Working during COVID-19 is not business as usual. The School of Public Health supports changes in our work culture that improve faculty and staff work/life balance, while recognizing that individuals’ home circumstances vary. We believe that improving our work-life balance will lead to better health and wellbeing, and to productivity that is sustainable for each individual. We also recognize that achieving this requires a culture shift: all of us need to embrace understanding, empathy, and flexibility — values central to our school’s work environment.
More than 200 faculty and staff responded to the SPH Work/Life Fit survey in summer 2020 and participated in a corresponding Community Forum held on Aug. 15. They shared information about current needs and recommendations about how to support a better work arrangement during COVID-19.
The information below represents common themes, trends, and approaches that emerged from the survey and the forum discussion.
Faculty and staff may temporarily borrow items from their campus work environment to ensure they have the equipment and set up for an effective home office. Talk with your supervisor for permission and remember to keep a log of borrowed items.
IT and equipment needs: Contact the SPH IT team to discuss any unmet IT and internet needs.
Ergonomics: Consider the Department of Environmental Health & Safety guidance on the set-up of your home workspace.
Management in the COVID-19 environment requires all of us to think more clearly about how we conduct the day-to-day operations of our missions of research, education, and community engagement and service. Since we can’t conduct business as usual, what management steps do we need to take to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances? (By the way, the steps described below should be considered “most promising practices,” even in a non-COVID environment!)
Prioritizing Work Projects and Initiatives
- School leaders are examining work projects and initiatives, asking what we should start doing, keep doing, and stop or delay doing.
- Managers and supervisors are encouraged to adopt a similar framework and engage in discussions with their teams.
- Be especially attentive to pausing or discontinuing work at this time.
- “Stop” includes items that are not working and need to be eliminated so the team can save energy for other priorities. During this year, teams should also consider what projects and tasks should be paused if they become no longer urgent or necessary. Decisions to stop or pause initiatives and work can help set more manageable workloads and realistic expectations during Covid.
- “Keep” includes items that are working well and advance our mission or meet important needs. This discussion will help the team think about the bright spots and consider how they can be replicated.
- Although it may be difficult to imagine “starting” new initiatives or work, adapting to the challenges of 2020 and remote work requires creativity to rethink what we are prioritizing and how we are working.
People may be hesitant to share their challenges in a group setting, so we encourage supervisors to check in individually with team members to ask how things are going and, where needed, to adjust goals. Because of the new annual performance appraisal approach, staff members and their supervisors should already have regular check-ins scheduled. Division heads or designated senior faculty should check in regularly and individually with junior faculty. Please advise Lynn Eberly, associate dean for faculty affairs on how junior faculty are faring and, where needed, work with her to address challenges.
- Probationary faculty whose work is adversely affected by the pandemic in the 2020-2021 academic year may request an additional extension of the tenure clock. (Note: This is in addition to the automatic tenure clock extension all tenure-track faculty who were at the University during spring 2020 were granted.)
To ensure responsive service, work groups are encouraged to have some members available during standard hours. We suggest 10 am to 4 pm Monday through Friday, but groups may shift or split that window as needed for their members. In addition, service groups are encouraged to widen their response time goals, e.g., from 24 hours to 48 hours, where indicated.
Recognizing that some group members may find it easier for their work-life fit to work evenings and weekends, emails and messages may be created at those times but responses are not expected then. Those group members can consider delayed emails so others don’t feel a need to respond at all times.
Team Building and Connections
Consider ways to build camaraderie and maintain connections on your team and with other colleagues, including:
- Schedule pre- or post-meeting time to allow folks who are interested and available to connect personally and talk about topics beyond the focus of the meeting.
- Set optional time for virtual coffee or lunch breaks to share time together.
- Have a conversation with your work group to learn how your team would like to stay connected during remote working.
Resources for Working at Home
Now that work has blurred boundaries with our home life, how do we reduce the stress? View the following resources:
- The UMN Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing can help with sound advice on navigating work at home, setting up a home office, managing K-8 learning at home, keeping relationships healthy, and much more.
- SPH Health and Wellbeing website
- Provost’s Information for Faculty and Instructors with Family Responsibilities website
Meeting and Zoom Fatigue
SPH committees and workgroups should take steps to reduce meeting and Zoom fatigue. Keep in mind that most work gets done outside of meetings, not during meetings!
We recognize that achieving these work culture changes will be particularly challenging for some groups. For example, some require international communications across multiple time zones with research, teaching, or service partners. Other groups may be conducting human subjects research with evening and weekend research visits. Of course, we also understand the importance of meetings for students, staff, and faculty who are new to the school and rely on virtual meetings to get to know people. Yet even in these situations, steps may be taken to reduce fatigue and maximize positive outcomes.
The gift of time in our busy lives is often the best gift of all! Effective use of meetings arises when leaders consider the need and arrangements of meetings and ask their team members for input.
- Consider the need and frequency of meetings: How often are your meetings and can you reduce their frequency and still accomplish the group’s business? Can your group designate periods without meetings each week, perhaps Monday mornings and Friday afternoons? Can the group designate one or two weeks each semester to give people time to think and plan (i.e., no meetings scheduled)?
- Consider the organization of meetings: Distributing agendas and supporting materials in advance produces meetings that flow better and are more efficient. Be wary of introducing too many topics for the time allotted. For each topic, designate a time-frame and label the purpose of each, e.g., “For Discussion,” or “Action Required,” with a brief description attached.
- Consider how information will be shared: Meeting minutes, notes, or recordings should be taken as a record of discussion and decisions, and for the benefit of those not attending. Consider rotating turns taking notes. Use Google shared documents or folders to share minutes and other items.
During COVID, nearly all of our meetings are virtual. While we are fortunate to have effective technology, it creates its own challenges of fatigue that are now well documented. But we can fight back against “Zoom and Doom” by paying attention to practices that reduce virtual fatigue.
For example, experts suggest that you:
- Avoid multitasking while in a virtual meeting;
- Reduce extraneous visual stimuli by closing browser tabs or apps open on your desktop;
- Build in breaks for longer meetings; make it okay for people to turn off their video if they aren’t speaking;
- Use plain backgrounds in your video; and
- Consider whether an audio conference alone might be more than enough for many meetings.
Teaching and learning are core to our school and University. We value the work of all who contribute to this mission. Within the limits of course credit requirements, we urge faculty and staff instructors to develop strategies to streamline their courses’ efficiency and flow to improve learning.
In the COVID era, instructors might consider team teaching when possible. Contact your division head if you would like to discuss this option.
Reducing Student Stress
Course instructors should keep in mind that students, too, are under extra stress during this time. Clarity of course materials and how readings, assignments, and assessments link to specific objectives are welcome methods to reduce stress.
Instructors can re-assess assignment work loads and what they can reasonably accomplish within the course’s credit hours and competency requirements. Questions to consider asking yourself:
- Are there too many topics, readings, other assignments, or assessments?
- Is there time mid-semester for review and catch-up for both students and instructors?
- Would your course Canvas site benefit from fewer links to optional materials?
- SPH E-Learning and Academic Technology Team (the team has ready answers for your challenges and can point you to resources)
- Center for Educational Innovation (CEI)
- Office of the Provost: important academic planning resources for faculty and instructional staff.
Annual performance appraisals are an important opportunity to reflect on past and future goals and gauge progress on them. Because of the challenge of COVID-19, SPH is adopting a more flexible approach.
What will change? For staff, we already implemented a less formal approach for the 2020-21 performance review year (April 1 through March 31) with emphasis on flexible goal setting and regular check-ins to allow for more feedback and adjustments. We encourage the same for faculty and anticipate a similar flexible annual performance appraisal approach.
All SPH employees will be permitted to submit a pandemic impact statement with their self-evaluation.
- Staff goal setting: Employees and supervisors can continue to reach out to SPH Human Resources about goal setting and ongoing check-ins. Prior presentations and other helpful tools are available on the Human Resources pages on the intranet.
- Faculty goal setting: Lynn Eberly, associate dean for faculty affairs, and division heads will support and coach faculty as they adjust goals and work this year.
Reminding People to Use Vacation
SPH leaders and supervisors should remind and encourage people to take the time away to which they are entitled, especially vacation time. If people have difficulty stepping away, encourage taking half-day vacations, or a day here and there. This is essential for our employees’ and their families’ health and wellbeing.
Paid and unpaid leaves are available to employees depending on the circumstances. The SPH HR Team can help faculty, staff, and supervisors navigate the policies and manage their leaves.
Flexible Work Schedules
Supervisors are expected to engage in discussions with their employees to identify needs and implement schedules that make sense for the work and team as well as the individuals.
- Flexible schedules such as four 10-hour days or other alternative schedules with either early or late start times are encouraged where they allow the best work-life fit for an employee.
- Some faculty and staff — particularly those with caregiver duties such as overseeing their children’s remote learning — might find working evenings or weekends help with their work-life fit. Having stated core work hours may feel contrary to flexible work schedules, but they help people set clear work/home boundaries and be able to feel like there are times when they do not have to be quickly responsive.
- In addition, we encourage all employees to clearly communicate to their groups their own core work hours, recognizing that these hours may change by day of the week or sporadically based on other circumstances.
Continuous Quality Improvement
SPH leadership pledges to check in regularly with faculty and staff to learn what is changing for better or worse, or not changing at all. We will check informally by survey (so that anonymity can be preserved) and informally by hosting “open-door” listening sessions.
Share Your Feedback
We encourage faculty and staff to email Dean Finnegan (firstname.lastname@example.org), division heads, Human Resources (Susan Rafferty or Tracey Kane), or Faculty Affairs (Lynn Eberly) with observations, questions, and ideas for improvement.