Drive into the office. Sip coffee. Chat with co-workers. Attend meetings. For many of us, that was the start to a typical workday before March 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came. For some, that meant working from home while kids and pets popped into the background of Zoom meetings. For others, it meant a hybrid schedule of balancing on-campus needs with off-campus work. And many staff members stayed on campus throughout, with new health and safety protocols in place as they kept things running.
With this fall’s return to campus, we’re still learning from the lessons of the past year and adapting how we do what we do. Here, we talked to three staff members who have been working on campus, on a hybrid schedule, or via a remote setup to find out what they experienced.
Occupational and Environmental Safety/Construction Manager
for University Housing and Dining
Mark Weiss’ team was making pandemic preparations even before the coronavirus was confirmed to be in Austin.
“We have a whole range of emergency plans in place, including infectious diseases,” Weiss says. “As COVID was making the news, we started reviewing our plans and started coordinating with our various campus partners.”
After spring break 2020, campus was closed for many, but that shutdown didn’t mean operations came to a standstill.
“A lot of our housing staff, our facility staff, our custodial staff, our residence life teams and staff members stayed on campus the entire time, never left, reported to work every day,” Weiss says. “We continued, I don’t want to call it normal operations because it wasn’t normal, but we continued all our operations, and we did a lot of training with our staff as well on how to protect yourself.”
On the housing side, Weiss’ team quickly had to figure out how to let students safely return to residence halls to get their belongings. Because of travel restrictions, some students had difficulty coming back to town, and the process lasted for weeks.
The university also manages several apartment complexes, including three on Lake Austin Boulevard, that remained open.
“They’re fully occupied all the time, so we were still maintaining full operations,” Weiss says.
In fall 2020, there were new health and safety procedures in place in residence and dining halls. Weiss’ team had to figure out everything from how to get the proper protective gear for staff to how to conduct socially distant fire drills.
Working on campus when so many people were gone was a surreal experience, Weiss says.
“Campus is always very busy, hustle bustle, vibrant, a lot of activities going on, and when this hit, … the whole feel of campus was just different,” he says.
Even for those who continued working on campus, the need for social distancing changed the experience.
“Staggering break times, staggering lunchtimes, there wasn’t the group gathering to take a break and kind of decompress and visit with your colleagues,” Weiss says. “It didn’t affect our operations, but the whole feel was just different.”
Through it all, Weiss and his team remain focused on serving students.
“A lot of campus entities don’t realize that on the housing and dining side, we’re a 24/7 operation when the residents return. We don’t close,” he says. “We have a really good staff, a really dedicated staff that want to help take care of these residents and help them learn, to adjust to college life. A lot of our residents, this is their first time away from home. So we’re constantly there for them.”
Manager of Operations and Events, Enrollment Management and Student Success
Even during a pandemic, the bills have to be paid. The mail keeps coming. Students need transcripts. Mimi Govea worked both on and off campus to help keep things running.
In the initial days of the pandemic, Govea helped coordinate equipment distribution for the staff members in her office’s portfolio so they could work from home.
“Some of them already had laptops, like a lot of our admissions recruiters, but so many of our staff members only had their desktops,” she says. “We had to figure out who needs what, where it needs to be sent, and do we have it in stock or is it something that we have to order? We had to order large quantities of laptops, headphones, keyboard and mouse sets.”
Govea could do some of her work at home, but other tasks had to be done in person, whether they were meetings with vendors, equipment distribution, putting up signs or cleaning out refrigerators. And, of course, there was all that mail.
“Our mailroom has never stopped working. They have continued to come into the office, even through COVID,” she says.
With so many buildings closed across campus, packages and mail piled up after campus closed. Govea and her team had everything routed to the UT Administration Building so they could sort, hold and distribute it all.
“There were times when I would come in and open some of the mail and scan it and send it to our accounting team, ‘Hey this looks like an invoice,’ or ‘Hey, this looks like a check, what are we supposed to do with it?” she says.
There were advantages to working on campus, Govea says.
“I have a daughter in college who had come home, and she was trying to go to school,” she says. “I have two grown kids who were trying to work from home, and so the internet, the bandwidth, that just wasn’t enough.”
Govea says working with a supportive team was key to making a flex schedule work.
“When you have so many people trying to work and trying to go to school in the same household, it’s just challenging. So many of our staff have young kids,” she says. “I’m very fortunate to work with the group of people that I do work with because everyone was so understanding and flexible.”
For those who do work from home at some point, Govea cautions that time management is important.
“When I’m at home, I don’t keep track of the time. I can continue to just work until 6, 7, 8 o’clock at night because it’s there,” she says. “When you come into the office, once you leave the office that’s it. There is more of a balance.”
Senior IT Manager, ITS-Campus Solutions
Before the pandemic, Rachel Graham worked 100% on campus.
“My department has had a voluntary telecommuting policy for employees for many years, but I chose to come to campus every day because I enjoy the campus environment, and it was easier to arrange for meetings with customers and with my team in person,” she says.
Once campus closed, she began working from home and, with her team, was immediately involved in several projects sparked by the closure, including working with the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid so it could continue to meet award packaging deadlines.
Like so many staff and faculty members, Graham has had to balance working from home with caring for family.
“I have 9-year-old twins who have been home continuously since the COVID closure,” she says. “They participated in school remotely for the whole last school year, and they occasionally enjoy ‘Zoom-bombing’ my online meetings. My colleagues are patient with their antics, and I’m lucky that they’re old enough to be more independent with school and entertaining themselves.”
Most of her days are a mix of online meetings and working on code development or other tasks, Graham says.
“Working from home, my day is longer but less structured than it had been when I worked on campus,” she says. “I feel fortunate that my job and my team are both conducive to flexible work arrangements because it allows me some latitude to schedule my day in a way that works for me.”
Maintaining balance is important, she says.
“I think ideally, someone working remotely should do whatever they can to separate their work life from their home life,” Graham says. “An ideal workspace might be one that is self-contained, with a door that closes when work is done. Working consistently long hours is a path to burnout, and it’s helpful to be able to shut down and be done for the day at a predictable time most days.”
Graham says her department as a whole has made the transition to remote work a positive experience.
“ITS as a department has really embraced remote work and flexible work arrangements for anyone whose positions allow it,” she says. “In my area, it’s understood that people may need to take time away during the day, or that someone may need to take some leave to balance their mental health. I’ve really appreciated the understanding that my colleagues have shown as they keep critical services running while others take a break or need more flexibility.”