How smart transformation has enabled a flexible and effective response to COVID-19

This article continues the story of the University of Auckland’s conscious role redesign transformation. The first part covered how the university undertook the change including key design principles and intended benefits. This article highlights how the transformation has supported an effective response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 introduced tremendous challenges for the Higher Education sector as border restrictions and paused international migration put significant pressure on universities to resize and reshape services to meet current demands, whilst remaining flexible enough to accommodate students when things return to ‘normal’. Universities in this situation face a tricky balancing act between resourcing too much or too little with a step in the wrong direction having serious consequences in terms of institutional sustainability. Moreover, there is an important onus to provide clear and transparent communications to stakeholders throughout this adaptation process.

The Cubane team recently spoke to the University of Auckland about their experience. What stood out was the significant advantage that Auckland’s prior transformation (informed by UniForum data) had given in enabling them to adapt, reshape and resize in the face of the crisis. The key themes which emerged were the necessity for centralised communication, the value of standardised roles in enabling rapid redeployment, and the power of a data-driven approach.

1. A centralised staff contact centre is vital in a time of crisis

In times of uncertainty and change it’s critical to provide staff with accurate, consistent, and timely information. As part of their transformation, Auckland created a single centralised staff contact centre. When lockdown struck, they were able to use these well-established channels to quickly disseminate important information to all staff, for example providing instructions around access to systems whilst working from home. They also emphasised the importance of transparency. Through these channels, they provided key communications about timelines and prioritisation, for example academics with immediate teaching obligations were given priority IT assistance for system set-up. Doing so allowed for the management of demand and expectations, and anecdotally, more content staff in a naturally difficult time.

2. Standardised roles allow for simpler, and more rapid redeployment decisions

Many organisations adopted voluntary leaving schemes during 2020 as a response to substantial drops in international student numbers. The voluntary nature of these schemes poses challenges when resourcing ‘gaps’ are left in critical service areas. Redeployment can be difficult, costly and time consuming in organisations where staff in different areas do not share the same skills, capabilities, seniority and experience, ultimately creating disruption in service delivery. Auckland reduced the impact of this challenge thanks to smart role redesign. As an example, across the core administrative functions they revised 410 job titles for 700 staff and condensed these to 36 generic job titles, with a focus on a standard faculty operating model. This approach, which has held firm and evolved since then allowed them to rapidly redeploy both central and Faculty-based staff to the areas that were in need while minimising disruption to service quality and delivery.

3. A data-driven approach to redeployment and resizing results in better outcomes

Most organisations when downsizing to respond to reduced demand tend to take a ‘haircut’ approach, applying for example a 5% reduction across all budget areas. However, all budget areas are not created equal, nor do they operate at the same level of resourcing. Using this high-level approach can create issues, such as reducing resourcing in areas which are already struggling to sustain current requirements. Auckland used UniForum data to create staffing ratios for each area to determine where the opportunities were to redeploy staff. These ratios provided a robust fact base on which to have objective and transparent discussions with each area about resourcing needs. Moreover, UniForum data allowed for visibility of university-wide functional spend, further allowing for more tailored and well-informed adjustments to support services spend.

These were the three key themes that stood as part of our recent discussion with Auckland: does this resonate with your experience? If you’d like to share your own challenges or experiences around how your university responded to COVID-19, or hear more about lessons learned from the global UniForum programme, then please do get in touch via

This article was written jointly by Ken Lee, a consulting manager in Cubane’s Australia and New Zealand team, and James Catts, Managing Director Australia and New Zealand, building on prior contributions from and interviews with University of Auckland colleagues as captured in the first piece, with particular thanks to Andrew Creahan, Director of Organisational Performance and Improvement, for his contributions to this article.