focus on lifelong learning, unlearning, and relearning in the world of work today. What would you say have been the top learnings for you in this period? And what have you unlearned and had to relearn/adapt?

While I cannot say that I have learned anything brand new—except perhaps information regarding COVID-19—many aspects of life and work have come to the forefront and been thrown into sharp relief. For one thing, the notion of “equity” became even more real for many of us when we had to offer internet-based solutions. We realized how limited and limiting these options could be for those who had little to no access to data, sometimes even regular electricity. It has renewed my desire to look for even more equitable solutions than we have found so far. The second aspect that came home to me was the need to observe and display values in action—at an institutional and personal level. In these times, what will remain will be the goodwill (or lack of) generated when people had to come together to collectively handle a tough situation and provide assistance wherever needed. I am glad to say that most people that I worked or interacted with truly put their best foot forward.

Q. Did you have any one specific setback while working from home? If so, what was it, and how have you overcome it?

My work environment and particular role are very people-facing, requiring engagements with tens of people every single day. While these can often be complex and draining interactions, I realized how much I also got energized by being around people, my team in particular. Only being able to connect via a screen and not be in the same spaces as people was a setback initially, as each of us had to bring our own energies and focus to the table, regardless of what may be happening in the house. We finally overcame it by ensuring that we took time out for personal conversations and shared our small successes and setbacks before every meeting. This opened the door for others on the call to understand circumstances they may not have otherwise noticed—and help, support, and ideate with each other whenever needed.

Q. What are some of the big changes your organization has made during the lockdown?

Like most organisations, Ashoka University too has had to shift work online, with everyone working from home, and to revise all plans and timelines. Acting quickly, the campus was brought to high standards of safety regarding the disease, to ensure that the people who could not leave for home were protected. The university also embraced the online space as not only a necessity, but an opportunity. It received the QS I-Gauge E-LEAD (E-Learning Excellence for Academic Digitization) Certification and Badge.

There are many challenges still ahead in the months and perhaps years to come; and like many educational places, we are having to balance educational, safety and budgetary needs. However, we believe that we have begun well at making the best of a difficult situation and will only try and grow better in this endeavor.

Read the other blogs in this series here and here.

One course you can pick up under the Communicate Habit during this lockdown is our Speaking Effectively course from Harappa Education. Develop your communication skills today by enrolling for these online learning courses. Explore topics such as the Elements of CommunicationNonverbal Communication, Effective Communication, and 7 C's of Communication from our Harappa Diaries blog section to build your skills for workplace success.

Aniha Brar was interviewed by Suha Gangopadhyay who is a Specialist in the Curriculum Team at Harappa Education.

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