Driving Engagement and Promoting Communication during COVID-19 – An Interview with Mandy Whitten

COCM understands the importance of motivating a team and driving engagement during a time of isolation and unfamiliar work environments.  In order to determine how residential faculty working on campus and remotely at the University of Oklahoma were adapting to conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic we interviewed Mandy Whitten, Director of Operations at Cross residential community.  As Director of Operations Mandy works with a team of three assistant directors as well as some other full-time staff including maintenance technicians, leasing coordinators and janitorial staff.

We began the conversation by asking Mandy about the mental and physical well-being of her staff and how they had been dealing with the dramatic changes over the past month or two.  Mandy explained that her staff, as with most residential housing staff working on college campuses are extremely social.  Even more so than she had already known!  The staff miss social interactions, talking in the lunchroom and working on maintenance projects together to help pass the time.  Mandy’s assistant directors, some of whom are working from home are experiencing the same feelings of isolation.  It’s easy to imagine how after being surrounded by thousands of students in a 1200 bed residential facility, working from home could be a bit of a shock!

As the conversation began to shift towards how driving communication is key to keeping staff engaged and motivated, the interviewer Greg Bekurs (VP of Business Development at COCM) asked a great question, “What are some things that you’ve put in place there at the site to make sure you’re in good communication with your team members as their spread out all over the place?”.  Mandy’s response was very inciteful, she expanded on how she has set up daily video conferences that last anywhere from 5 minutes to 45 depending on the daily events that need to be discussed.  She’s noticed that interactions with staff members are just as important as communication with students and parents, all of which take more time and focus now that it is required to be electronic.  Mandy went on to express that she had been teaching her entire staff that in person communication is key to building a lasting relationship which is now counterproductive in their main objective of keeping students and faculty safe. 

The last question that we posed for Mandy was “What are you doing differently right now to keep students and staff motivated?”.  Her answer had to do with monitoring of daily tasks and how operationally daily instruction for assistant directors, maintenance staff and janitorial staff had changed since COVID-19.  Mandy went on to explain that she has moved away from the traditional 8:30AM to 5:30PM workday that her staff had been used to and has instituted a process of outlining the tasks that need to be completed their deadlines for completion.  By allowing staff, particularly the ones working remotely to build their own workday she has noticed increases in moral and motivation!  The truth is, operations are different during this time and we are all having to make concessions and changes to our daily lives to adapt.  Operations are going be continuing to be altered even after this pandemic has passed meaning that the tactics of engagement and motivation that have learned during this time can be carried forward.  Stay empathetic towards others, continue to spread encouragement and we will all come out of this as both better people and businessmen and women.   

Takeaways:

  • College faculty are used to being around thousands of students and miss their social interactions!
  • Combating the feeling of isolation is key to keeping staff engaged during COVID-19.
  • Taking early precautions and being aware of the next steps towards moving business forward is key!
  • When you’re relying on electronic communication such as email and social media it takes even more time to build lasting relationships with clients.
  • Creating or re-scheduling beneficial, time-consuming projects can help to maintain productivity!
  • Having conversations about work as well as about staff members’ personal lives can help fight the feeling of isolation. 
  • The average workday has changed dramatically, allowing staff to create their own work schedules as long as tasks are being completed could be beneficial.
  • Skills learned during this time of COVID-19 will be useful for a long time afterwards as social norms change.