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“We can also learn from this situation”

UZH has seen unparalleled changes this past week. What's next? In this interview, President ad interim Gabriele Siegert answers some of the many questions UZH staff and students are asking in the current extraordinary situation.
Interview: Marita Fuchs, Nathalie Huber, David Werner


Gabriele Siegert, buildings at UZH were empty practically from one day to the next, with staff and students studying, teaching, researching and working from home – and having to reorganize their daily routine. That’s a drastic change within a very short space of time. How has it worked so far?

Gabriele Siegert: From my point of view what has worked really well is the way so many UZH members – staff, instructors, and students – have pitched in so promptly and constructively. It’s not possible to change everything overnight. Some things take time. But so far we’ve been able to adapt well to the challenges in this exceptional situation.

Have you also started working from home?

Like most working academics I’ve always had an office at home. So I haven’t had to set one up from scratch. What I have done is upgrade the technology. I’m now using Microsoft Teams, and phone more often than I used to. But today, Friday March 20, really is my first day working from home. It does take some getting used to. My agenda’s driven by meetings and discussions, some of which have been called off completely. Some of them are shorter because they’re held virtually, and in other cases we’re making decisions by circular. I’m no longer spending time traveling to Bern, for example. But given the number of additional tasks I’m having to handle, I’m glad to have this extra time.

How is the Executive Board now collaborating? What’s top of the list of priorities?

One topic we’re naturally busy with at the moment is finding the best ways of protecting UZH members while enabling students to complete the semester as usual. Organizing ourselves in such a way that necessary work can be done from home wherever possible is a huge effort. So I’d like to thank everyone who’s helping make that work – particularly the UZH crisis team, which has achieved incredible feats in recent weeks. But we’re also in the midst of the latest development and planning round. Despite the exceptional situation, we have to make sure that these processes move forward and the issues are dealt with.

Meetings of the Executive Board take place as always on a Tuesday, although for the most part virtually via Microsoft Teams. A “core” consisting of the Secretary General, the minutes taker and myself will continue to be present in person in the Orelli hall. That takes some strain off the system. But we can keep a good distance from each other.

The coronavirus situation in Switzerland and elsewhere has been changing constantly in recent days. Should UZH members be anticipating new arrangements in the near future?

Naturally UZH has to keep to the guidelines issued by the federal government, and to that extent we have to be prepared to tighten up existing arrangements again if necessary. We’ll also be defining some of the existing arrangements in more detail so that staff and students also have a better idea of where they stand. But we also hope that we’ll be able to get our operation up and running again in a few weeks’ time.

UZH will continue to run on a skeleton staff for an indefinite period. Who’s still working on UZH premises? 

Basically everyone’s working from home. Of course there are exceptions, for example instructors recording podcasts and staff who have to remain on premises to keep the infrastructure and the operation running. These exceptions have to be discussed with people’s line managers.

Is UZH able to provide the services necessary to assure operations under these minimal presence rules?

I’m confident that we’ll manage. People are currently making incredible things happen to keep business running as usual while carrying out the necessary changes. Just look at the deans’ offices and offices of student affairs, facility management, room allocation services, IT, multimedia and e-learning services, and many more besides.

In this video Gabriele Siegert addresses herself especially to the students.

There have been major disruptions to the usual study arrangements, and students are having to study in new and unfamiliar ways. Is the aim still for students to be able to complete the semester as usual?

Yes, that’s still the goal that we have to achieve. It’s a huge challenge for everyone involved. Students have to take a different approach to studying. They can’t simply ask questions in lectures; they’ll also have to organize themselves to stay on top of the material. Together with all the other restrictions on public life, this means that people have practically no structure to their day. There’s something seductive about working at home. You can be tempted to have a coffee first rather than attending the course online. If you do that too often you risk quickly falling behind. What’s needed is self-discipline and organization.

In light of the current situation some students are weighing up whether to complete modules they’ve already started or cancel them. What do you advise?

If students are unsure I’d advise waiting before canceling modules and seeing how they cope with the material without classroom teaching. I’m almost tempted to say that at the moment, with public life at a standstill, there’s not much else to do apart from focusing on your studies. I’d also advise holding on until instructors have decided exactly what form the relevant assessment will take. On this basis I would decide whether to cancel a module – which isn’t possible until May in any case. We’re currently in close consultation with the faculties to find optimum solutions for students. My plea to students is this: don’t give up too soon!

Many students are involved in voluntary and charitable work, for example helping elderly people or families with children. Medical students and hospital orderlies are providing support in hospitals. Is it still possible for these students to do the necessary coursework this semester?

We’re very glad these students are doing this voluntary work! Here too we have to discuss the optimal solutions with the faculties.

What would you advise students planning to spend time studying abroad?

It’s good to basically plan and think about what makes sense in terms of your study program. But we don’t know how the situation will develop in Switzerland and other countries, either medically or in terms of the political measures. So I would recommend planning various different timeframes.

Instructors are having to adapt their teaching practically overnight. Who can they talk to if they have questions and need support?

I’m very grateful that so many of our instructors are getting whole-heartedly on board and putting in extra work to make the change. For some courses that’s relatively easy; for others it’s more complicated. In the email to instructors we gave various links that can help. In addition to this, in the very near future we’ll be providing information on alternative options for building assessments into courses. We’re in the process of setting up a teaching site and a box of tools for instructors wishing to develop their teaching. This was planned for summer 2020, which unfortunately is too late for the current extraordinary situation.

Many UZH members are currently having to look after children as well as working at home. How is UZH supporting them?

UZH takes care of its staff and wants to support those who look after children. We’re currently working on a home working concept. We’ll be providing information on this at the beginning of next week. I can reveal that for the month of March, childcare duties will count as working hours. However, we also want the staff affected to see to it that they find ways of organizing care in future.

Spatial distance completely changes the way people work together. What are the points to remember?

I myself have noticed that you have to change the way you communicate slightly for virtual meetings to work. For example, people should clearly announce when they want to speak and also when they’ve finished speaking. Only then do the others know it’s their turn. So meetings have to be managed properly. That can take some getting used to, but in my experience it works very well.

Working at home can get lonely. What can be done about this?

Firstly, anyone who wants to work from home has to discuss arrangements with their boss. For example, to maintain effective teamwork and some structure to the day you have to agree the specific times staff will be virtually present. I think it makes sense to keep the same daily routine you normally have.

Beyond that, you should make sure you don’t just meet online for serious purposes, but also for a relaxed chat or coffee break, for example.

What can UZH members do to make sure they can still be reached by people inside and outside the university?

People have to make sure they can be reached by phone and email, and they also have to check their inbox often enough to make sure that, depending on the job, things get dealt with more or less immediately.

What can UZH do to help address the coronavirus pandemic across Switzerland?

We at UZH can help in two ways. Firstly, we should keep to the federal government’s recommendations, also in our free time, to help curb the spread. The other main contribution we can make is through our research. We are supporting concrete research initiatives addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

Does the coronavirus crisis mean that UZH will have to lower its sights in terms of its strategic development?

In terms of the content of our strategy we won’t be lowering our sights, but it’s clear that certain plans will be delayed. On the other hand we’ll also certainly have gained some new insights that will help in our strategic development – for example all the experience we’ve gathered in connection with digital teaching and virtual meetings.

What do you advise UZH members? What priorities should students and staff set in this challenging situation?

Stay healthy and keep to the rules of behavior to prevent infection and spreading the virus. Organize your family routine as well as you can, factoring in difficulties as well: when the whole family’s together all the time, things can get stressful. That’s something you have to deal with consciously. If you live alone, use the appropriate channels to stay in touch with your friends, which includes being there for each other if the situation becomes too much of a strain. My advice to all UZH members is don’t overdo it, and pace yourself to make sure we all get through this crisis successfully together.

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