‘A silver lining out of the pandemic’: Berkeley learns from remote work transition

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Celine Bellegarda/File
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, both the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley have developed virtual work strategies that may carry forward into the future.

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Before the start of the pandemic, the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley operated with more than 40 commissions and about 15,000 employees, respectively. Employees were spread across the city and campus, filling the pre-pandemic Berkeley landscape.

With the coronavirus shifting the traditional workplace to remote work and posing a variety of challenges, both the city and campus have developed virtual work strategies that may carry on into the future.

Although campus already had systems in place to manage remote work prior to the pandemic, according to campus Chief People and Culture Officer Eugene Whitlock, expanding those systems to manage the entire campus workforce was a major challenge.

“We already had people working remotely before this all happened,” Whitlock said. “We had sample agreements to use for people who were telecommuting; we had processes in place. But to do it on this scale — that’s a bit of a different question.”

Whitlock added that the increased workload and varying work setups were additional challenges for the campus workforce. Early in the pandemic, the campus ergonomics team worked extensively with employees to ensure they had the equipment and work environment necessary to continue working effectively.

However, the challenges of working in a home environment went beyond ergonomics, according to Whitlock, with many employees needing to work while having children at home who were also attending online classes. Morale surveys during the pandemic show that campus workers are suffering from burnout, he added, with the logistical challenges and new policies resulting from the pandemic expanding workloads.

“The workload has increased by almost 50%,” Whitlock said. “People are just exhausted.”

Employees of the city of Berkeley have faced similar challenges in adapting to a virtual work environment, including juggling work and childcare, lack of access to ergonomics and new duties in response to the pandemic, according to an October 2020 summary report on COVID-19 response prepared by the city Emergency Operations Center.

According to Keith May, Berkeley assistant fire chief and secretary for the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, the onset of the pandemic led to a decrease in the number of active city commissions, with many commissions halting meetings altogether.

The commissions that continued meeting, such as the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, faced a variety of logistical challenges, including ensuring that all commissioners had access to computers and figuring out how to use Zoom to mimic the setup of in-person meetings.

Despite initial challenges, May added that the ultimate success of the transition and the efficacy of virtual meetings will set a precedent for the city of Berkeley moving forward.

“For me, that’s a huge lesson — that we can transition quickly and potentially continue in a virtual world,” May said.

There are many potential benefits of continuing with virtual work as an option, according to May, especially for community members who may have a hard time attending in-person meetings.

According to the city COVID-19 response report, other positive effects of the shift to a virtual work environment include the integration of new technologies, increased flexibility for workers and more frequent meetings among the city’s senior leadership, which prompted a forum to discuss the challenges of the pandemic and share the best practices.

The shift to remote work has also set new precedents for campus, Whitlock said. Even when the pandemic ends, he noted, the “virtual work culture” it gave rise to will continue into the future.

“This remote work experiment is definitely a silver lining out of the pandemic. It would have been really hard to convince people ‘let’s give it a try,’ ” Whitlock said. “Now that we know that we can do it, it’s going to be a huge boon to individual employees, and I think also to UC as an employer, to say we are a workplace with flexible hours and flexible work locations.”

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.