International employees reflect on the university's response to COVID-19

View of yellow stairs and a pair of feet looking down the stair case. Photo: Benjamin A. Ward

The COVID-19 pandemic caught societies around the world off-guard as it rapidly spread across the globe during the first few months of 2020. Like other universities, OsloMet was faced with the challenge of carrying on operating while protecting the safety of its students and staff. The university's robust response and frequent updates about the ongoing situation proved especially important to international PhD students and faculty members, many of whom are living far from their countries of origin.

Marco Tagliabue, an Associate Professor in the Department of Behavioural Science from Italy, and Sidney Pontes-Filho, a Computer Science PhD fellow from Brazil, recall the steps taken by the university to ensure both safety and continuity in their teaching, research, and daily lives.

First steps

Norwegian authorities announced the strongest and most sweeping peacetime measures on 12 March to limit the spread of the virus in the country. Schools, universities, and daycare centres were closed, as were many businesses, restaurants, fitness centres, and concert venues. The directives also included strict social distancing and work from home orders.

Although the majority of the government's announcements were made only in Norwegian to start, Tagliabue relied on the clear communication from his workplace to guide him through those very first days:

"As soon as the guidelines and regulations were in place from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, OsloMet quickly established a response team that created both English and Norwegian webpages which were updated several times per day to tell us in detail what we were supposed to do. They reassured us that we could continue working from home, which provided a sense of continuity and that they were looking out for us."

Close-up of a table with "Don't panic" written on it. Photo: Benjamin A. Ward

Pontes-Filho believes that the initial measures taken by the university were helpful in averting what could have been highly stressful circumstances.

"Our colleagues at OsloMet were quick to give us information on how to proceed so we could work remotely, and they warned us about the possible delays in our PhD projects. This was important for us to help manage this situation," he reflects.

Relocating to home office

I was very lucky to be in Norway and working at OsloMet when this crisis hit. I felt safe, I could do most of my work remotely, and I had no fear of losing my job or that the place where I worked would go out of business. – Sidney Pontes-Filho, PhD candidate originally from Brazil

OsloMet also supported the rapid shift from classroom teaching and lab and office work by providing employees all necessary tools, including technology hardware and software. 

"Throughout the process, I felt very valued as an international employee. OsloMet helped facilitate the replacement of our working places from the offices to our homes. They also informed us of how to proceed with our duties. For me, working didn't change all that much except for the lack of in-person meetings and lunches together, which I did miss a lot," says Pontes-Filho.

Support also came from supervisors, the departments, and directly from IT services to help employees transition to the home office environment with the help of new routines.

"I remember the email from the IT service which said if you need any equipment like screens, keyboards, or whatever, you could book an appointment to drop-in and get it," notes Tagliabue. "I'm not a parent myself, but we received several communications targeting families who had children at home because the schools were closed and how they could reach a healthy balance and maintain psychological well-being through this traumatic situation."

A smiling man lifting a small child up towards leaves on a tree. Photo: Benjamin A. Ward

Living abroad during the Coronavirus crisis

Living abroad is by no means straightforward during a pandemic. Nevertheless, both Pontes-Fillho and Tagliabue are grateful that they found themselves in a country and at a workplace where a decisive, timely response from government officials helped minimise the potential impact.

"I was very lucky to be in Norway and working at OsloMet when this crisis hit. I felt safe, I could do most of my work remotely, and I had no fear of losing my job or that the place where I worked would go out of business. I knew I could continue working and could continue with my PhD plan," recounts Pontes-Filho.

Tagliabue points out that he was in what could have been a risky position, but that he is very pleased with OsloMet's response:

"International employees and those, like me, who are not on permanent contracts are probably a more vulnerable group compared to others. So I appreciated the communication coming out early to reassure us on the status that work could go ahead. We are living in very special times, and they are even more special for someone who is living away from their home country."

Infection rates in Norway proved to be considerably lower than in Tagliabue's home country of Italy, and he was thankful to have greater freedoms through the lockdown in Oslo that he would not have experienced at home. Still, it was a difficult experience to live through with only technology connecting him with family and friends back in Italy, which made continuity at work all the more critical.

OsloMet continues to adapt on an ongoing basis to meet the guidelines provided by the Norwegian authorities. The autumn 2020 semester features a mix of physical and digital instruction, and employees have the option of returning to the office part-time under certain conditions. Case numbers in Norway, moreover, continue to be lower than in other European countries. 

View of shops and people along Markveien in Grunerløkka. Photo: Benjamin A. Ward

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