Carolina employees who started work after the pandemic and have only met their colleagues through Zoom have found ways to feel connected.
Jane Calloway, The Well, Tuesday, May 11th, 2021
Resiliency and flexibility are two characteristics Carolina employees have shown during the year-long pandemic. Among Carolina’s new employees over the past year, some have worked only remotely, never having met their colleagues outside of a Zoom screen.
The Well spoke to several employees who began work following the pandemic to learn what it was like to start a new job, meet colleagues and integrate into a team without being in the same physical space.
Law school, bar exam, first full-time job
Brittany Williams started her first full-time job during the pandemic.
She graduated from North Carolina Central University School of Law in May 2020, took the bar exam in July 2020 and started her job as an assistant professor of criminal law at the School of Government last year in mid-August. “I’ve been in school my whole life, from kindergarten all the way through law school,” she said.
Williams finished law school just after the pandemic started. She had planned to study for the bar exam in NCCU’s law library over the summer, but with the library closed, she had to study at home. While the bar exam is now given virtually, Williams took the two-day test at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, where she and 700 other people — all wearing masks — were spread out in two buildings for six hours each day.
Williams participates in the School of Government’s bi-weekly town halls to stay updated and meets regularly with a small faculty group and a group of colleagues who specialize in criminal law. The school also hosts weekly virtual coffee breaks where employees gather to talk about anything except work. Children and pets often drop in, too. These gatherings take the place of dropping by someone’s office to say hello, she said.
She added that most meetings usually start with a few minutes of conversation before getting to business.
After starting work, she went to the school one day to pick up something. Dean Mike Smith was standing outside the building when she arrived. “It took me a minute to recognize who he was because he was wearing a mask,” she said. “I had only seen him on Zoom calls.”
Williams says the easiest part of starting a new role while working remotely has been how helpful and supportive all of her colleagues have been. “Because everyone’s been so helpful, it’s been very easy to dive into work. I feel like I’ve found my place pretty easily.”
To stay healthy during the pandemic, Williams ensures she ends her work in time to go to the gym for a group fitness class or be outside for a walk on a trail. “I give myself a hard deadline to stop, and I take some time for me,” she said. “It’s important to find time to step away, even though you are at home and close to your computer.”
While some employees were already working in an office before they began to work remotely, she said, “I’m starting from home and having to go into the office. I’m interested to see how things will be once we do get back to the building. I’ve never had that experience.”
Working remotely from Pakistan
Obed Pasha interviewed for his job at Carolina in February 2020, came to look for a home in March and then the pandemic happened. He and his family moved to Chapel Hill in mid-May, and he started his new role as an assistant professor of public management at the School of Government in June 2020.
Moving to the area from Cleveland, Ohio, he, his wife and their two children settled in. Realizing that the pandemic was going to keep him from working in person for some time, he and his family traveled to Pakistan for a three-month visit with both his family and his wife’s family, who live in the same neighborhood within walking distance of each other.
Pasha continued to work remotely from his parents’ sofa, while they enjoyed time with their grandchildren.
Pasha credits the School of Government’s strong orientation program for helping him acclimate to his new role as an assistant professor of public management. For the first month, he and other new employees met with colleagues from all areas of the school to get an overview of its work.
His workspace at home is either a bedroom, so that he can separate himself from his two small children, or outside. “When the weather is above 65 degrees, my porch is my workspace.”
The biggest challenge with working remotely, he says, has been not being able to meet in person with colleagues for extended conversations about the culture of the organization and to learn the informal rules and ways of working.
His biggest surprise is how easy it’s been to get into the habit of having Zoom conversations. “All of the shortcomings of it are being experienced by everyone else,” he said.
To stay well, Pasha and his wife stay focused on their two children. “They don’t let us think about other things happening,” he said. “They keep us busy. We are tired, in a good way.”
With warmer weather, the family looks forward to more activities outdoors.
Asking questions is key to onboarding
Shenetta Lawson interviewed in person for a job as a financial clerk at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in February 2020 and was hired in March 2020, but her first day of work was from her home.
She recently celebrated her one-year anniversary at the University on March 30. Looking back on the past year she said, “I haven’t seen my colleagues in person since my interview, but we’re like a family now.”
To learn about her job responsibilities, Lawson worked one-on-one with her supervisor over Zoom and also with her predecessor.
Lawson credits her team for making it easy to transition to a new role with a new employer. She works across a number of departments and, in the course of work, she’s interacted with many colleagues.
“I was a little nervous starting out. You want to be sure you’re learning your new role and doing a good job,” she said. “The whole business school was so welcoming, and I love the fact that we are close-knit. Everyone’s been so welcoming.”
Allowing time during team meetings for check-ins and a little fun by playing word games and Pictionary allowed the team to stay connected during the difficult times of the pandemic. “Laughter is good for you,” she said.
To stay healthy during the pandemic, she’s continued her workouts and walks in the neighborhood. During March’s Virtual WellBeing Week, she tried virtual yoga and mindfulness classes that she’s added to her routine.
Her advice for others starting a new role: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
A hurricane on her first day
Carolina’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson moved across the country from Washington state to start her new role on Aug. 3, just as students were returning to campus to begin the fall semester.
“I moved in at the same time our students were moving in,” she said.
The first weeks were eventful: Her first day of work included a hurricane in the weather forecast and the campus pivoted to remote learning on her seventh day.
Even before arriving in Chapel Hill, Johnson said she started the transition into her role by reading background information and having individual conversations with colleagues.
Juggling a cross-country move and getting her family settled, Johnson said her early days in her new role were spent meeting students and their parents, her team and other co-workers across campus and doing lots of listening and learning, along with understanding the University’s financial challenges and how to address those for her organization.
“Ordinarily when you start a new job, there’s a grace period of time when you have the opportunity to learn and listen,” she said. “We had to expedite that learning while I’m needing to make decisions on a daily basis.”
She leads an office of more than 300 staff members serving 30,000 students. During the pandemic, Johnson met with students in her office, on walks around the campus with them or sitting outside the Frank Porter Graham Student Union, and she’s also built relationships in virtual spaces.
One thing that eased her transition was her familiarity with using technology. Before coming to Carolina, she taught remotely for the University of Southern California. She said she was used to creating online dialogues with her students and drawing them out in a virtual classroom. “I was used to building those relationships in a virtual space. Having that experience teaching online was an asset to me in doing that.”
Johnson works a hybrid schedule, generally three days in the office and two days at home, where she’s set up an office in a spare bedroom.
She says she’s found “a real sense of community here that I felt from my first conversations. That sense of Tar Heel family has real meaning to people. It is a closely held value.”
One thing Johnson hopes that she’ll continue after the pandemic is the importance of preserving family time. “When I’m with family, I want to really be with family, and when I’m working, I’m at work,” she said. “I want to be present in those moments.”
Bringing new employees onboard during a pandemic can be a challenge and adapting orientation practices is a good place to start.
Aimee Wall, senior associate dean, School of Government, planned for new faculty to arrive last summer, taking some meetings already structured and transitioning the format for Zoom.
Here are three things she did:
- Converted a series of in-person meetings to a Zoom format with the SOG’s division directors to give the new faculty an overview of the school’s functions to build an understanding of its service mission.
- Scheduled brief in-person meetings at the school to deliver computer equipment and offered a tour of the building to provide the new employees with access to their offices.
- Reinforced community building by extending meetings for a few minutes or scheduling informal conversations on Zoom so that employees could have what would have been hallway or office chats.