How to Lead During a Pandemic

Published: Jun 18, 2020

 Career Readiness       Remote Work       Workplace Issues       
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There has been a lot of discussion during the past three months about how to most effectively serve students remotely. Tips on holding virtual appointments, remote networking strategies, and lists of employers who are actually hiring during this pandemic have all been important topics of discussion. I’ve been impressed with how quickly higher education as a whole (not known for its lightning-quick adaptations!) and career services professionals, in particular, have been able to change their service models to provide the support and tools students continue to need.

As the Executive Director of a career services office, I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about how to best support my team members during this unprecedented time. Although our office participated in a “Mission Continuity” crisis planning exercise in November, none of us thought we would be implementing the plan just a few months later! Many of us in the career services profession chose this work because we love the daily interactions we have with students and colleagues and interacting with others entirely through conference calls, emails, and texts is a new experience to which we are all acclimating. The following are some steps we’ve implemented to ensure this acclimation goes as smoothly as possible.

The Basics.

Of course, the bare minimum needed to effectively work remotely is adequate technology.  Our office did an assessment of who might need to borrow a computer from the office if their one at home was outdated. In addition, we have worked closely with our technology provider to gain access to webinar platforms (such as BlueJeans Events and Zoom) so that we can continue to provide appointments, workshops, and information sessions for students. We quickly set up Microsoft Teams channels to streamline communications (including one for technology questions and assistance).

With so many technology options ranging from BlueJeans, Zoom, and Teams, we are working through what works best for each team and each type of meeting. We’ve found Teams to be a great resource for quick communication throughout the day, easily sharing documents and files with colleagues, and holding virtual staff meetings, while BlueJeans Events has been great for student-focused programs and those involving outside speakers.

Like most of you, we have also devoted time to evaluating virtual career fair platforms for next year. We’ve been considering a range of factors such as the type of communication channels each platform provides (video, audio, text), cost, the number of employer and student participants each platform can accommodate, the type of data we can get from the platform afterward to assess each event, the level of customer support provided, references from current platform users, and how well the virtual fair platforms will integrate with the other platforms our office currently uses.

Acknowledge that working environments are not identical. 

Working environments now differ much more dramatically than they did when we were all in the office. With childcare facilities closed, many staff members are now simultaneously playing the roles of career advisor, parent, and teacher.  Interruptions are to be expected from small children needing assistance, to help elderly parents who may need care, or to walk pets. It is important to acknowledge this reality and make clear that staff shouldn’t feel that they are doing something wrong if a child pops up on a Zoom meeting or if a staff member needs to structure their day differently. It’s a time of competing priorities, and from what I’ve seen, introductions to kids and pets are almost universally welcomed during this pandemic! 

Check in frequently and maintain community. 

Our office, probably like yours, is not just about getting the work done, although that is just as important now as before the coronavirus surfaced.  It’s also about creating a network and leaning on each other when we might need advice or support. Such interactions happen easily when we gather around the coffee pot in the office in the morning or at the end of a weekly staff meeting when we always save time for “personals”. It’s less likely to happen when we don’t casually see each other throughout the day. 

It’s important to plan and incorporate structured virtual ways to encourage this community.  For example, on our Microsoft Teams channel, we have an “In the Back” channel for all those conversations that would take place in the back of the office at the coffee pot. There are lots of interesting topics there, ranging from gardening pictures to new pet additions, to Netflix suggestions. I’ve actually learned quite a bit about my colleagues during our remote work that I didn’t know!

We also are an office known for celebrating all of the good things going on in our lives. This tradition has not ended and we recently replaced our normal weekly staff meeting with a virtual baby shower, complete with “guess that baby” games and a sing-along. The time spent on creating this community was well spent.

Encourage time off.

As I write this blog, I’m reminded that I was originally scheduled to be in Italy for a long-awaited trip. That obviously didn’t happen. I’ve found as a manager that staff members are taking much less time off than typical, partially because the lockdown we are in has reduced the possibility for traditional vacations, but also because people are worried about how it will look if they aren’t answering their emails or responding to calls immediately. They worry that it may appear that they aren’t really working. 

Summer is officially here and I’ve encouraged my team to take the time off they’ve earned and to relax at home. Disconnecting from technology is more important now than ever.  Helpful, however, is to encourage staff to publicly list their vacation days on their schedules and in their away messages so that others are aware that the individual is taking official paid time off.

Be as transparent as possible. 

There are many more questions than answers right now and most universities have not yet decided how the fall will look in terms of whether the remote work will continue or if students will return to campus. Many colleges have been hit hard financially and worries about budget cuts and layoffs abound. While most of us don’t have all the answers (because decisions have not been made yet in many cases), I do think it is important to be as transparent as possible with staff about what I do know and what I am hearing from those above me. As an office, it’s critical that we plan for all contingencies in the fall and such planning is not possible without staff being aware of what options are being considered.

Document your work. 

It is more important now than ever to be accountable for our work and to show how productive the staff has been. In the past, we’ve been required to submit an annual report at the end of the year. With the pandemic, we’ve been asked to report weekly on what our staff has accomplished to explicitly demonstrate the value that we continue to bring to the educational process. We’ve reported on the number of appointments each week, the number of document reviews, live virtual programs, and newly created videos and resources like the COVID community on our website. Given that students have continued to pay tuition while learning remotely, it is imperative that we are able to demonstrate that we too are still providing the services that have always been available. 

It's been a strange few months for all of us, but I’m optimistic that many of the tools we’ve implemented and processes we’ve created will continue to be incredibly helpful to all of us when we eventually return to campus.  There is a silver lining to the past three months and that is to show that we are equipped to serve our students wherever we are physically located and I’m confident we will emerge stronger than ever.

Dr. Barbara Hewitt is the Executive Director of Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania, leading a team of 30 staff members serving approximately 21,000 students and post-docs. Barbara believes strongly in the power of education to change lives and indeed the world and has enjoyed focusing her career on helping students and alumni to take what they have learned while in school to contribute to society in their own unique ways.