Managing Well in a Remote World: Lessons from the UC Women in IT Community

four hands holding each other

By Annelie Rugg. We’re well past 100 days of the COVID-19 quarantine and still counting. Everything we thought we knew, including how to balance work and life, has required us to change, at least for now. And while we yearn for an end to things like supply shortages and event cancellations, there are some positive work adaptations that we might actually want to keep; that have made things, surprisingly, better.

Like many communities of practice over the past few months, the UC Women in Technology Committee (UC WIT) has set aside our monthly meeting agendas in favor of airing and sharing. Initially, it was about how to survive; now, we’re talking about how to thrive. The result has been a stream of occasionally ingenious, always intuitive responses aimed at managing our teams compassionately and effectively through a crisis. We’re now realizing that some of these methods are just plain good practices for the future.

What were we responding to? Sudden change, the unknowns, isolation, communication and service overload, burnout, personal/professional blur, fear, and more. These are pandemic-driven effects of what is known to result from “the collapse of the work-home boundary and our increased reliance on technology,” as noted by scholars Melissa Mazmanian (UCI) and Elizabeth Beckmann (USC) in Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working and Parenting in the Digital Age (Stanford University Press, 2020).

And what did we discover? Ways of responding, connecting, cooperating, and balancing that are getting us through the crisis and highlighting methods and approaches for management that we should sustain and grow. We realize that COVID has given us hands-on practice in approaches that help all employees stay motivated, feel safe, find balance, and even re-imagine our daily lives.

Here are some approaches committee members have tried and that we share with the idea that they may resonate in your team or unit.

Calendared Social Hours

Social time is important – and we’re not talking about work. These are sanctioned moments to get together and just have fun with each other and make personal connections. They aren’t mandatory, and there’s room in Zoom for everyone, even in large organizations. Successful events have had some structure. The key is to have fun! In the process, staff make personal connections, and get to know one another. Things that worked well:

  • Putting on hats or wigs
  • Meaningful Zoom backgrounds
  • Themed clothing
  • Sharing about a pet or memento of personal significance
  • Sharing musical or other talents (magic, poetry, art, etc.)
  • Hosting a pre-staff-meeting social half-hour – allows people to drop in early and commiserate (as often happens prior to in-person meetings!).

 Webinar Roundups

A gathering for people to share about webinars they attended. There are so many good offerings, we can’t possibly attend them all, or we end up joining late. Coming together for quick roundups of the week’s or month’s webinars helps everyone to learn what was covered, or what’s coming. It also gives voice to the varied perspectives of all employees, regardless of rank or role, which helps us get to know each other and our interests and strengths better.

Backup Coverage

Being sure to make arrangements to provide people breaks, especially when they are working so intensely. Examples include:

  • When staff are working around the clock, schedule back-up coverage so they can take a vacation day.
  • Pre-arrange secondary/tertiary backups for all staff in case of illness or home/personal challenges. Cross-training should include making sure your backup attends your key meetings.
  • Let subordinates take over for their managers at meetings.

One-on-One Check-ins

Attend to and strengthen one-on-one relationships by checking in with people to see how they’re doing and what they need. Use Slack or small meetings.

  • Recruit helpers who want to engage across the organization, to scale your check-in efforts if your group is large, and ensure caring people are keeping tabs on each other.
  • Recruit the people who are grumbly about the situation. Give them the agency to reach out to others and be part of the solution, and they may become your best partners.

Tech Cafés

Showcase tips and tricks with technology (e.g., Zoom rooms, backgrounds, Mural, Canva, Slack integrations). These are easy to put together on Zoom or Slack. Focus on the low-hanging fruit applicable to many people (e.g., “How and when to create Zoom rooms,” “MS Teams tips and tricks,” How to make a flyer in Canva”). Keep them to 30 minutes so they fit into people’s days, helping people with what they need.

Meeting Moderation

Zoom connects us and connection is key. And still we have learned it’s important to do everything in moderation, including Zoom. There are several things you can do to help break the Zoom monotony and give people “permission” to look forward to un-Zooming.

  • Zoom-free days. Designate Zoom-free days to give everyone space for focused individual work, and to feel less scheduled or “chunked” by Zoom starts and ends. An ongoing series of weekly Zoom-free days has the added benefit of a future release-valve from what might otherwise feel endless or overwhelming.
  • No lunchtime meetings. Same benefits, different rule.
  • Reduce standard meeting times. Cutting one-hour meetings to 50 minutes and 30-minute meetings to 25 minutes gives attendees mental and physical breaks. A side benefit of shorter meeting times is people tend to stick to the agenda better.
  • Voice only. Many meetings don’t need video, so agree to make them “conference calls” where you can just listen/speak without as much pressure of being “on.” Doing this means you can even take your meeting on a walk!

Permission to Set Boundaries

Encourage your staff to say “no” to some meetings when the schedule is intense, and give them permission to preserve “me” time or family time, whether that be strict work start and end times, or not answering email except during designated hours.

 Scheduled Wellness

Find, promote, and give staff permission or even set a team challenge to enroll in a wellness-focused class or event such as virtual mindfulness, meditation, or online yoga and fitness. Put wellness on your own schedule and encourage your staff to do the same. We all need to be pushed out of our comfort zone and our most dedicated staff need to be pushed to take care of themselves, not just the work. Having a regularly scheduled time for wellness each day and week, which our boss and colleagues support, will not just help us through COVID – it’s a life changing habit.

Annelie Rugg, chair of the UC Women in Technology Committee, and Humanities CIO at the Center for Digital Humanities, UCLA.Annelie Rugg is chair of the UC Women in Technology Committee, and Humanities CIO at the Center for Digital Humanities, UCLA.

Join the conversation with UC Women in Tech on the UCTech Slack channel #women_in_tech.

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