Coping With the Challenges of Teleworking During a Pandemic

Working from home

Nate DeGraff tries not to get bogged down by the challenges he and his wife have to navigate while working from home with their two young children.

DeGraff, the College of Sciences marketing and communications director, said what is important is that he and his family are healthy, and he and his wife can telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So many people are sick, they have family members who are sick or have lost jobs,” DeGraff said. “What we’re going through is challenging, but what they’re going through is devastating.”

In mid-March, with concerns about COVID-19 ramping up across the country, NC State significantly reduced campus operations, asking most employees to telework and asking students to finish the spring semester taking their classes online.

Employees have spent the past two months transitioning from working in offices and cubicles on campus to working in home offices and on dining room tables. They also have had to adjust from conducting and attending meetings in person to meeting via Zoom.

With schools and day care centers closed as a result of COVID-19, some employees aren’t just working while at home; they are juggling work and parental responsibilities simultaneously. For employees who can’t work from home, NC State offers paid leave options.

DeGraff and his wife are the parents of daughters who are ages 5 years old and 7 months old. For DeGraff and his wife, a typical weekday begins around 6:30 a.m. when their infant daughter wakes up. The couple spends the rest of the day trying to get work accomplished and trading other responsibilities, like feeding their youngest daughter and making sure their kindergartner plays outside and participates in a video call with classmates.

“I think the first couple of weeks during this situation we were trying to work from home, trying to take care of our kids, trying to do a hundred percent of both things at all times, and it’s just not possible,” DeGraff said. “You just can’t do that and be a person who is effective at either.”

DeGraff said maintaining a schedule and constantly communicating with his wife about their meetings, phone calls and other work duties has helped him and his family the most during this period.

“My wife and I really try to keep to the schedule, but we also accept the schedule is not going to be rigid throughout the day,” he said. “We are always calling audibles and ad-libbing throughout the day.”

COVID-19 has resulted in a new way of doing things for more than just the university’s staff members. Faculty members transitioned from in-person lectures to teaching students via online.

“Everybody has adapted, but some courses are a little bit more difficult than others to move to an online format,” said Carolyn Bird, a professor of family resource management and former chair of the faculty. “Faculty are really having to think creatively about how to deliver course content and adjust assignments.”

Fortunately for Bird, she has been teaching online courses at NC State since she started working at the university 14 years ago.

“Even though I have always worked periodically at home, it still was very strange at the beginning to have to adapt to this idea that I couldn’t go to campus, and I had to work at home,” she said.

For Beth Buck, assistant vice chancellor for human resources in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, the biggest hurdle to working from home is not seeing her team daily.

“I will fully admit I’m an extrovert, so I really enjoy being connected with other people,” Buck said. “The one thing that’s really nice when I’m in the office with the DASA HR team is it’s very easy for us to pop in and out of each other’s offices. I really liked that we were able to connect that way.”

To make up for the loss of daily in-person communication, Buck and her three team members meet twice a week via Zoom. Buck said the purpose of the meeting is twofold: to discuss HR-related matters and to check in and see how everyone is doing.

“We’re all dealing with challenges that are different than we normally would be,” Buck said. “I hope everybody on our team knows that we all care about each other. I think it’s important for us, as busy as we all are, to take the time to check in with each other. I’ve also talked to my team members individually, as I need to.”

To help with her transition to working from home, Buck said she has continued to follow some of the same routines she followed when she worked on campus. Those include drinking coffee in the morning at home, dressing in a nice top and taking at least a 15-minute break on stressful days.

“The first week or so I probably wasn’t as good about doing this, and then I realized it was really important for me mentally to really have a routine that I follow every day,” Buck said.

Buck said when she worked on campus, she took short walks to de-stress. At home, she goes into her backyard and gets in a hammock.

“That’s kind of how I meditate,” she said. “I get in my hammock, and I listen to the birds. It sounds a little cheesy, but it really works.”

Jacqueline Perry, a communications technologist in the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity, works in the dining room at her home. While sitting at the dining room table, Perry peers out a window occasionally and makes sure her 14-year-old son does his schoolwork.

“It’s pretty comfortable working in the dining room,” she said. “I never work in the living room with the TV. For me, it’s uncomfortable working on the sofa.”

Perry said she prefers to work from home, especially when trying to complete big projects.

“I find there are a lot fewer distractions,” she said. “I appreciate being able to work for long stretches of time uninterrupted.”

Katie McInerney, an Office of Information Technology training coordinator, said fears about the coronavirus prompted her and her husband to pull their 5-year-old twins out of school around mid-March out of an abundance of caution. Their day care center ended up closing soon after because of the virus.

McInerney thought she could keep her children busy with activities while she focused on her work. She said things have not gone exactly the way she planned.

“I thought it was going to be great having them home and spending time with them,” McInerney said. “Reality set in pretty quickly. Their attention span for these activities and projects that I come up with last about 15 or 20 minutes, and they need my help pretty much with everything.”

While McInerney has been productive during her work-from-home stint with her children, she said she wishes she could be more productive. Her concerns notwithstanding, McInerney and her team completed a high-priority project on an accelerated schedule shortly after the university reduced on-campus operations.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, McInerney and her team led in-person G Suite training sessions. G Suite is a suite of Google products. McInerney said after the chancellor announced that most employees would begin working remotely in March, she and her team quickly transitioned most of those sessions from in-person formats to online formats.

“Having to take those three-hour, in-person training sessions and move them online within a week or two was definitely a challenge, because we’re taking out what we think is the most beneficial part of that training, which is the hands-on aspect,” she said.

McInerney said she has been able to manage the challenges of teleworking and parenting full time because of the support of her colleagues and the option to take paid administrative leave.

“I feel very lucky to work with a great group of people who are understanding, forgiving and extremely flexible if I need to reschedule a call at the last minute or if I miss a meeting because I was pulled away and didn’t see my reminder,” McInerney said. “I try to focus on those things. It could be a lot worse.”