Be the Bridge: Supporting Managers and Supervisors Open Forum

Human Resources team’s telework open forums and other programs gain audience and appreciation in move to online platforms due to COVID-19.

The switch to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged workers on a number of fronts, from technology glitches to child care concerns to physical and mental health issues and more. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), the Office of Organization and Employee Development (OED) has stepped up to provide support and solutions as employees strive to meet those challenges.

In normal times, OED, an office within Human Resource Services, uses a mix of events, in-person training, and online learning to fulfill its mission to improve the effectiveness of employees, teams, and the University. But like most every other UMB office in the age of COVID-19, OED has gone virtual, moving its employee development and recognition programs online.

On one front, OED has hosted nine telework open forums since April, with topics such as “Establishing an Effective Virtual Team,” “Building Your Resilience,” and “Taking Charge of Your Career During COVID.” The forums typically begin at noon and include 45 minutes of content and a 15-minute question-and-answer period.

Mark Emmel, MAS, director of organization and employee development, and other OED team members facilitate the discussions and present informational slides. The team members are Nicole Palmore, MSW, and Mike Noll, MS, both senior consultants; Michele Hunt, MA, specialist; Tammy Moon-Thomas, HR associate II; Elisa Medina, MSW, career development manager; and Patrick Green-Holloway, office clerk II.

“These sessions are meant to provide an hour’s worth of professional development, some networking, and some sharing of best practices,” says Emmel, who adds that the forums are likely to continue through spring 2021. “It’s a chance for employees to come together as a community around a specific topic. They’ve been very successful in many ways.”

Emmel is pleased with the attendance, which has ranged from 40 to 80 participants, and says employees working from home have embraced the forums because many are missing the chance to connect with colleagues.

“There are some people who live alone and are working alone, and it’s really challenging,” Emmel says. “So we’ve found that people are open, honest, and sincere in these forums. Not everybody is willing to speak or turn on their camera to be seen, but everybody pretty much is willing to contribute by commenting in the chat box.

“I’m hearing from human resources colleagues at University System of Maryland schools and other colleges and universities that their attendance is up, too, that people are more willing to participate in online sessions because they are so accessible. If it’s 11:59 and a session starts at noon, people can stop what they’re doing and log in very easily.”

Another reason for the attendance uptick is that more faculty are attending. “It’s more difficult for faculty to get away and attend when they are on campus,” Palmore says. “That’s been a big change, with a lot more faculty members engaging with us, and it’s been great.”

Robin Reid, MBA, an information technology training manager in the Office of Financial Systems, attended the “Establishing an Effective Virtual Team” forum in April and was impressed with the content and the tone.

“I found it affirming and very helpful as a manager to hear the facilitators talk about employees and humanity — seeing the whole person who has to deal with all of the demands and stress of the uncertainty of COVID-19,” Reid said. “In particular, the forum’s reminder about appreciating staff made me commit to making sure my team knows how much I appreciate all of their initiative and work under such disruption.”

Looking forward to the day when everyone returns to campus, Palmore says OED likely will use a hybrid model, delivering its services in-person and virtually. “There are people who still will want to come to training on campus,” she says. “But we’re not going to stop the virtual component, because why lose those people? We want to keep them engaged.”

OED has begun to invite guest facilitators. On Oct. 21, Aisha Samples, MS, program specialist for the Workplace Mediation Service, part of the Francis King Carey School of Law’s Center for Dispute Resolution, presented a session titled “Tele-Conflicting: Addressing Conflict from a Distance.” On Nov. 11, Zandra Rawlinson, EdD, associate director of training and development at the University of Baltimore, is scheduled to discuss “Leadership Agility.” 

The past forums are available for viewing in UMB’s Learning Management System (LMS) library, where OED also has added guides on managing telework for employees and supervisors. And sessions of the Emerging Leaders Program, a professional development initiative geared toward examining leadership principles with application to the culture of UMB, have moved to an online setting.

“We’ve set up a Microsoft Teams site for each of our Emerging Leaders cohorts,” Emmel says. “And we are encouraging people to post articles that they’re reading, their favorite leadership books, or whatever else they’ve seen or read that’s interesting. We are using whatever resources and tools we have to serve employees in their professional development goals.”

OED also had to transition the Professional Development Day event to an online platform, and that was a success, drawing its largest crowd to date as 300 participated in the annual event that allows employees to build skills and network. The event, co-sponsored by UMB’s Staff Senate, centered on UMB’s core values and featured University System of Maryland Chancellor and former UMB president Jay A. Perman, MD, as keynote speaker.

In another OED area, employee recognition, the annual Service Awards Luncheon, scheduled for April at Westminster Hall, was canceled and replaced with a 15-minute virtual ceremony celebrating the Cecil S. Kelly Employee of the Year, James T. Hill Scholarship winner, and Community Service Award winners in individual and group categories. Also, after a hiatus, Employee of the Month ceremonies have restarted via Zoom.

(To access the recorded forums in LMS, log in with your UMB ID and password, click here, and then click on the books icon in the upper-left corner of the screen. Click on Telework Resources in the left-hand navigation to see the list; the telework forums are denoted by a UMB logo. Click on the resource’s title, then the Register button, and then Start. If you get a popup blocker message, disregard it and just click Start to begin the presentation.)

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