Wednesday, July 8, 2020

On March 16, in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, Duke University President Vincent Price instructed staff and faculty to transition to working off campus. Events were either moved online or cancelled, and in-person meetings were restricted. Divinity faculty and staff had a few days to transition the rest of the spring semester into an online format. In the following weeks, the Divinity community navigated the challenges of communicating with and caring for students, planning a virtual celebration instead of Commencement, and trying to plan for what the fall semester might look like.

As the weeks turned into months, Divinity staff have continued to manage their professional responsibilities from their personal home spaces. At first, it wasn’t always easy, as Faten Antoun, the director of finance and grant management, describes:

“When I was instructed to work from home going forward, I was almost in tears. Not that I don’t like to work from home or find many benefits of doing that, but because we were right in the middle of renovating the kitchen, staining floors, and installing tiles. The house was literally a construction zone, and going to work had been an escape from the chaos. We didn’t have a kitchen for six weeks.”

Faten Antoun's renovated kitchen
Faten Antoun set up her work space near her newly renovated kitchen at home

Many staff have had to be creative in finding work space at home. “We don’t have office space in our home, so I work from the bedroom,” said Danielle Stulac, program director for the Theology, Medicine, and Culture initiative. “The painting behind my bed is now very well known to my team.” Antoun found that she needed a printer and WiFi router, and she continues to miss her dual monitor set-up in the office now that she’s working from a laptop. “Thankfully the house renovations are completed, and my work station is next to the new kitchen, which we love,” said Antoun. “The only problem with that is that I am too close to the fridge and snacks!”

Staff with children at home have needed to find new ways to combine working, Zoom meetings, home educating, and child care, all in the same space—sometimes all in the same room. Carl King, associate director of development and his wife are both trying to work from home full-time while also caring for their two daughters, ages 7 and 5. “The only work space away from the kids is a small desk in our bedroom,” said King. “But we can’t work two full-time jobs from that one small desk. So, I turned to a desk I was storing in my unfinished basement.” And while King describes it as a blessing to have more time at home with his daughters, he also describes it as “the greatest challenge of working from home. I have more time to play with my young girls. Conversely, they rarely understand when I am unavailable to them because of work. They want to believe that because I am home, I am accessible any hour of the day.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stulac says she grateful to have more time to play with her 16-month-old daughter in the mornings before work. But “a cute baby to play with just downstairs can make it harder to stay focused!”


Morgan Hendrix's children picking blueberries at a colleague's home

Morgan Hendrix, director of admissions operations, said that full-time child care for her two children, ages 9 and 4, while also working means encouraging them to be outside as much as they can and overlooking her son’s daily choice to wear pajamas. “I have to pick my battles!” She also made time to take them to pick blueberries at the home of Rhonda Parker, senior director of field education and ministerial formation, ”Rhonda invited us over to pick her blueberry bushes when she was out of town, and the kiddos loved that.”

As people have settled into new routines and schedules, they name many blessings and benefits to working from home: “I found working from home flexible while very efficient, saving time on travel and my morning routine while still being able to attend virtual meetings when needed,” said Antoun. Diane Decker, staff assistant in faculty services, also appreciates the lack of a commute and the ability to stay in comfortable clothes all day. Stulac has enjoyed her family vegetable garden: “We’re growing kale, parsley, butternut squash, and watermelon, and have had some great salads this summer.”


Danielle Stulac's daughter helps with the family vegetable garden.

King tries to bike around the neighborhood with his daughters each day, and has started a “gratitude journal” time before dinner each night. “Each of us records something we are thankful for from the day. During dinner we learn about each person’s reason to be grateful.” Both Antoun and King described having time to finally tackle projects around the house, from de-cluttering to building a bike rack.

“Seeing much of my family has been very special during this time,” said Antoun. “We’ve cooked, eaten meals together, and played board games in the evenings. One of our favorite board game has been Settlers of Catan.”

Others appreciate their full-time furry companions who brighten the work day. “My stay-at-home coworker Beau brings me lots of joy,” said Minoka Gunesekera, admissions recruiter, of her golden doodle. Decker appreciates “Chance, best rescue cat ever, supervising my work over by the window in the utility room.”


Diane Decker's cat, Chance, supervises work in the utility room.

Some things from the routine of going to the office are still missed. “I miss the two-mile round-trip walk to and from campus,” said Stulac. “It was good for daily exercise. I also miss Maggie Long’s [staff assistant] chocolate stash!” Many miss seeing colleagues and friends in person. “I miss interacting and collaborating with others, and definitely miss my chats with friends in the kitchen,” Antoun said. Even though the External Relations department have frequent video meetings, King says he misses their personal interactions. “I’ve missed our occasional meals and jokes we share about the events of the day. We all get along well, and it’s sad not to be together even for a short time.”

Decker’s office at the Divinity School is usually a hub of activity with students, faculty, and staff in and out with questions and projects all day. “Since my job includes all the services provided, questions answered, supplies, mail, etc., there's a pretty steady stream of visitors that we are normally glad to see and chat with for a few moments,” she said. “I miss laughing with the work-study students. And I miss the faculty who generously provide me the opportunity to laugh or look skeptical.”

No discussion about working from home would be complete without tales of Zoom—or “Doom,” as one person called it. “I imagine we’re not alone in finding a toddler offering her opinion during a meeting occasionally,” Stulac said. King works in his unfinished basement and often uses a Zoom virtual background. “I took a photo of my real basement ‘background’ and sent it to colleagues as a joke for them to use as their own virtual background. Unsurprisingly, no one has taken me up on the offer.”

King also experienced the hazards of combining video calls with young children: “I was on a conference call with a colleague. My youngest daughter came in and, just off camera, she covered her hands and feet with blue finger paint. She then began running around our basement leaving Duke blue handprints and footprints everywhere. I had to act like nothing was happening around me so my online conversation wouldn’t be interrupted. Her little blue footprints still cover the floor."


Beau Gunesekera

Technology did make the list of things for which staff are grateful. “Duke introduced wellbeats.com for virtual fitness training classes and that has kept me sane,” Antoun said. In addition to staying in close contact with his External Relations team, King has appreciated the work of the Divinity IT team. “They have helped me several times, even ‘taking over my computer’ remotely to solve problems.”

Certainly no one would have predicted that work life would look the way it has in 2020. But Divinity School staff and faculty continue to respond with creativity, professionalism, and flexibility. “Overall, working from home has been unexpectedly productive and enjoyable,” Antoun said. “I am grateful to be able to continue working from the safety of my home and hope everyone continues to stay safe and healthy.”