Staff engagement in face of a pandemic

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A mosaic of different faces as seen in a Zoom call
J-PAL has gone virtual! Our team in Cambridge attempted a Zoom "selfie" in a recent meeting.
Photo: Anna Omura

Katrina Pereira, Human Resources Manager at J-PAL Global, and Jatnna Amador, Policy and Training Events Manager at J-PAL North America, outline how J-PAL staff have come together to build a vibrant virtual community in face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In our years working in human resources and event planning, we’ve learned to be ready for the unexpected. While few of us at the time would have predicted the current scale of the COVID-19 crisis, by February we had already begun thinking about a contingency plan for working from home.

As J-PAL Global’s Executive Director noted in a statement, our absolute priority is the safety of our staff, students, researchers, partners, and the human subjects participating in our research. In just under three weeks, that contingency plan turned into reality. We closed all our physical offices worldwide and moved to mandatory work-from-home starting March 13th.

Putting these procedures in place and making sure our staff had all the equipment they needed to effectively work from home was just the first step. The second and most crucial step was to make sure we all stayed connected with each other beyond work to maintain our well-being, support productivity, and keep us all in good spirits.

Boosting morale

We encouraged all of the staff at our Cambridge office, home to J-PAL Global and J-PAL North America, to think of ways that we can keep our J-PAL community together virtually, and the ideas started pouring in! In just a matter of days, we launched a full suite of online activities for and by our staff. We have colleagues leading yoga classes and have secured an instructor to lead 15-minute meditation classes three times a week. We shifted our weekly office breakfast to a virtual event, where people could hop on a Zoom line and enjoy their morning meals with one another.

More virtual events are scheduled in the upcoming weeks, such as a virtual birthday lunch, cooking tutorials, J-Trivia, a monthly book club, and a virtual pet show-and-tell. We could not be more impressed at how our staff have stepped up to make each other feel supported and engaged. Now, that’s how the J-PAL community comes together in face of a pandemic!

Staying in touch at work

To make up for no longer having the opportunity to chat at the proverbial water cooler, we’re also making changes to the way we work. We’ve created new venues for staff to check in with each other and receive updates from leadership, including:

  • Hosting bi-weekly town halls meetings, where our staff have the opportunity to ask senior leadership anything that is on their mind. We are using the tool Mentimeter to get real-time feedback from our staff on how we can continue to support them during this time. Reminders to honor office hours, including not sending emails beyond business hours, are a crucial component of maintaining a healthy work-life balance
  • Leaving space at the start of calls or video chats for small talk to fill the gap from the lack of hallway conversations.
  • Using our Salesforce Chatter group and other methods such as Skype, Gchat, and Slack to share highlights from our weekends, our top priorities for the week, and, of course, pictures of our pets (J-PAL loves pets!)
  • Staff members receive a weekly update from a member of our leadership team, summarizing important information from national and local governments, as well as MIT.

Adjusting expectations

We recognize this is a stressful time for our staff and that it will take time to adjust to our new normal. We know it is not easy, balancing working and life, taking care of loved ones, and not to mention managing the stress and anxiety that this pandemic brings. In recognition of this, our leadership team has allowed for flexible work hours when needed, recognizing that the typical 9 to 5 may no longer be feasible for staff who are parenting and taking care of loved ones.

All of this affects our usual work routine, so at J-PAL, we have shared with our staff, “Aim for 2/3: If you can get 2/3 of the way toward what you would have done in the absence of a global pandemic, that’s brilliant.” (Quotation by Nancy Rose, Head of the MIT Department of Economics)

Lastly, we’d like to acknowledge that many do not have the luxury of working from home and not all are working at an institution that has the resources to support staff through this uncertain time. Many are facing unemployment, illness, and other unimaginable hardships. We encourage those who do have the privilege of sheltering in place and working from home to think about ways to help yourself and others be well. It is critical now more than ever that we leverage the resources we have to stay connected. We are all in this together, and at J-PAL, we know that virtual human connection will go a long way to helping each other get through it.