I was pretty nervous about my first day as senior manager of meetings at the Society of American Military Engineers on March 17, 2020—especially because it was one day after my new boss announced that the entire staff would be working from home from now on due to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus. In the past, I had worked from home for a day here and there. But five days a week working remotely at a job I wasn’t familiar with? Yikes.
For the first 90 days, I rode a rollercoaster of emotions. Learning how to be productive at home while also learning about a new organization and a new team seemed overwhelming almost every day—not to mention that one of my first projects was completely new not just to me, but to the entire team: convert an in-person meeting to a virtual conference. That period of time was exhausting, and things surely did not go perfectly. But I survived, gaining some insight along the way that will help me for the rest of my career.
Challenges from All Sides
My first day consisted of a few hours in the association’s offices followed by a few hours of trying to figure out how to log into our system from my home computer. At the office, I was at least able to meet with my new boss, our CEO, and chat briefly with the few other people left in the building. It was an odd feeling to be in a new office starting over again but knowing that for the foreseeable future, all my coworker relationships would be developed through a screen instead of in person. As I packed up and headed home, I casually asked what type of system we used for communicating and collaborating with each other. The answer: “Well, there’s this thing called Microsoft Teams, but no one really knows how to use it yet.”
Fortunately, I had just come from an organization that used Microsoft Teams heavily, so this was music to my ears. Within two weeks, I was able to introduce everyone to Microsoft Teams through a few training sessions, and assist in getting our first virtual staff meeting set up. It ended up being a pivotal moment; being able to see the faces of my new co-workers helped tremendously throughout the first several weeks of lockdown—a time when I was desperately seeking human interaction other than my immediate family. Also, Microsoft had finally added more video-participant tiles on the Teams screen to allow for a 9 x 9 view instead of just a 4 x 4 view. Because of this, we stopped having to send the dreaded one-line emails, cutting down on the distracting and tedious back-and-forth across the organization.
Those first 100 days also required that I figure out how to handle a young child while in the home office. My husband and I both work from home and our kindergarten-age son also had to attend his last two months of class online. We took in all the suggestions social media gave us, choosing to create a daily schedule for him to abide by. Well, that lasted exactly one week. But with some tweaking, cajoling, and threatening, we were able to have our son follow a fairly consistent plan for school while the rest of the time was spent watching YouTube, playing with Legos, and learning how to ride a bike. There were days that worked great and days that failed miserably; the days that had more structure were better for everyone, but it was also important to listen when someone was having a bad day and acknowledge that it was okay.
As for my work relationship with the two other people in the meetings department, the first few months were a whirlwind of us figuring out how to change our annual meeting from live to virtual; which parts of the live event could still work virtually; and researching which were the best platforms and session formats for executing the event—all while I had to find the files containing the various details of our event history. What did not happen those first few months, though, was me learning about the people I manage. The late hours on site where you get to talking to colleagues about family and hobbies and vacations—even the quick chit-chat when you zipped past each other in the hallways—were noticeably missing from my transition.
So once the smoke cleared after our virtual conference, I took matters into my own hands and scheduled time with a few people to have a virtual lunch date. We each picked a restaurant and I ordered them whatever they wanted from Uber Eats, and we logged on to Teams and just talked as we ate. It was the closest thing to normal I could achieve under the circumstances, and I think my colleagues appreciated the time and effort I took to learn more about them.
I know there are so many people who have been seriously affected by COVID-19, personally or professionally or both. In hindsight, I feel lucky to have started my new role just as the pandemic was starting rather than later, and that my organization has adapted and continues to move forward strongly. For anyone who might be transitioning to new roles at this point in the pandemic, I have a few suggestions:
- Make sure to have a dedicated workspace at home. Having to move all your papers and computer off the dining-room table each day is not going to make you feel like you are part of something important. Even if your workspace is an antique sewing table, like mine is, that’s better than not having any area to call your own.
- Find ways to share your personality with your team. There is no specific date when we will be able to meet comfortably in person again, so don’t wait until that day arrives to let them know that you are becoming a better guitar player during the pandemic or that you’ve accumulated a serious collection of funny mugs or whatever else.
- Set a short must-do list for the next day. I usually have 2 or 3 things on my list to accomplish, which helps me navigate around all the other things I could potentially be doing with my time. It really helps me focus instead of being pulled towards tempting interruptions, even like checking email.
- When the moment arises, take the opportunity to step up. If I hadn’t said anything in my first couple of days on the job, the staff might not have invested time in learning Microsoft Teams, which in hindsight would have been dreadful.
Sure, it's always tough to start with a new organization. But the Covid-19 pandemic has shown me that you can roll with whichever punches come at you, and demonstrate to your new colleagues that you’re ready to dig in and take on the challenges with them.