Field Notes: Telecommuting during a pandemic

March 18, 2020
  • Professional Well-Being
  • covid-19
  • telecommuting
man sitting at laptop with child on lap

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Kristina C. Anderson, EdD, Clinical Faculty member in Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

I am a retired college administrator who now teaches online, so I have experienced both office life and telecommuting. I appreciate both modes of work, but I suspect that many of us who are new to working from home might be struggling with the transition, especially since we are worrying about loved ones, colleagues, and friends during this uncertain time. I had an idea while vacuuming – a frequent occurrence for telecommuters – that I might possess some insights that are worthy of sharing. Some of these suggestions are serious and some are tongue-in-cheek. Mostly, they are intended to impart camaraderie. We are in this together.

1. Know thyself. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? If you are an introvert, you may relish this alone time and find new productivity. My partner works from home but travels to her large federal office once a week. She is a strong introvert, and although she appreciates her coworkers, she is frequently distracted by their conversations in “Cube-land.” She thrives in our home office, even if the cat occasionally demands treats. I, however, am an extrovert and need my people time. Social distancing will require us extroverts to be creative, but we can use technology to get our people “fix.”

2. Know thy staff. Are you responsible for others in your department or unit? Understanding their ways of work will help you maintain continuity of operations. You might even find you are able to accomplish deferred projects during this interim. Introverts, for example, are great at solo projects that entail a lot of detail – a staff manual you always want to update; a complicated process you need to document; or a potential policy that requires research. Your extroverts, however, and/or younger staff members may want more frequent contact and direction. Recognize their styles and be responsive to them. 

3. Keep a daily routine. In order for everyone to feel connected, use the technology available to all of us. Schedule daily briefings or staff meetings or just chats via Zoom, WebEx, or whatever platform you prefer. If you are the boss, and that is not your expertise, assign it to a team. And use the interim period to hone your tech skills. I had to learn a TON when I started to teach online. It was a whole new vocabulary. I feel your pain, but this old dog did learn new tricks!

4. Keep a personal routine. Easier said than done. I really try to get up, dress, drink my coffee, and read the headlines before “going to work” in the home office. But I confess that sometimes I find it’s 11:00, I’m still in my sweats, and I’m down some obscure YouTube/Broadway musicals from the 1980s/“Did you hear this Patti LuPone song?” rabbit hole. But I digress…you find the routine that works for you. 

5. Catch up on professional development. Remember all of those journal articles you wanted to read? Those podcasts you saved? Do it. Now is the time to think, ponder, read, imagine, create, and reflect. You may be tempted (or need) to show you are being productive, and there is merit in that request. However, we rarely give ourselves the space we require to contemplate. In our time-obsessed American society, reflection is a radical act. Be radical!

6. Catch up on sleep. I am not kidding. Your body needs it. Your mind needs it. Your spirit needs it. 

7. Connect with others. Use this opportunity to update your LinkedIn profile. I periodically review my contacts and schedule virtual coffee talks with folx I have not chatted to recently. Connecting with colleagues once or twice a week will not only support our mental health, it will nurture relationships at a time when we all desperately need them. Here are some tips for staying in touch.

8. Connect with yourself. This recommendation sounds touchy-feely, but it aligns with professional development. My doctoral dissertation was about resilience through the lens of mind, body, and spirit. My most profound connections and ideas occurred during my daily walks around the neighborhood. There was something about getting out of the house and into nature and moving my body that opened my mind to new ways of thinking. There’s legit science about this concept, so move! Tai chi, yoga, walking the dog, running, whatever your gig is. Unglue your face from the screens and get going.

9. Read a book. An old-fashioned book made out of paper. Leadership research tells us that one of the most valuable assets for leaders is empathy. What is the best way to learn empathy? Reading fiction. Literature is not an indulgence; it is a necessity. 

10. Read the room (or household; or institution; or country). These are turbulent times. There may be days when you go all Marie Kondo on your house just as an effort to control something. Changing the batteries in our smoke detectors did not exactly spark joy, but it’s our Daylight Savings Time ritual and hopefully keeps a spark from becoming a blaze. It felt satisfying to care for something. It is O.K. to take a break from the office and the news.

Just because we are working from home does not mean we are always working. We need openness and boundaries. We need connection and space. Our mind/body/spirit relationship will be crucial to keeping ourselves and our communities healthy and resilient, and our ability to use our intuition and experience to analyze what we and our colleagues need, will enable us to weather the storm. And, if in doubt, be kind.