Lost and Found

What Department of Medicine staff lost—and regained—during a year working remotely

On the morning of March 13, 2020, Denise Fortes, a postdoctoral coordinator, opened her inbox. Nestled among her usual emails was a note from Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne informing the campus community that the university was transitioning to remote work as the coronavirus intensified its grip on the country.

Fortes and hundreds of other Department of Medicine staff members sprang into action: transforming their bedrooms into offices and their kitchen tables into desks. They quickly mastered collaborative technologies like Zoom, Slack, and Jabber and learned to adapt to a new way of working.

As the months passed, they found ways to stay connected and collaborate effectively while shouldering additional responsibilities at home. They embraced the advantages of remote work (greater flexibility, more time with family), while acknowledging the challenges (isolation, childcare, and education). And through it all, they maintained their commitment to caring for their work, their communities, and each other.

Fortes and two other staff members—Bonnie Lam and Johanna Alm—have written reflections on this unusual time. They shared their struggles and loss, their rediscovered joys, and the moments that buoyed them. What emerged are three stories of resilience and hope.

When COVID Becomes Personal

Denise Fortes, Postdoctoral Coordinator, Infectious Diseases

It was March 13, 2020, when we were told that we would be working from home for a week or two due to the pandemic. My new position as postdoc coordinator within the infectious diseases division was starting on March 24, and my future cubemate and I were making plans for our shared space. I started my new job remotely and since that day have been providing support to not only my home division but also to two other divisions that did not have a postdoc coordinator. The Department of Medicine was faced with a hiring freeze, and there was no question in my mind as to whether I was going to continue supporting everyone—we were all in this together, and I was determined to be successful.

When my new job started, I had some big projects immediately ahead of me, including assisting with two infectious diseases T32 Training Grant renewals. This was my first time working on a T32 renewal, and I was going to be working on two of them remotely, without any of the information that was stored in the binders at the office. Because we were working from home, I was able to view the process through a new lens. After many hours of data mining, I learned that most information I needed could be found and kept online, and I created my own notes and filing system using our online shared drive. I determined that all the printed material I used to keep in the folders on my desk was really no longer necessary. Zoom became an instrumental tool for me, and between our division team huddles, my Zoom training meetings, and co-hosting the monthly Admin Brown Bag Lunch meetings, I felt very connected. As I became more focused and my remote work process became more streamlined, I discovered many positives: fewer distractions, an eagerness to help, and a renewed appreciation of each other’s time.

“I remember thinking, I am in the best possible place I could be during this pandemic. I felt then, and continue to feel now, that I am blessed to have my job, the ability to work from home, and such an amazing group of people to work with"

To complete my part of the T32 renewals, I called upon my network of resources, met often with them over Zoom, and determined through my own processes the record keeping that would be most helpful for our division going forward. I made suggestions to our department’s idea board for T32 renewal process improvements and created a document with information to help others in my position. The support I received from my division chief, Upi Singh, MD, during the renewal process was invaluable! We spent many hours together on Zoom reviewing the data tables, and at the same time she was educating me about what the National Institutes of Health is looking for in the data we provide. I don’t know if we would have been able to spend as much uninterrupted time in the office as we did on Zoom. I will never forget the experience because it has given me the opportunity to be a leader and resource to my peers. I feel that now more than ever it is important to share our knowledge with one another. We work in a learning institution, and knowledge is meant to be shared.

During the pandemic, everyone in my division as well as the Department of Medicine banded together to help one another. My colleagues and I stayed connected through collaborative applications and cell phones, and we helped each other learn new ways to use those resources. We supported one another through the easy times and the challenging ones, yet never lost hope. During December, while I was in the middle of working on one of our T32 renewals, my mom was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was in the hospital for most of the month. While in my Zoom meetings with Upi, I was able to ask her COVID-related questions about my mom, and I remember thinking, “I am in the best possible place I could be during this pandemic.” I felt then, and continue to feel now, that I am blessed to have my job, the ability to work from home, and such an amazing group of people to work with.

Although I was looking forward to participating with my new division in the Cardinal Walk, Department of Medicine Halloween Decorating Contest, and Cardinal at Work Cares giving drives, I loved not having to commute … and there’s always next year!

Celebrating Life from a Distance

Bonnie Lam, Human Resources Administrator

Our team had been starting to transition to more telecommuting and online meeting opportunities since the move to Stanford’s Redwood City campus, but the pandemic accelerated it and forced us to immediately implement ideas and fine-tune our approach to remote work. This department-wide acceptance of remote work has given my team many opportunities to reach out and connect to employees and be accessible. I have been incredibly inspired by how we can use the tools we have to create a seamless and great customer service experience for our employees.

I’m so lucky that we had a strong team culture before the move to remote work. We continued to have our weekly staff meetings along with random happy hours. My supervisor, Shauna Cruz, even did a baking demonstration and had us follow along (if we wanted to) as a team bonding experience. I constantly message my teammates on Jabber, either to catch up or brainstorm ideas. We celebrate each other’s birthdays with Zoom backgrounds. My team even held a Zoom baby shower for me and a Zoom wedding shower for another teammate. We were still able to share joys with each other.

I do miss seeing my team in person. No matter how well we have transitioned, there’s nothing like a team meeting with everyone there in person. Some things can just be more easily communicated and followed up with in person. I miss seeing people in the office and waving hi to people on different teams.

“A huge silver lining has been that both my husband and I have been able to be at home for the first year of our son’s life"

While my dogs have been very happy for me to be at home, they can be a distraction (especially during meetings!). However, a huge silver lining has been that both my husband and I have been able to be at home for the first year of our son’s life. I have been able to experience all his firsts and take him on walks during my lunch break. These are moments I cherish so much and will never forget.

Mom, Employee, Teacher, Chess Coach: Navigating the Pandemic as a Working Parent

Johanna Alm, Fellowship Program Coordinator, Immunology and Rheumatology

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year since the pandemic was declared and the first shelter-in-place order was announced. I remember it was quite a shock. Looking back, the first thing that comes to my mind is that everyone was stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes, and we all thought that the situation was going to last for a couple of weeks. Yet in 2021 here we still are, more than a year later.

The whole situation was completely new. Going from working full-time in the office to being at home with the whole family at the same time was very strange. There were Zoom calls happening all around the house, from early morning to late evening. I went from working mother to 100% remote working mother to elementary school teacher and middle school teacher to soccer and chess coach, and, and, and … just to mention a few of the new titles the pandemic rewarded me with. It was stressful and challenging to say the least.

It didn’t take us that long to figure things out: how to stay connected with our colleagues; how to get our work done 100% remotely; how to manage work-life balance and all the other things the pandemic forced us to do. I’m so impressed by how we did it and how fast we did it, but most of all that we all did it together. I’m not saying that it was easy and that it passed without any challenges, but I think we all should remember how successful we were and how quickly we adjusted to the new normal. We really should be proud of ourselves and of what we achieved.

“We will come out of this together, more resilient and stronger than we were before. We will be more appreciative of things that we used to take for granted"

We’ve learned that many things can be done even if we cannot meet in person. I think we have proven to ourselves, but also to others, that work can be done remotely, even if it is not always optimal. I also believe we’ve learned how to be more patient, how to adjust to new situations, and how to be kind to ourselves. We really should be proud of this and keep these things in mind. We will come out of this together, more resilient and stronger than we were before. We will be more appreciative of things that we used to take for granted.

As I write this reflection from the living room, I can hear a noisy Spanish class going on with a bunch of excited second graders. A few seconds later, I hear the saxophone playing next door; I guess middle school band class just started. I look out the window and see my husband on one of his constant calls; he escaped. I make sure I’m muted on my Zoom call and continue to dream about returning to campus one day!