This year, things have been different. The way we work, live and socialize has changed and we have all had to adapt. Despite these changes, core competencies have remained a constant for success in our workplaces. The CACEE Competencies include Collaboration, Communication, Digital Literacy, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and Ethics as core abilities (CACEE, 2019). These are all critical skills for professional work for both students and career practitioners to have and employ on a daily basis at work. While the world has changed, as professionals it is our responsibility to remember that some things, like workplace communication must remain important despite the circumstances.
My work story from March 2020 might be similar to yours. On Friday, March 13, I started working remotely and the following week, leading a team without daily or even weekly in-person connection. As I prepared to leave my office, expecting we would be back in a few weeks, I was most concerned with the most basic needs including computers, stationary, cords and keyboards. If there is anything 2020 has taught us, is not to underestimate what might happen and now, like many of you, we remain working remotely in a digital world.
What became apparent to me early, was that our team which functions with laughter, care and kindness, needed to adjust to more than just the location where we were working. We had to create connectivity in a new way, a new world. There were many different scenarios, for our team, we had members who were now isolated, living and working alone in the same space. We had team members with young children, trying to balance their sudden promotion to Principal and Teacher for their families, while still working their regular hours. We have a diverse team with introverts who loved this new lifestyle and extroverts who suffered without the camaraderie of working alongside their colleagues.
We also found ourselves servicing a student population experiencing these dramatic changes and requiring additional supports. The solutions we were working through were immediate, implemented as quickly as they were envisioned, and we were constantly working to keep pace with the needs from our clients. Essentially, it was the most demanding work period of my professional career and as the leader of the team, I firmly believed we needed to maintain and even improve the engagement of our team to succeed in this new world.
Our challenges were not unique, all workplaces whether in person or remote, have been diligently adjusting to the new reality. But challenges are also opportunities, and when we moved to remote services, together with the Managers in my leadership team we decided that our team culture thrived with engagement and that the core competency of communication needed to be maintained. First, we decided that we would connect as “in-person” as we could. This meant a Zoom call with video’s on, jokes about our “Muppets” screen became common place, but we took time to prioritize seeing each other daily. This required using our most precious resource, time, to engage daily. Those first calls were clunky, we were not experienced with the technology and many of us talked with the mute button on. Fast forward 7 months and you will watch a team that is efficient, choosing to start each day with 10-15 minutes real time engagement. Daily a few colleagues share a personal or professional success, and this has become our replacement of that morning greeting when you arrive at work. We use entertaining backgrounds, occasionally a zoom bomb cat or dog makes an appearance and more than once my own children have waved hello. This first lesson for our collaboration was that we needed to be able to see each other daily and this continues to be a key factor for our connectivity.
The distinction of where work begins when you are always at home is easy to lose. It can be tempting to just do “one more thing” and continue plugging along through breaks, lunch and past your end time. The support our students required was intense and took a personal toll on staff wellness. We discovered that despite the short commute, workplace balance was necessary. After the first few weeks of remote working, many of my colleagues expressed they were not taking care of themselves. So, lesson number two to create team collaboration, was implementing the core value of taking care of each other. It sounds too simple to be effective; the ‘buddy system’ meant that the team partnered up and someone took a break with you, or sent you a quick SKYPE message to check in at the beginning of lunch. We encouraged taking time to really check in, have a coffee with each other over Zoom (video’s on) and strengthen relationships. While seemingly simple, when we implemented it improved our ‘workplace’, the team productivity and our collaboration increased.
The third thing can share as we navigate this new world, is that the connections we have need to be nourished. While our team was never busier with student needs, the connections we have at work sustain and investing time to maintain these connections is critically important. With all the restraints of a pandemic, our team was still able to engage with a virtual team building event with teams racing to escape a virtual room. We hosted an optional, socially distanced outdoor scavenger hunt where we brought our own lunches, wore masks to enjoy a late Alberta fall day and included those who couldn’t attend on FaceTime. While it’s different and not perfect, we are trying to ensure that the collaboration on the team survives not seeing each other, working remotely and this commitment to this core competency has improved our individual experience and team culture.
This year has definitely been different, and it is still not clear when we will all return to the office. While many things have changed, the need for sustaining collaboration in the workplace has never been more urgent and I encourage you to sustain your team connectivity and share your best practice, it is absolutely worth the effort it requires.
About the author: Jenny Cruikshank is Associate Director, Student Services at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering and a member of the CACEE National Board.