by Mary C. Jordan and Debbie Scheibler
Two a.m. fire alarms. Noisy hallway neighbors. Communal laundry. The inability to slip in the front door unnoticed. Working where you live and living where you work. These examples may bring memories and flashbacks to many housing staff who began their career through assistantships and entry-level roles. In the live-in environment they served their community, developed critical skills, and pursued work/life harmony. Many say they also longed for the day when they could move out and start a new chapter of their personal and professional lives.
Now they say that the adage rings true: Everything old is new again. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many housing professionals are once again working where they live and living where they work, often with their family close by. While the two a.m. fire alarms may remain in the past, reliance on previously developed management methods does not. As they lean on skills honed during the live-in chapter of their housing careers, develop new strategies for managing work and life from home, and acknowledge the things that simply must give, housing leaders across the globe shared their insights on what this juggling act has looked like in their households.
Feelings of déjà vu and graduate school nostalgia punctuate Jon Bouchard’s morning routine. “I am able to roll out of bed and go almost right to my office.” An assistant director of residence life administration at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Bouchard says he most enjoys making breakfast at work again as well as eating dinner with his partner each night, an experience that he says was often not possible with dual commutes.
For Jeremy Williamson, director of operations and facilities at California State University-San Marcos, there is a familiarity to the routine, but new layers of uncertainty and demands for adaptability are distinct to the pandemic season. “As we attempt to plan for the remainder of summer and for fall, the concept of a 9-to-5 is almost non-existent. Creating multiple budget scenarios, exploring social distance logistics, and navigating the uncharted waters of housing as it relates to virtual classes keep me busier than ever,” he says. “More often than not, my colleagues and I joke about remembering what day it is.” Edwin Darrell, director of residential student experience at Florida State University in Tallahassee, echoes the sentiment that while some aspects of working primarily from home are reminiscent of living in, the nature of the senior housing officer’s work is substantially different. “I have the same amount of staff to manage, new and dynamic needs to provide leadership and development, and I am even more mindful of the decisions I am a part of and how they may impact people’s future employment.”
Williamson also notes that while stress levels may be higher, the immediate presence of his partner and children helps keep him grounded and brings joy to the everyday. “Although I occasionally have to compete with my toddler’s demands for attention while I’m in a virtual meeting, I enjoy being able to see my family for the majority of the day,” he says. “I’ve found that their presence helps relieve the stress and anxiety that can be brought on by work-related tasks.” Kimberly Danielle Fox, director of residence life and housing at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says she also finds bright spots in the blend, chief of which is additional time with her child. “I generally do like working from home, and I especially appreciate that I once again have more time with my now 3-year-old son,” she says. “I feel more relaxed in this environment because I can pause to take a break if I need to, and more than ever I can work at my own pace, which I have always enjoyed.”
As the summer continues, housing staff note that some of the novelty and delight once attached to additional family time, screen time, and flexibility in their households has begun to wane. Jeannie Hopper, associate director for residential learning at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says that despite 14 years being together, she realized she had never spent all day, every day, with her partner prior to the pandemic. “It is a lot. Same with the kids. I love them to pieces, but boy do they annoy the pants off of me sometimes. And I know I annoy them just as much.” Along with gratitude for more time with family, this kind of real talk is widely reflected in student affairs parenting groups, across social media, and in conversations with colleagues.
Although they have never spent quite this much time together, Hopper says the work/life partnership she and her partner established when they lived in saved them time and energy in this new arrangement. Because they struck out on multi-tasking in that earlier chapter of career and family, Hopper says they did not bother experimenting with that and other past strategies for working, parenting, and managing their home that were not successful then and would likely have not been successful now. “I remembered how my work suffered when I tried to do it while giving attention to a baby at the same time. I never mastered that skill, and knowing that already about myself allowed me to go straight to ‘time sharing,’ where I do one task at a time, without blending,” Hopper says. “It puts more on my plate time-wise, but it ensures that the work or the time spent with my kids is quality.”
Kirk Bernal, associate director of residence life at California Baptist University in Riverside, says he is grateful that he and his partner have been together since the beginning of his residence life experience. They’ve managed and negotiated reasonable expectations from the start, he says, providing one another with both grace and accountability along the way. “We try to support each other in finishing our work, but being realistic with each other of how long we have been working on it at home,” Bernal says. “In this time of shelter-in-place, that has been really helpful for both of us to maintain a healthy work/life integration.”
For single housing staff, work from home brings different opportunities and challenges. Darrell says that, though working primarily from home does give him more control of his work and personal life, he believes humans were made to live in community. “Face-to-face socialization and some opportunities for emotional, physical, spiritual connections can’t be replicated in a virtual community,” he says. Scott Patton, associate director of residence life at the University of Georgia in Athens, echoes this, saying that the first six weeks were the most difficult. As his state has begun reopening, he has felt “balancing and normalizing” begin. “There are still challenges, but they don’t have the same level of anxiety associated with them.”
First Person: Living On During a Pandemic
The impact of COVID-19 has been far reaching on campuses around the world. Residence life staff who live on have been on the front lines of working with students who have had to figure out new or changed living arrangements with very little notice. While all live-on staff have been negotiating this, those with families who live on campus with them have been impacted in different ways. I lived on campus when my daughter was 8 months to 3 years old, and despite some of the challenges (like noisy neighbors and navigating child care while being on call), I found a lot of perks like family swim nights at the rec center, students who were clamoring to babysit, and a wealth of programming. However, in our current climate, live-on staff are finding additional challenges and fewer perks.In response to COVID-19, campus communities are shut down to all but the most essential of services, which often includes live-on staff. Day care services are shut down, everyone is ordered to stay at home, and some live-on staff are negotiating this new normal with families in tow. Like the rest of us who are parents, live-on staff are working from home while juggling their children’s schoolwork and general care and well-being. But the level of stress can be higher for them. Part of their job is being on call, and day care options are few or non-existent. They may also be facing financial difficulties, and for those with families, they may find themselves with unexpected expenses like needing to purchase tablets or laptops for children who need to access school online or may just need additional help occupying their time.Supervisors should check in and support staff as they juggle on-campus and family responsibilities. For example, they can help research options for leave through their HR departments. Many institutions are offering specialized leave options so staff are not depleting vacation or sick time. Supervisors should also understand that the focus won’t always be on the job, and they should be open to conversations with live-on staff about their families. For staff who are moms, they should understand that these women may be carrying even more of a load than usual (which is a topic for another day). Live-on staff need attention and support year round, and during this pandemic it is especially vital for our staff with families.Supervisors can also help live-on staff with families continue to see the advantages of living on campus. Remind them to get outdoors and enjoy the quad, the green spaces, and surrounding neighborhoods. They could even utilize an activity like neighborhood BINGO and online activities like Pokémon Go and Wizards Unite. These are easily played on campuses due to the sheer number of game stops that correspond with campus landmarks and buildings.As campuses start to figure out new avenues for programming, staff and families can continue to take advantage of campus opportunities and even work with programming staff to create some that can be used when students return to campus. Trivia or BINGO through Zoom, sidewalk chalk mural contests, movie streaming parties, creating and sharing new Tik Toks, book groups (even young children can enjoy a shared read and book discussion), and recipe swaps are just a few activities that have been occurring on campuses since stay-at-home orders have been put in place. These can play out just as well in student groups. Remember, we have all been creating virtual communities, so use these honed online skills to help create and roll out new activities for students in the upcoming semester.Sarah Kirkpatrick is the assistant director of residence life training and development at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Work-from-home innovations support productivity and continuity, in many cases, but staff say they may lead to blurred boundaries and an overly hands-on management style if leaders are not careful. At Rutgers, Bouchard says that technology like Ring Central, which sends his team’s office line to their cell phones, helps them to stay ahead of the call volume. “It's hard not to keep looking at the phone when it rings, not knowing which staff member is free to answer the phone in the way I typically do,” he says, “but I have a great deal of faith in my team to do what needs to be done so I can focus on my work or take a breath.” Bouchard also says Zoom and Microsoft Teams help keep ideas flowing, processes moving, and teammates connected. “Being able to ‘get together’ to continue our work is tantamount. Seeing people, even electronically, has helped very much in maintaining some semblance of normalcy.”
Patton says he has noticed some leaders “in the weeds” more than ever before. Instead of micromanaging, he says, this is a time to lean into leadership skills and behaviors like those he cultivated while living in. “High communication, presence, encouragement, support, care, boundary setting, planning, and reminding myself that everyone, including me, is human are skills that served me well when I lived on, ever since, and certainly now.” Bernal echoes this sentiment, noting that employment structures and supervisors from his live-in days helped develop the lens through which he now approaches work and supervision. “One of my residence director roles was an hourly pay structure, which got me into the mindset of only working when I was actually clocked in and keeping to a 40-hour work week in most circumstances,” he says. “I am also thankful for supervisors and leaders from those live-in roles who emphasized work/life balance in such an integrated type of job.”
Housing staff – both those in their first year of living off campus and those for whom it has been many years since their live-in experience – say they have employed those same skills, perspectives, and mindsets to support an effective working-from-home paradigm. Although the term “unprecedented” has been used widely to describe this period, for housing leaders this season is perhaps slightly less so. However, it is almost certain that, moving forward, “home” will hold a new sacredness for all.
Mary C. Jordan serves as the associate director of housing for student learning and engagement at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She has lived-on at three different campuses including five years at the University of Florida. There she lived with her husband and two children including one who actually was delivered in their graduate and family housing apartment. Debbie Scheibler serves as the director of residential learning at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, where she and her family now have their own home. Before that, though, she lived-on at Shippensburg, Stockton (with her husband), Rutgers (two children), and Wilkes universities.The authors acknowledge how entwined the issues of race, oppression, and use of force are during this time. These circumstances have also resulted in different, often more challenging, conditions for care, education, and action. They also acknowledge that these factors can impact professionals of color disproportionately and in ways they, as two white women, cannot fully understand. They recognize these issues as important, powerful, and ongoing, and they must be named.