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NEWS | May 25, 2021

NSWCPD African American Employee Resource Group Hosts “Collaboration in a Remote Environment” Virtual Event

By Brentan Debysingh

The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) African American Employee Resource Group (AAERG) presented a virtual event titled: “Collaboration in a Remote Environment” on May 25, 2021.

Hosted by AAERG Chair Ed Carter, the event featured an informal conversation about the lessons learned, best practices, and tips and tricks developed from over a year of working in a (mostly) remote environment.

Featured panelists included:
• Dion Collins, mechanical engineer
• Alaina Farooq, contracting officer representative
• Matt Fohner, mechanical engineer
• Elyse Merkel, C21 cybersecurity customer lead (on rotation)
• Eric Mscicz, division head for Auxiliary Machinery Systems
• Kim Yee, supervisor of Contracting Officer Representatives

During the informative session, the panelists and guests discussed their experiences during max telework including topics such as collaborating, building and managing teams virtually, effective communication techniques, leading virtual meetings, mentorship, technical development, and more.

Carter opened the discussion by asking about their biggest challenge while working remotely.

Collins mentioned that as a NSWCPD new hire, he didn’t know anyone at first, but that changed over time.

“The biggest thing that helped me was joining the ERG’s session and joining the brown bag sessions,” said Collins. “You see a lot of the same names and eventually someone said ‘I think I can help you with that.’ That person became my mentor. I signed up for speed mentoring, and now I have a rolodex of people who are more than happy to help. At first I was a little uncomfortable reaching out, but everyone I spoke to was more than happy to help. As a new hire during COVID-19, I didn’t have those hallway conversations that can be so helpful, so reaching out to people really helped out.”

When the topic changed to connecting with your team and building relationships with new people, Fohner, another NSWCPD new hire, said, “In the beginning it was tough. You have to pick out the voices you recognize from the Teams calls. The weekly branch meetings were a good resource as I was able to see people’s faces.”

He added, “Limited traveling helped as it was the first time I was able to meet people. I was able to ask them every question I had saved up during the past two months. Also, outside group chats and informal messaging was a really good resource. They were more fun and informal.”

Merkel and Farooq shared their insights about the adjustments between building relationships virtually versus in person.

Merkel, who is currently on a rotation, said, “I was part of an Indiana University Masters of Public Administration Program and received encouragement from them to pursue this opportunity. I had signed up for the class before the pandemic and committed to taking it. We transitioned to a virtual environment, and I was able to form a lot of relationships because there were a lot of people from NSWCPD. It was really helpful to make those connections in that class. They encouraged me to pursue more opportunities, and I applied for this rotation.”

“I relied on my mentors I had before telework,” continued Merkel. “I was fortunate to be part of a ‘Lean In’ circle, and those mentors were helpful. When I joined my new team, I had a little bit of a head start because of those relationships, but we were able to leverage some of the tools like a team group chat. It’s a great way to ask those quick questions that you would usually ask over a cubicle wall.”

“The switch to virtual was a huge adjustment,” noted Farooq, a member of the NAVSEA Inclusion and Engagement Council (I&EC), whose mission is to advise and assist NAVSEA to recruit, retain, recognize achievement, and professionally develop a diverse and high-performing workforce that enables and promotes excellence and inclusion throughout the organization. “In normal conditions, the I&EC goes to headquarters for an entire week to meet each other, the executive director and the SES (senior executive service) community. They form subteams and understand the charter and the vision of how they wanted to move forward. All that had to get done virtually.”

Farooq explained, “We compacted that in three-hour meetings over three weeks. We had to meet each other, read a lot of literature, figure out our direction, and then break out in subteams. We met people across NAVSEA in different locations and time zones. It was building a community, forming and storming, and working with people. It was a lot of over-communication in a virtual environment. It has been a challenge, but it is possible.”

Mscicz shared a few ways he distributes important information within a team and encourages mentorship and sharing.

“I have division-wide open office hours, and I send it out to my entire division of 150 employees,” he said. “I sit there on an online meeting, and anyone can dial in and talk. Our first session took place on opening day of the Phillies [baseball team], so we chatted about that for a little bit and tried to have an open dialogue.

“It’s my hope that the branches emulate these open office hours,” continued Mscicz. “One branch has (an) open coffee hour a couple of times a week. These opportunities are great because they promote informal mentorship and team building, which is something we’ve been trying to replicate during this environment.”

Yee mentioned a method he created that helped new team members get more acquainted with their colleagues, saying, “I brought on three new employees, and we were not able to have physical meetings. So the new employees didn’t know who was in the group. They may recognize the voice from a video call, but didn’t have the connection to the person. So I created an organizational chart with thumbnail pictures of everyone’s faces so that when they do communicate and meet each other in real life again, they can make that connection.”

He added, “I think it’s also important for us to turn on our cameras on these virtual calls, so that you see the non-verbal communications with our faces and connect with people.”
Additionally, Yee leaves 20 minutes at the end of every branch meeting to have a session where his staff calls on each other to share any insights. It provides an opportunity for those who are less apt to speak to join the conversation. He also ensures his group introduces themselves to the new members.

Merkel mentioned that her department head does an “Ask Me Anything” session every third Wednesday of each month, where each division makes a presentation on their role.

The panel members also shared their advice to maintain a high level of productivity during max telework. Mscicz said that he implemented a helpful rule he picked up from his wife: “If we go back and forth over email three times, then it’s time to pick up the phone and talk to that person.”

Having two monitors, a laptop docking station, and noise-cancelling headphones were very instrumental for Farooq, along with having a separate space for her work desk at home. Merkel, who initially worked from her couch, noted having a physical desk helped her to maintain proper posture and general health. Yee added that having a government-issued cell phone was helpful for his staff in maintaining privacy while conducting their work.

As the session wound down, the group mentioned the positives of telework. The theme of having a more even work/life balance was repeated by many of the panelists.

Fohner said, “The flexibility is great. You can focus on one task and get it done without distractions. Then having the flexibility to adjust when stuff comes up around the house.”

“Flexibility is one of the things that works for me,” added Merkel. “I usually get up an hour before my family wakes up, knock out an hour of work, and then do the morning routine with my young son. I send him off to daycare, do my work, pick him up, do dinnertime and then go back to work after his bedtime."

While a newfound flexible schedule created a more productive work output, it also blurred the line between work and home.

“With flexibility, you don’t have to worry about travel or commute times and you spend more time working,” explained Farooq. “That also falls as a dislike: you spend more time working. My supervisor has told me that ‘if you’re working, you need to log it.’ I do, but sometimes I don’t log the entirety of the time that I’m working, especially when I fall into a groove. Productivity is great, but sometimes you have to disconnect yourself from work, which is why I created a space within my home just for work.”

Yee added, “I’m saving money not paying the tolls on the commute. But I feel compelled to answer emails in an appropriately timed manner. I encourage my staff to have a work separation, but I didn’t do that myself. That’s something I will have to work on.”

The group consistently noted that they did miss being around their coworkers because that helps to establish valuable support and rapport.
“I thrive on networking and with face to face interaction because that is what helps me to build and maintain my empathy,” said Mscicz. “How many other people is that impacting? How many people are feeling isolated that we don’t know about? It’s important that we do more events like this panel, where we share new ideas to adapt in this new environment.”