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Student Services Office serves during the pandemic

June 2021

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, current and potential HFS residents with questions would call, email or walk-in during business hours. It was almost predictable when query numbers would rise such as if communications were sent about an application update, upcoming deadline or account status. 
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With the onset of the pandemic, those standard routines changed in SSO (Student Services Office). With little known about the virus and its impact on student life, questions came pouring in. Emails increased from 910 in February 2020 to 5,848 in March 2020. Engaging with that massive increase tested SSO’s ability to respond even as the available information continued to evolve.
 
SSO went remote starting March 14, 2020, with staff having to set up workstations at home. A major implementation was the use of the softphones app, which allowed SSO staff to take calls from customers via the SSO mainline through their computer. Additionally, customers transitioned to making payments online as staff were not in person to accept checks.
 
For Program Assistants Lillian Cantwell and Hannah Hall, who both started working in SSO in early March 2020, as Lillian noted, the situation “was a bit surreal.” Lillian and Hannah worked in the office a mere three weeks before transitioning to remote work. 
 
As Lillian recounts the experience: “We were relaying information as we were learning it. I remember checking the call logs and seeing that Hannah and I each took 70 calls in one day in mid-March. We threw ourselves into it, and we had great support from the rest of the SSO team, both in answering our questions and in hopping on the phones to help clear the hold queue when necessary.” 
 
Hannah mentions another process that helped prioritize and process their workload. Since many questions could be categorized, SSO prepared template answers beforehand that Lillian, Hannah and other responders could refer to. “This was especially helpful when we received a flood of emails and calls about the same topic,” said Hannah. “Having answers prepared and understood ahead of time, though it does not keep the call volume low, it keeps the calls short.”
 
Looking back: Lillian didn’t imagine she’d spend most of the year answering the office phone from her dining table while fending her cat from her keyboard. “With support from supervisors and co-workers, I’ve made it work,” she noted. “This year has been an exercise in adaptation and resilience, and I think it’s important to hold onto that willingness to evolve. I’m sure the creative problem-solving I’ve learned during the pandemic will continue to be of great use as we move forward,” she concludes. 
 
Hannah concurs. “I’m reclaiming the energy that was lost during the height of the pandemic and making sure to put it back into the new types of calls and emails we receive. People are excited to be returning to an open campus, and that is only going to keep growing; and if it means more calls and emails, we know we can handle it.” 
 
Nimbleness in action: Operations and Accounts Manager Ashlee Norris shared how SSO responded to the needs of customers during a time of unprecedented uncertainty: “We utilized technology in order to be successful. Staff felt more balanced in their home life and work life while working remote. Customers adjusted to our remote environment and continue to reach out to us for questions, concerns and comments.”
 
Regarding the now receding pandemic, Ashlee notes, “There have been stressful times, but utilizing each other is our greatest strength. We are a strong team who supports each other. If we did not have each other, this would have been an even harder time.”