Duke Remote Work Chronicles

dispatches from Florida

Duke Remote Work Chronicles

Puppies on Campus Offer Shared Team Experience

Office of Communication Services team members gather for puppy love. Back row, from left: Web Administrator Greg Whitaker; Senior Writer Stephen Schramm. Front row, from left: Graphic Designer Paul Figuerado; Assistant Vice President Paul Grantham; Editor/Executive Director Leanora Minai; Writer Jack Frederick.

Finding ways to foster joy in our workday can be a vital part of employee well-being. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive, either. And often, you can find free opportunities right on Duke’s campus.

Last week, our office gathered together for the first time since August in the Student Wellness Center’s meditation garden with Labrador puppies from the Duke Canine Cognition Center. In these times, we all could use a boost whether we are fully remote, hybrid or always on campus, and interactions with dogs have been proven to help us feel better. As I played with Gilda, the puppy in my arms, feelings of stress melted away.

The visit, a chance to help socialize pups Gilda and Gloria, was hosted by Duke Student Affairs and advertised on Duke’s event calendar, a great resource for things to do on and around campus.

Organizing our time with the puppies was easy: Paul Grantham, assistant vice president for the Office of Communication Services, identified a day to visit, sent our team a web link, and each of us signed up for a limited spot on Oct. 21.

Grantham said that one of the management challenges during the pandemic has been sustaining relationships with colleagues from a distance.

“Most of our interaction has been through Zoom or email,” he said. “Being together, sharing stories and laughing with one another was a great reminder why these social connections are so important. The stronger the bonds of those relationships, the stronger and more resilient we are as a team.”

A challenge of remote work is social isolation, so how do we maintain solid workplace connections in a hybrid work environment? In its annual “2021 Work Trend Index,” Microsoft highlights the value of spontaneous and planned interactions to build collaboration and innovation.

“Leaders must look for ways to foster the social capital, cross-team collaboration, and spontaneous idea-sharing that’s been driving workplace innovation for decades,” according to Microsoft’s March 2021 report.

Here at Duke, work teams are finding ways to create “watercooler” moments in a hybrid environment through virtual fun like bingo and non-work discussion during open forums.

As the pandemic threat eases, there will be more opportunities within schools, departments and units to plan in-person gatherings for hybrid teams. As you do, we would love to feature how your teams are safely getting together. Please share about your experiences or plans in the comments or send me a note and attach pictures, too.




30 Days In, Lessons from Remote Onboarding

Writer Jack Frederick joined Duke in July 2021. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

Writer Jack Frederick joined Duke in July 2021. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

Jack Frederick was among 787 new hires who joined Duke in July during the ongoing pandemic.

During his first month on the Working@Duke editorial team, Jack hit the ground running, navigating Duke’s storied acronyms, meeting virtually and in-person with community members, and writing seven stories.

“Onboarding” – a Human Resources term for welcoming a new employee into an organization through a variety of activities – has been a key part of building a solid foundation for Jack. More than ever, a positive onboarding experience is vital for employees who are working virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Jack, remote work is a familiar arrangement. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2019, he wrote for newspapers until the coronavirus outbreak when he transitioned to what became a fully remote role for 16 months at a local peer review and publishing services organization.

“It was a very different experience from the start of my career, and it took an adjustment, for sure,” he said. “But my work and efficiency has never suffered as a result of working from home versus working in-person. I’m fully aware that after the pandemic, in-person work may never look the same, but I’m also looking forward to a day when I can look back at this transition and have everything feel normal again.”

Now at Duke, Jack – who lives in Raleigh with his wife and their two cats – works a few days from home each week.

Onboarding, which begins before a new team member’s first day and can last up to a year, really does matter, especially now. Remote work presents challenges for new teammates who want connection and engagement from a distance. For the first time in my career, I am onboarding a team member from roughly 600 miles away, and I want to do everything I can to help Jack feel included and valued.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far after the first 30 days of Jack’s onboarding:

Use Duke’s resources

In its August 2021 US Pulse Survey of 1,007 full-time and part-time employees, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that workers prefer a range of telecommuting options: 17% mostly remote; 8% almost entirely remote; and 19% all remote. Another 22% want to be almost entirely in the office.

“… an all in-person workplace is no longer the norm,” PwC noted in its findings.

With the nuanced workplace in mind, Duke Human Resources created a new remote work website with telecommuting guidelines, tools and resources for staff and managers. A section for managers includes a customizable checklist of actions to help welcome a new team member in a remote work environment through the first year of employment.

While I’ve hired other staff members at Duke, I found the preparation activities, such as scheduling Jack’s computer log-in and password set-up and registering him for Duke’s virtual employee orientation, particularly important to square away early. I organized these before Jack’s first day, so when he arrived, we wouldn’t need to spend our time on scheduling these things.

Selecting a “buddy” for Jack also took on increased significance. Senior writer Stephen Schramm has supported Jack in that role, organizing a visit to the Duke Campus Farm and joining him on an early assignment that involved a tour of a campus water tank.

“I’ve been struck by how normal remote work and remote orientation seems at this point,” Jack reflected last week. “At this point, we’ve all made enough adjustments to remote work that I didn’t blink when my sessions with HR and L&OD (Learning and Organization Development) were virtual only. I look forward to putting more names with faces once the pandemic is finally behind us.”

Connect every day

Jack and I are now meeting every work day on Zoom between the weekly staff meeting, weekly one-on-one, editorial team meetings and check-ins. We are not in-person to stop by work spaces with a quick question, but the check-ins and editorial team meetings help address that gap. We also keep our chat stream active on Microsoft Teams, and he can call or text me any time on my personal cell phone with questions.

As an editor, reviewing stories in this new arrangement has taken on a new twist. Now, I share my Zoom screen, and Jack and I can easily walk-through suggestions within a document.

Establish a foundation, in-person

I transitioned to remote-first from Florida about a week before Jack’s first day. But by then, Jack and I had already met a few times in-person. Still, I wanted to be on-site for his first week, which fell on a Wednesday.

I returned to campus to help get his computer workstation set up, coordinate initial assignments, take him to a welcome lunch with team members, accompany him to get a parking permit, and introduce him to Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for administration.

The following week, I came back on-site for a few days to attend our unit retreat with Jack. The event introduced Jack to our priorities and Duke’s culture and values.

These early in-person opportunities and activities provided a strong base for Jack, who, in his first 30 days, wrote about operational units in full swing for first-year student move-in; the retirement of a longtime Facilities staff member; the 2021 Duke Time Off photo winners; and more.

“Since I started at Duke, I’ve met so many great people who have helped me get up to speed, learn about benefits, parking, obtaining my Duke ID, and feeling a connection to a new place of work,” Jack said. “I’m really excited to work at a place with a national reputation, and I’ve enjoyed seeing all the ways Duke has transformed itself to something we’re all figuring out day by day.”

As I mentioned in my first post, I’ll return to campus once a month to continue Jack’s onboarding in-person, among other responsibilities. I’d like to help Jack build more connections to Duke and among colleagues. How have you welcomed remote staff members or replicated the “water cooler”? If something has worked for you or your team, or you have an idea, please let me know.

I asked Jack to share a “pro tip” for managers whose teams include hybrid or remote-first staff members, and he told me support and connection are important ingredients for success.

“My advice for managers is to be available to support your team members as much as possible,” he said. “It’s not as easy for fully remote or hybrid team members to always feel fully tethered to Duke, especially if they have been working from home primarily for a while now or since they started the job. Feeling a connection to the people you work the closest with has really helped me feel a part of the Duke community, even on days when I don’t step foot on campus.”

Is there a topic you’d like to see explored in this space? Please write to me at leanora.minai@duke.edu. I’d love to hear from you.

Dispatch from Florida

Florida Welcomes You

I captured the Florida welcome sign off of I-95 from the passenger seat in July.

Greetings from Florida, my new remote work location.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I never imagined I would be writing this note as a full-time remote worker, but like many of you, the pandemic forever changed my work and personal life.

After a 16-month experiment of working entirely remote from my house in Durham, North Carolina, I had planned to go back to the office this fall for a few days each week. Like many at Duke and across the country, I was ready to join the ranks as a “hybrid” worker.

Leanora Minai

But in May 2021, my wife Heather was recruited for a job in Florida, the very state we left 17 years ago when I was a staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, so I could join the Duke workforce. Her career opportunity would mean a return to the Sunshine State but sad goodbyes to long-time friends and colleagues and our beloved house (formerly the home of jazz legend Mary Lou Williams) in the amazing city of Durham.

After breaking the unexpected news to Paul Grantham, who has been my manager for most of my Duke career, he supportively shepherded a pilot remote work arrangement that allowed for me to stay on at Duke.

I am excited and terrified, all at once. With a relocation, you can gain new experiences that spark creativity and fresh ideas. For example, I had the idea for this blog while driving down I-95 and can use this space to share unique perspectives about remote-first telecommuting that may help the broader Duke community. Still, the past several months have been tough at times with tears at inconvenient moments. With workplaces everywhere evolving, I am in uncharted territory. I feel anxious about my career development and advancement, but I am leaning into this new professional adventure. And whether in a home office in Durham or unfamiliar apartment in Florida, my work quality and ethic have not suffered, and game changers such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams can help bridge any distance.

Yet, I’ll sorely miss Durham and the chance to experience daily campus life such as the East Campus trail and the kaleidoscope of spectacular Gothic and Georgian architectural views during walks to meetings. I am committed to preserving the connections and relationships I’ve built over many years, so at my expense, I will return to campus once a month to attend key meetings, conduct certain interviews, work in-person with my small-but-mighty editorial team, and visit some of my favorite spots such as Duke University Libraries.

Please follow along here at Remote Work Chronicles: Dispatches from Florida [sites.duke.edu/remoteworkchronicles], where I’ll share periodic updates and remote work insights.

Is there something you’d like to know or share, or is there a topic you’d like for me to explore in this space? Please write to me at leanora.minai@duke.edu. I’d love to hear from you.

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