Special Features

  • Featured
  • 05.19.20

Data Professionals Stay Productive at Home During COVID-19

  • by M. Suzanne Simpson, Director of Institutional Research & Assessment, University of Alabama in Huntsville

As we become accustomed to working from home and/or the skeleton crews in ourLead image Data Pros Work at Home May 2020 offices, many of us have adjusted our definition of what it means to connect with colleagues and keep a seat at the table to have our voices heard on important data measures. Many of us have adjusted our production efforts and how we manage our time, however, some colleagues have mixed feelings on this topic. There are those who say they are more productive, while others have challenges due to kids being home, back-to-back conference calls, and pets wanting more attention than usual. As we have settled into our new normal, it’s important to take a look at how others are continuing to keep up best practices and offer solutions for those whose primary role is working with data. eAIR sat down virtually with Eric Atchison, Vice President for Strategic Research, Arkansas State University System, to find out how he and his colleagues in data roles are staying productive during this unprecedented time.

eAIR: How are you working efficiently and effectively with other departments—specifically, how do you get a virtual “seat” at the table on important data topics affecting IR/IE roles like the CARES Act?

With virtual meetings becoming the norm for so many, I’ve found it important to learn how to be an active participant as well as a thoughtful organizer. My role at the system office has me serving in both roles multiple times a day. Here are some tips I’ve found to effectively and efficiently contribute to or lead virtual meetings:     

  1. Active participation: While it may feel like we are in meetings that we normally wouldn’t be in, it’s important to recognize our contributions. Currently a big topic we’re facing is how to allocate CARES Act relief funds to students and I can’t think of a better resource than an IR colleague with their skills in running various outcomes scenarios with the financial aid and finance offices. Being an active participant sometimes involves asking the questions that may need to be asked but rarely are, such as “What do we need to move forward on this?” or “How can I help organize a team to get us through this phase?"

  2. Thoughtful leading: Provide a summary or agenda ahead of time to prepare the audience. At the onset, let everyone in the meeting know that you’re going to go down the list of participants to get their feedback. This helps them prepare comments as the meeting moves forward and also gives everyone a chance to contribute equally. I typically have a Word document on one half of my screen where I’m taking notes during the meeting. This helps everyone agree to the outcomes and next steps and it’s very easy to send it to the group afterward.

  3. Determining meeting preferences: When I’m going to meet a colleague in a one-on-one setting, I ask if they would prefer a phone call or a video-enabled discussion. I think this helps people feel more comfortable in a one-on-one situation. I know there are days when I am exhausted from video meetings.

eAIR: How do you stay connected? Are you using the new AIR Hub to stay connected via discussion topics?

I have begun a weekly series of web conferences with my teams to stay engaged and learn new things. Many were interested in dashboard development, so I curated a series of 45 minute trainings with Tableau. In week one I taught the overall basics of the software along with tables and charts. In week two, I showed them all the options for formatting. In week three, I demonstrated the utility of parameters and navigation. Each week I recorded the demonstration and sent the group step-by-step directions and included screenshots. In the fourth week, I’ve asked team members from Arkansas State University to demonstrate how they are using Tableau to visualize and understand data from their graduating student survey. I’ve received wonderful feedback on this effort and find that while we are disconnected we should be provided opportunities to learn and enhance our work since so few in-person opportunities are available.

I also take the time to "visit" with offices/individuals that I would have normally interacted with on a regular basis. This helps maintain relationships during this difficult time. In my previous position, several of us would have impromptu ‘coffee talks.’ Setting aside 15-20 minutes in a virtual setting can help to maintain informal conversations. I have connected with the AIR Hub and already contributed to several topics of discussion. This is a great resource for the AIR community, as we can share ideas and strategies during the pandemic and beyond.

eAIR: How are you ensuring your employees are staying productive? What are some of your approaches or processes?

Project management is essential in normal and COVID-19 times, but I’ve found that regular checkups with my team members and prioritization of tasks is even more important now that I’m working from home. I think something many of us are realizing is there is a need for understanding our preferred work environments, and I believe this will spill over once we return to a physical presence on campus. To keep everyone apprised, I’ve asked each team member to share what they are working on during our weekly system-wide meetings.

eAIR: What about technology needs for those who work with data?

As far as tech needs go, I’ve heard multiple times that our staff would love to have a second monitor setup at home, but some do not have adequate space for this. A bigger issue for us has been unreliable or overloaded internet pipelines that make it difficult to participate on conference calls. This crisis has helped me understand the limitations of our network infrastructure and I am hopeful that another iteration of CARES funding will focus on improving rural connectivity.

Coffee Chat: Tips and Tricks for Working from Home (June 12 | 1 p.m. EST)

Join your colleagues for a casual chat about staying productive while working remotely. We’ll kick this idea-sharing session off by sharing top insights collected in AIR Hub. Then we’ll open the floor for discussion about your unique challenges and solutions. 

Register Now (AIR members only)

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