The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything in March 2020. As we scrambled to redefine what our professional and personal lives looked like, my first thoughts were to try to keep things simple and not take on unnecessary projects and commitments that might make the already overwhelming situation much worse. However, I started to find growing comfort and satisfaction with the groups that I already engaged as they moved into a virtual environment. Some examples include board positions I had already agreed to with the Metroplex Area Consortium of Career Centers (MAC3), University of North Texas (UNT) Staff Senate, and Toastmasters.
I was elected to serve as secretary for MAC3 from January 2020 through January 2021. Like many area consortia, we typically had monthly employer site visits combined with a meeting to discuss general business items. However, the board and consortium as a whole met only once or twice under the new leadership before the pandemic hit. I give credit to the board, though, for keeping the momentum going when we could have just paused until the COVID outlook got better.
During the pandemic, we started new initiatives like MAC3 Chats, which were held on one Friday each month, where we simply posed the question, “What’s on your mind?” The sessions were typically 30 minutes and allowed for conversation to happen organically while staying connected during this stressful time. It was also helpful to benchmark with one another by sharing how our universities were managing employees and how our offices were being staffed and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, when universities began having deeper discussions about how to support our Black colleagues, we turned the chats into diversity, equity, and inclusion discussions where we could learn from one another and make strides with best practices at our individual institutions.
Additionally, the MAC3 Employer Relations Committee was able to bring in employers such as the Texas Rangers baseball organization, The Kraft Heinz Company, and the Dallas-Fort Worth Federal Executive Board for presentations on their organizations and to highlight their employment opportunities. In many instances, the presenting organization had five or six employees at varying levels of upper management give a thorough overview of their workplace cultures. Now that so many of us realize the commitment level of a virtual presentation and/or meeting as opposed to an in-person one, I do think it benefited our organization to offer these presentations in a virtual format; I believe we would have had fewer representatives in some cases due to employees logging on from various parts of the country. Obviously, they would not have committed to a one-hour window and traveled to Dallas Fort Worth for this single event.
Another partnership that strengthened amid the pandemic was that of our collective Texas area consortia, which includes Houston Area Consortium of Career Centers, South Texas Alliance of Career Champions, West Central Texas Career Consortium, South Texas Colleges & Universities Career Center Consortium, Central Texas Liberal Arts Career Consortium and the Texas Cooperative Education & Internship Association.
MAC3 usually hosts a summer conference every year. Even as we approach summer 2021 and many COVID restrictions have been lifted in Texas, after meeting, all members thought we could put on a virtual “Summer Series” in lieu of typical annual conferences. This way, we could wait for fall before meeting as a group in person if members are still cautious and are just now starting to transition from working remotely this last year. We are still able to gain revenue in charging a nominal $25-50 fee for each of the four summer series sessions. We are scheduled to host panels with employer and career services representatives ranging in topics from evolving professionalism in the workplace to post-pandemic recruiting strategies. Programming and partnerships such as these that have derived from the pandemic have certainly been a silver lining in what has been a challenging stretch of time.
Another personal networking organization that experienced positive change is North Texas Toastmasters. The mission of this group is to provide a structured but welcoming environment where attendees can build confidence and improve their public speaking and leadership abilities. The North Texas chapter mainly serves the Denton community where UNT is located. However, the group is open to all who are interested. In fact, it is the group’s flexibility that has helped it to grow and prosper during the pandemic. When we met in person prior to March 2020, there were a variety of factors that made it difficult to have what we would consider an acceptable group show up to meetings. There were barriers, such as attaining parking spots for visitors and acquiring regular room reservations that made it cumbersome to host meetings. It sometimes seemed like a lot of planning, when, at times, we only had five people show up to a meeting. That all went away when we created a Zoom meeting and experimented with connecting virtually and steadily, our membership began to grow each week.
The majority of the Toastmasters I have met tend to be introverted individuals, which is why they strive to gain better public speaking skills. This certainly applies to me. However, I believe that visitors found the virtual format less intimidating, so they opted to try it online instead of risking showing up in person and being disappointed. Similarly, it was common for us to have visitors with ties to UNT but no longer lived in the Denton area. For example, a common occurrence was that they were alumni or former staff but lived out of state. However, they enjoyed our chapter’s virtual option more than their local chapter’s.
It was also rewarding to reunite with several former Toastmasters who had to leave our chapter years ago. As we were transitioning to a virtual format, I was able to reach out to a former member and international student who had received his doctorate from UNT and moved to Oklahoma for a teaching position. He had grown so much from the organization and was excited to pick up where he left off with us when he regularly attended standard meetings. It speaks to the value of Toastmasters that a faculty member at a major university still finds benefit of continuing his membership, even though he is now a seasoned public speaker. Moreover, we also have a retired UNT librarian attend our virtual meetings since he also lives in another state. Members find value in using their Toastmaster skills in everyday casual encounters, not just professional ones.
Finally, I joined Staff Senate in 2019. Upon joining, I was able to get involved on a deeper university-wide level that I truly enjoyed. Passing out Staff Senate swag at tailgating events for home football games and working check-in tables at staff appreciation ceremonies were fun and a great way to see the growth of the institution and make useful connections across campus.
When I agreed to become a member of the executive board and serve as secretary-treasurer, I was able to see university initiatives through a different lens. For example, when upper administration at UNT wanted to promote a culture of COVID-19 testing across campus and ensure that it was supported, it was our group they went to since we were one of the few governance bodies in operation. Similarly, when the chief financial officer at UNT retired, the board was included in the interview process to find a replacement. We appreciated that input from Staff Senate was deemed necessary by staff at levels much higher than ours.
Staff Senate also implemented “Staff Success Stories” through which we receive nominations for those who go above and beyond in performing their job duties. After working for UNT for 20 years, it has been gratifying to see staff being recognized, especially when I know personally that they have a stellar work ethic. Additionally, the group implemented a website that serves as a resource for current and new staff. Through this site, we make sure that all staff are informed and have access to professional development opportunities, pertinent insurance materials, and information regarding employee resource groups.
Every year during Staff Appreciation Month, UNT implements “morale boosters” and other activities to make sure employees know they are valued. Something that we probably would not have tried had it not been for our new remote work circumstances, were virtual painting sessions. We developed a partnership with the popular franchise chain “Painting with a Twist” where one of their instructors led a session virtually. We chose UNT’s Battle Flag as the subject for this painting session and the president’s office, along with the Staff Senate, covered the costs for the supplies needed for the painting. It was a lot of fun and a great way to bring together staff at different levels and departments.
It cannot be stressed enough how employees were able to prove themselves when being thrown into a completely new work dynamic in 2020-21. I think many employees and supervisors had some doubts in the beginning, but ultimately, there are too many examples to count of individuals who took on more responsibilities than they normally would during the pandemic despite a somewhat “relaxed” environment. I think we all look forward to seeing what the new “normal” looks like and hope this hybrid form of professionalism allows us to reach our full potential.
Amy Ferman is associate director for Employer Development & Outreach for the Career Center at University of North Texas.