It’s been a wild ride in our house lately with my elder daughter preparing to go off to university. As for everyone with kids in school, Covid has created uncertainty and anxiety and has made it challenging to plan for the future. Although universities have little control over the course of a global pandemic, they do have control of what they communicate. In the case of Kira’s chosen university, the communication has been terrible. I thought the tale was worth sharing as a reminder that uncertainty calls for more communication, not less.

Let me give you a little background. The university Kira has chosen has announced that fall term will be online but that the residences will be open to first year students. This felt like a minor win for us. In a year full of lost rites of passage (graduation, prom, summer camp counselling) at least the opportunity to bond with other freshmen from all over the world—to create some semblance of a university experience that wasn’t in her childhood bedroom—would be available to her. Great.

At this school, all first-year students who apply are guaranteed a residence bed, so we didn’t think much about it. The big question was which of the many residences would she be assigned to (fingers crossed for the party rez up the hill, not the quiet one for the studious kids). Partiers versus prudes WAS the big question until Wednesday. On Wednesday, the results of the lottery were announced and, instead of being assigned to a residence, she was told that she had not received a spot and would have to wait either for a spot to open or to be assigned to a temporary bed for the first few weeks of school. That’s all the message said.

And yet again in this year like no other, the opportunity to plan for the future, to have something to look forward to, is ripped away. Within an hour, the network of her friends had determined that many of them were in the same situation. By nightfall, that network had become a giant, global, online chat. The next day, it was a poll on an Instagram group that estimated the number of kids without rooms at 35%. There were theories aplenty. Anxious kids trying to make sense of what this meant and what they should do.

What there was not, was helpful communication from the school.

And the lack of communication has ramifications beyond just about the disappointment of not being able to order sheets and room décor; there are important decisions to be made about whether to abandon residence and try to find a rental apartment. The university is sitting on information that would help the kids make that decision. Is the oversubscription due to more students than normal applying to residence (over-demand) or to rooms being closed for Covid precautions (under-supply)? They haven’t said what percentage of beds were open. We don’t know what percentage of kids would have to cancel to have a shot at a room on campus.

Lesson #1: There are things you control and things you don’t

I harbor no anger toward the university for trying to navigate the pandemic as best they can. They are walking a fine line in giving the freshman as much of a university experience as possible while keeping them, the faculty, and the staff as safe as possible. I understand completely if they have fewer residence rooms available. I just want to know.

That’s what you need to remember: When there are some things within your control and others beyond your control, share both and explain the distinction. Grownups (and even 18 year olds) understand that there are circumstances beyond your control.

During my time in the corporate world, I went through one IPO, 3 restructurings, and twelve acquisitions (on both the acquiring and acquired sides). The best bosses kept us informed about what they couldn’t control and focused on what they could. When a legal or regulatory issue impacted the progression of the deal, they explained it so we had some context for the actions that would likely follow. They kept up a steady trickle of information, so we were less disoriented.

Lesson #2: Communicate what you do know

The university housing office doesn’t have answers to many important questions, such as what course the virus will take (there’s a pun in there somewhere…how about… I wish the virus would take the ancient history course), what percentage of students will cancel their residence room and study from home, or when they’ll be able to place all students in their permanent residences.

At the same time, there is plenty that they do know that would be helpful context for someone trying to make an informed decision.

Other information that would be useful in making a call about whether to stick it or bail would include: What proportion of cancellations do they get in a normal year? What is each student’s lottery number, so they know what chance they have? Where are they considering for temporary housing for 1,000 students?

I suspect that the housing office is madly scrambling to figure out a plan and hesitating to say anything until they have something definitive to say. But in trying to come up with something worthy, they are losing our confidence. I don’t expect them to be flawless, but I do want them to be deliberate, and transparent, and empathetic.

Similar situations are likely playing out in your world. Whether it’s back to school, or return to the office, or ending a furlough, or reopening your doors to customers. Over the next few months, I expect that you’ll be on both sides of decisions about what to communicate. I urge you to err on the side of more communication, not less. To be candid about what you can control and what you can’t. To be liberal in what you share in case it’s of value in helping remove just a little of the uncertainty that’s crippling people. Have you got either horror stories or success stories of Covid-era communication? Share them with us. Misery loves company.


Post-script: Between writing the draft and publishing this, I’ve learned a lot more. Through the students’ social network, my daughter learned of a parent’s Facebook group. When I got connected there, I learned about a webinar the residence staff did and found a few other helpful tidbits. Remind me to write about the value of informal communication networks sometime.


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