November 18, 2020
At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY), teams across many departments coalesce around common goals and share a commitment to student success. Faculty and staff have impromptu brain-storming sessions in each other’s offices. They update each other in hallway check-ins and lunch meetings.
Correction: Teams used to interact in these ways.
Today, because of constrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, team unity must be maintained at a distance and workers who are deemed essential, face uncharted challenges as they ensure safety on campus.
Given these hurdles, how are team leaders at BMCC validating their staff and helping them keep their sense of purpose?
“I wish I could say that the transition to remote work, including team building and oversight has been smooth sailing, but there have been bumps in the road,” says Janice Zummo, Assistant Dean for Academic Support Services.
“Nevertheless, the story isn’t all gloom-and-doom,” she adds. “The transition in terms of using technology and getting our work done has gone well and we were able — almost overnight — to build a remote tutoring, peer mentoring, advising and academic support services virtual structure.”
“We are social beings”
The question, she says, was never about whether the staff could do their work remotely.
Instead, the question became, “How do we do that work and maintain our strength, well-being, health and fitness — while keeping socially distant and living in isolation?”
As Zummo points out, “We are social beings; we need to interact and communicate. We need those personal exchanges to keep us going, to give our lives purpose and feel as though we are making a difference.”
She describes herself as a person who “walks and talks,” who likes face-to-face contact whenever possible.
“My life transitioned in one day from my usual mode of communication and work to a remote and isolated mode of work,” she says. “My daily step count went from 10,000 to 1,000 or less.”
To keep her units going strong in the new normal, she says her face-to-face contact has been replaced with phone, FaceTime and Zoom check-ins.
In these ways, she touches base with unit leaders from the Learning Resource Center, UMLA, Project Impact, the Office of Instructional Testing, CUNY EDGE, Upward Bound, College Now, the Writing Center, the Immersion Programand Early Alert.
The meeting always starts with a quick check-in.
“I ask the person, ‘How are you doing? How’s the family?’” Zummo says. “Then we focus on what’s going well, what’s not going as great and what the person needs.”
In group meetings, she says, “We share our successes and address our challenges, always keeping the needs of our students front and center.”
Transparency builds a sense of purpose
Jorge E. Yafar, Assistant Vice President of Campus Planning and Facilities, shares some of Zummo’s communication strategies, but his team is unique because most of the employees are essential workers, reporting to the physical campus to complete their work.
“I do have a couple of team members that work remotely,” he clarifies. “I keep them engaged by having a daily check-in, most days. They stay busy with their assigned tasks and have been extremely valuable in adjusting their skill set to assist with other critical functions that developed as part of the COVID-19 safety protocols.”
As for protecting the morale of his team of essential workers and helping them stay on point with their responsibilities — many of which are new, and COVID-related — “The short answer is, you achieve that by showing up yourself and experiencing to a certain level, the same issues that they encounter when they come to work,” Yafar says.
He explains that this means “walking the corridors, wearing a face covering all day, doing the screening and taking seriously all the safety protocols that we have implemented to be able to stay open and support our students.”
Another important strategy for maintaining team confidence, Yafar says, has been to remain “transparent in sharing the bigger picture. This helps explain why we need to do certain things, and enables them to perform their role with a purpose, and not just blindly follow directives.”
This also builds a sense of mission, he says, and gives meaning to their efforts as they volunteer to perform distribution of meals and computer equipment, “and when no one else was here, to continue to show up to work and give their best.”
Dedication of essential staff is inspirational, and all staff show resilience
Overall, the COVID crisis has given him a new sense of appreciation for the Campus Planning and Facilities staff.
“My team has demonstrated commitment and dedication that has not only been encouraging but inspirational. All team members have been extremely dedicated, but the custodial team gets additional recognition because of the nature of the work they have been doing during this crisis and the level of exposure they take on.”
He expresses his gratitude to them “on a regular basis,” he says, “because without them, it would be very challenging to provide a safe environment. We can’t forget that, as we move forward.”
He stresses that the Public Safety team has continued to perform their work without any modifications to their schedule, every day since the pandemic started — “and if you are not inspired by that level of commitment, you are not paying attention.”
Zummo expresses gratitude for the staff she supervises, as well.
“I look forward to seeing my team, even on Zoom, and I hope they feel the same about seeing me. Lately I have found that we often laugh and always smile during our interactions.”
Thankfully, she says, “we are all well. Staff members have suffered loss, and we deal with that sadness and the ongoing issues associated with losing a family member or close friend to COVID-19. What we originally thought might last a few months, seems to be a new way of life and work.”
So far, Zummo says, “I hope it has made us stronger and more resilient, and I look forward to the time when we can be together again.”
This article is included with resources on the BMCC Resilience, Health and Wellness website, which provides inspiration and support for students, faculty and staff navigating life in the age of COVID.
- Janice Zummo, Assistant Dean for Academic Support Services says the question has never been whether units at the college can do their work remotely. The question is, “How do we do that work and maintain our strength, well-being, health and fitness — while keeping socially distant and living in isolation?”
- Jorge E. Yafar, Assistant Vice President of Campus Planning and Facilities, says an important strategy for maintaining team confidence has been to remain “transparent in sharing the bigger picture.” This enables staff to perform their roles with a purpose, he says, and “not just blindly follow directives.”