On Oct. 12, Harvard Extension School hosted a Facebook Live discussion featuring Pamela Landis, Harvard Division of Continuing Education’s Chief of Staff.
Landis answered questions about how managers and employees alike can navigate a remote or hybrid work environment, how to ensure equity in a virtual workplace, how to address the needs of workers as the pandemic continues to affect the lives of many, and much more.
You can view the recorded video here. Below is a transcript of our discussion, which has been edited for length and clarity:
Rebecca Bakken, Digital Content Producer at Harvard DCE: Today we’re going to be talking about remote and hybrid work with Harvard Division of Continuing Education’s (DCE) Chief of Staff Pamela Landis.
Remote work is something many of us have become familiar with over the past year and a half. But even before workers were forced into their home offices by the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual teams were on the rise. In an increasingly global society, the ability to work remotely means more options and more flexibility for both employees and managers.
And Harvard DCE is a global community, encompassing the Extension School, Professional Development Programs, and Summer School. We serve learners from all backgrounds and walks of life, from nearly every country on the planet.
Remote work and distance learning are likely not new for our students, but there’s always a question of how to do it better. How to ensure better communication and collaboration, and how to foster a high functioning team in a virtual or hybrid environment. There are also questions of how working remotely can affect equity and advancement in the workplace. Let’s jump into some of these questions:
Kristen L. Pope, Social Media Manager at Harvard DCE:
What have you learned about remote work in the pandemic? And tell us about your experiences within DCE.
Pamela Landis, Chief of Staff at Harvard DCE: It has definitely been an interesting time. I joined DCE in the middle of the pandemic, so I started as a remote employee, and hadn’t met any of my colleagues at all. I had to start doing everything on Zoom—all of my meetings, all of my meet and greets.
And the one thing that I can say is it was actually a success. We had come so far, I think, from when the pandemic first hit last March, to when I joined that I was able to create a sense of community with my colleagues. We were able to connect. I was really able to learn about Harvard and about DCE. And I really was able to feel like I was part of the team. I think a lot of that has to do with everything that we had learned, our comfort with the technology that supported us.
What we have learned about working remotely during the pandemic is that we can do it. And we can still be productive and we can still be successful and we can still deliver results and create relationships and community. It might not be the same, but it can be done.
Pope: So encouraging. You just gave us the good rah rah cheerleader that we can do this. What better message to say than we can do this. This is possible. And what great experience you have Pamela, because this has been your experience, to come in as a remote employee and for the folks that have a lot of trepidation and a lot of concern about it, you just put us all at ease.
Bakken: This topic is really relevant to DCE too. I know we’re not talking about school right now, but a lot of schools pivoted really quickly to online in the beginning of the pandemic, and had to throw these programs together. And we were in a relatively good position because we’ve been doing this for so long. And so I think it’s always a relevant topic for our audience.
Are remote or hybrid work likely to become permanent in offices across the country or world?
Landis: Definitely. I think that remote work is here to stay, and in a very different way than it was before the pandemic hit. Before the pandemic, it was individual-based, every individual had to come and request their flex work based on their own personal situation. And it usually was based on a situation.
I think where we’re moving now is that this is here to stay. And it’s not just based on a specific reason. Everybody has learned that working remotely has given them so much back in their own lives. And people are demanding it now, people are requiring it, people have learned that this is actually beneficial, it’s really beneficial to our health.
What I’m seeing, and especially within DCE, is that companies are proactively engaging in it. They’re setting up remote work schedules, they’re telling their employees to work, not fully remote, but to do a hybrid work schedule. That includes two or three days in the office, two or three days at home.
And that way you can find the balance, we can preserve everything that we’ve learned during the pandemic, but we can also return to all the benefits that we got from being together in-person in the office.
What I’m seeing are employers really supporting it, really engaging with it, and encouraging their employees to look at a hybrid schedule. It’s definitely a changing workplace.
Pope: Pamela, you jumped right into our next question:
What are the benefits of the hybrid workplace for the organization and the workers? And then separately what are the drawbacks?
Landis: Well, I think everybody would say the benefits of being at home more is not having the commute—it’s two hours back in the day, it’s not the stress of racing into the office. Even for those people who have children, spending a little bit more time with their kids in the mornings or in the afternoons.
It’s really just being comfortable and not in that hustle and bustle. I’ve heard so many people talk about how they’ve increased their exercise regimen because they have that extra time. That maybe they’re eating healthier because they’re home with their kitchen right there next to them. I think in those ways people have found some self-care that has come out of being home a little bit slower pace. All of those things are truly beneficial.
And I’ve heard a lot about productivity, and I’ve experienced it myself, that when I’m home and I’m just focused and there’s no distractions and nobody coming into my office, that I can get a lot of work done.
What do I think some of the drawbacks are though? I mean, human nature is to connect with people, is to be with people. There’s a lot of collaboration, there’s whiteboarding that can happen [in person]. And, yes, there’s technology to support that, but there’s really nothing like someone walking into your office to say hi, to check in on how your day was. We spend a majority of our waking hours in our working environment.
Relationships and friendships and connection and human interaction is really, really critical. And just the little conversations that might happen in the hallway, as you’re walking to the restroom, as you’re walking into the water cooler, being able to have lunch with somebody. These are conversations that are really important and critical to self fulfillment, for productivity, the collaboration, the sense of community.
We think those are some of the things that we don’t get with working at home, which is why you can find a balance between the two.
Can you speak at all to how employees can manage any persisting mental and emotional needs of living through a pandemic?
Landis: Sure. And we definitely know there are long lasting and lingering effects of it. I think the biggest thing is to be kind to yourself and be forgiving to yourself. We’re all so hard on ourselves. We have such high expectations. I think that’s one of the most important things. Focusing on self-care and well-being, and taking care of yourself. That’s really important.
And knowing that you’re not in it alone. We all have different reactions to it, different levels of anxiety, different levels of stress as it comes to it. And that’s OK. It’s about taking care of yourself, reaching out for help. There are so many resources that are out there, whether you’re in school and you’re a student or you’re an employee working at a company. There are so many different programs to support you. It’s really important that people are forgiving, they take care of themselves, and they really focus on their well-being, and remembering that they’re not alone in this.
Pope: That was so gentle and human, Pamela. It’s that’s so important when we’re in a place where we can’t connect, to remain human, and not just pictures behind the Zoom camera. Simple yet powerful.
What kind of processes can leaders put into place to facilitate and address these types of needs?
Landis: I think that what we need to do is really create the space for employees to take care of themselves, to know that they’re supported. Create an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward, and being transparent about how they might be feeling. If they’re really struggling to come into the office one day, that’s OK, and to talk about it.
Also, as employers to provide the resources that people need. What type of well-being resources do you need? Is it an outlet to talk to someone? Is it the reminder that yoga might be important, or going to take a walk for the day? I think it’s us providing those tools and setting the standards and making sure that those boundaries are set for employees between home and work. And not having that expectation that you need to be on, and you need to be working all of the time. And how do we use the tools that we have to really help us do that?
I think as employers, it’s about creating the environment for people to feel safe and balanced and provide the tools that people need to do that and build those boundaries.
How can employees have productive conversations with managers about their needs with regard to working remotely and returning to the office?
Landis: Yes, so I think that follows on what we were just talking about. As an environment, as a company, or as employers it’s setting that stage to let people know that they’re supported, that they feel safe, that we’re empathetic and understanding, and that we’re supportive.
So, it’s really about the environment that you create so that employees can feel comfortable having those conversations and coming forward, and knowing that they are supported, and that we really do have the best interest of employees in mind. Because at the end of the day, healthy, happy employees are much more productive. And that’s what we’ve learned.
One of the things that we’re focused on too is making sure that our managers are trained. And that they have the resources that they need. So not just letting managers figure it all out for themselves, but how do we help those managers to understand different situations in the workplace, how to respond to it, what are the proper protocols or policies that are in place so that we can help the managers, who can then help their employees.
How then do we create a hybrid flex work policy through the equity lens, so that it benefits everybody at every level?
Landis: Equity has been a very, very interesting word, because by nature of who we all are, we’re so different that equity in and of itself is very hard to achieve. What we’ve really focused on is equity in the process for what we’ve been doing.
As we evaluate different requests and different needs that come forward, we’re using the same lens to look at those requests, and how people in different situations. But we know that there’s equity differences for those people who might live in the city and take public transportation to work, and that they don’t even have a car, versus those people who might live in the suburbs and they drive their car to work. There are inherent differences in that.
So, how do we look at the process for evaluating these requests, and making sure that the process is equitable? And that’s also about understanding different situations and employees, being transparent with us so we can have a conversation about it. Really understand what those needs are, where are those needs stemming from. And that’s how we’ve been approaching it. It’s really making sure that the process that we evaluate all of these are equitable.
From an approach standpoint, without getting into specifics of people, one of the things that we did was we set a schedule—a hybrid schedule for all employees, which was two days in the office, three days remote. Of course, you could come into the office as many days as you wanted.
We said, if that doesn’t work for you and two days in the office is too much and you’d like to request something different, there’s an exception process, and absolutely request it. We had a whole lot of people request an exception to that. And instead of looking at them each one off, what we did is we collected all of them with all of the reasons, and then we evaluated all of the reasons together. We kind of could group them into four different reasons that people had, and then we could then look at them in an equitable fashion. So, if there was a group of issues tied to the commute, tied to children being at home. And different things like that. That’s how we created an equitable process as we looked at [the reasons]. And we put them all through that same lens and that same framework as we look to those requests.
Bakken: Yeah, and I think that one maybe good side effect from this pandemic, I think that people are getting a little bit better at being vulnerable and talking about their needs when it comes to their working environment and talking those things out with their manager. So I’m glad that that process has gone well and you guys have found a way to look at that through the equity lens.
Landis: Yeah, absolutely. And we found too that one of the hardest things about coming back to the office has been kind of the unknown. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in the office. It’s been a long time since we’ve commuted, it’s been a long time since we’ve had to get dressed out of our sweatpants and come into the office. And what we’re hearing is once people do it once or twice, they’re comfortable again. It’s like rebuilding that muscle that we had about how to do it. And I know my first day back in the office, when I came home I was exhausted. It was a long day. But now I’ve rebuilt that muscle, and I’m smiling at the end of the day. I’m not so tired.
Bakken: In a similar vein, we’re talking about all the different reasons why people might need a hybrid or flexible situation. All kinds of reasons people might be caretakers, parents. People might have accessibility issues that just make it much, much easier for them to work from their home office. And so a couple of questions:
Workers who choose remote or hybrid work may be less likely to receive promotions than those who get into the office. Then, if so, how can workers stay engaged and ensure that they move ahead while maintaining a flexible schedule?
Landis: Right. Absolutely and there is so much research behind this. From my lens and where I said I know all of the research that has existed in the past and that is a very real experience that people have, and it really does happen. I think as we move forward and tides are turning, things are going to change as we’re really engaging in this hybrid workplace, where you have people remote, you have people in the office. It’s really kind of across the board now for everybody.
I think that you’re going to see everybody is remote at some point. Everybody is in-person at another point. But in addition, with this pandemic the tools that it has provided us, before you were always only on the phone with somebody, right? We weren’t Zooming, Zooming in wasn’t a big thing. And now you’re seeing people, you’re interacting with them, you are face-to-face with people.
You think that makes a really big difference as we move forward, and we are so focused as an organization, and different organizations as making sure our hybrid meetings go well, that we know we’ll have people at home. We know we’ll have people in the office. So how do we make sure we are all connected and we are all in the room together? So, we think, moving forward we’re setting the stage for that to start changing.
Pope: Let’s see, a question I see here [from the audience] is:
During the pandemic and while I was working remotely I felt that I was working more than when I was in my office. I couldn’t disconnect. I worked even on weekends. How can I change this toxic habit?
Landis: That really is one of the challenges of working from home, is learning how to set those boundaries. One of the things that I had to do for myself in my house is I started working at my desk, that same desk that I paid my bills at, the same desk that I did all my children’s forms and my online shopping. And I started there. It was interesting, my kids said to me, I don’t know when you’re working and when you’re not working. I don’t know when I can interrupt you and when I’m I can’t interrupt you.
So, I carved out a separate space, moved some things around, bought an inexpensive desk and I created a separate workspace for myself so that I wasn’t doing it all in the same place. When I get up in the morning, I go down to my basement, which is where my desk is, and I sit at my work desk. When I am done with my work desk, I leave at the end of the day. That’s been important for myself, is setting up a space so I’m creating that same kind of routine, where I get up, I go to work, and I leave work. So that’s really important.
There are also a lot of tools that you can use to help you. We use Slack here at DCE. And you can set your working hours when you’re on. You can set when you’re away. You can set it to “do not disturb”. At the end of the day you can actually turn it off so you can’t get those messages. And you can turn it off so you can’t get them on your phone. There’s a lot of discipline that has to go into it, but it’s important to set those boundaries for yourself and make sure you are getting up from your desk and you are taking a walk. And letting people know your working hours. And that is OK.
Pope: Those are great boundaries, great practical things that you can do.
What are some of the things that you can do to upskill while you work remotely?
Landis: We are in a great place to talk about that. As we know, at the Division of Continuing Education we have the Extension School, which are full semester courses that you can take for credit or not for credit. But we also have Professional Development Programs. And those are short programs, those are two- to five-day programs that you can take, we might even have some shorter ones than that.
I would say really look for Professional Development Programs. That’s really the place where you can focus on upskilling, so it doesn’t have to be a long semester based class. There are so many resources out there for short Professional Development Programs.
Is there a concern for future sense of company morale in working from home? What are suggestions to keep a positive, forward-thinking, unified attitude amongst the team?
Pope: It’s an awesome question.
Landis: It really is, because working remotely can get lonely. And it is easy to feel disconnected. And to just get caught up in your own routine, in your own life, and forget about the collective good. It’s really important for organizations to focus on that. And at DCE we really are focused on it. We have a group of staff members who are focused on their committee and they’re focused on our fun and on our engagement.
And it’s not just fun, it’s not just our Zoom cocktail parties that happen on Thursday evenings, but there’s book clubs, there’s movie clubs, there’s talent shows. We did a virtual talent show this year that was phenomenal. There are a lot of ways that companies can really promote that engagement. And employees and staff members can be proactive about that. Get a group of people together, create your own committee that’s focused on that engagement.
We also try to do a lot from the administrative level, trying to create those events that will engage people, and their different learning opportunities, different seminars or webinars, different well-being activities that we share, and we make sure employees are aware of.
It’s really important—and this goes back to an earlier comment—human interaction is really important for our overall mental health. And it’s easy to forget that as we hide behind our cameras and our computers. It’s important to stay engaged. And it could be as little as doing a book club, or a movie club, something like that.
Pope: One-hundred percent. I love when I go into Slack and all the hashtags pop up. We have a ministry of fun, there’s cooking groups, and all sorts of things based on interest to promote human interaction. You see people still coming together.