Modeling excellence through COVID-19

As the pandemic impacts what it means to keep the campus running, Penn Today asks three supervisors, former Models of Excellence winners, for tips on helping staff address the new workplace.

From left to right, Rodolfo Altamirano, Eugene G. Janda, Leigh Rosen Gantz
Rodolfo Altamirano (left), Eugene G. Janda (center), Leigh Rosen Gantz (right).

For more than 20 years the Models of Excellence Award program has provided recognition of the achievements of individuals and teams whose work reflects initiative, leadership, increased efficiency, and a deep commitment to service at Penn. Since 2007, the Model Supervisor Award has honored those who manage, mentor, and support staff to contribute to the University’s success. 

As COVID-19 took hold and the workplace shifted to respond to the pandemic, these individuals—whether leading essential staff to meet the needs of on-the-ground efforts or helping support teams adapt to the work-from-home model—have helped Penn manage the changes and challenges. In this environment of change, Penn Today asked three supervisors, former Models of Excellence winners, to share their perspectives, the challenges they have faced, and tips for addressing the new workplace.

Rodolfo “Rudie” R. Altamirano

Director, International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS)
Director, Immigration, and Integration Services
Penn Global
Model Supervisor Award: 2018

ISSS’ portfolio provides services to approximately 7,000 international students, about 3,000 international faculty and staff, and hundreds of departments from Penn’s 12 schools and the University of Pennsylvania Health System. We had to make sure that there would be minimal disruption and interruption to our services. This meant managing two tough challenges: COVID-19 and shifting immigration mandates that threatened to hamper our international students and scholars in continuing their studies and in pursuing their teaching and research endeavors. 

We were faced with a high volume of inquiries and requests that were all urgent and time sensitive and needed our immediate attention. We have relied on strong partnerships across the university and the skill and dedication of our team to meet these challenges. 

Altamirano’s tips

Implement the essential Rs:

Adapt and find ways of regularly connecting. We do this via regular Zoom meetings (for regular updates) and Slack (for instant messaging). Rotating meeting facilitation responsibilities has solidified a virtual team spirit, and transparent communication and regular updates with one another have helped reduce stress, reset expectations about workloads and responsibilities, set priorities, and acknowledge excellent work.

Given the nature of our work we have to make sure that we were always on call and ready to relate and respond to any challenges team members are facing. Several months ago, I called all of my team members (direct and indirect reports) individually to assess how they were doing. I introduced “taking the pulse” exercises during the virtual meetings to ask the following questions:

  • What are their current challenges?
  • How can the ISSS leaders and colleagues help and support them?
  • What do they need to do their work effectively and efficiently?

It was important for me to put the wellness/well-being of my team as a top priority. I focused on optimism, and because of their work and dedication lives have been positively impacted. We made sure that Zoom meetings were not just focused on work and found opportunities to have fun: celebrating milestones together (weddings, babies, new homes and birthdays), introducing our dogs and cats during meetings. For wellness, I also encouraged the team to take their paid time off. This helped tremendously in prioritizing their self-care and managing stress and burnout. 

Leigh Rosen Gantz

Director of Research Integration and Special Initiatives
Office of the Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer
Perelman School of Medicine
Model Supervisor Award: 2020

Back in March, we were in professional survival mode. Time-sensitive needs took precedence, and we necessarily set aside a number of goals and strategic projects. As we look toward what we now understand will be a prolonged “new normal,” we need to take a step back, revisit goals and plans from the beginning of the year and see where and how we can get back on track. For some activities, this simply requires a shift in focus; others—particularly those that require relationship-building—will require creative and thoughtful planning.  

While this period has been challenging in many ways, I think it has improved our ability to prioritize. Decreased time and connection have forced us to focus resources where they are most needed and to communicate with our team and colleagues in a way that is concise, digestible, and action-oriented. 

Rosen Gantz’s tips

Daily check-ins
Since March, our team has had a daily informal check-in on the calendar. There are times when we cancel, or only talk for a few minutes, but often we have a full agenda. This placeholder is a nudge to move projects forward, but more importantly it’s an opportunity to maintain strong communication and relationships while we’re all apart.

Offer reassurance and kindness
As simple as it might sound, appreciation, acknowledgement, and kindness are more important than they have ever been. We can’t see our colleagues in person, and there are fewer opportunities to get direct feedback and reassurance about our work. At a time when we’re all busy and distracted, we have to make concerted efforts to thank our colleagues, highlight their hard work and their wins, and thoughtfully and purposefully ease others’ stress by making sure they know when they’re doing a good job.

Eugene “Gene” C. Janda

Chief, Fire and Emergency Services
Division of Public Safety
Model Supervisor Award: 2019

Our team focuses on keeping the emergency systems in each building on campus at peak performance levels. During the pandemic, the team has been working in two platoon shifts to minimize physical contact in the office environment. Team motivation and communication are key challenges for long-term operations since the campus currently has a small population, and our services and interaction with Penn community members are the most rewarding aspect of our jobs. 

Each member of our team keeps in close contact with colleagues in other divisions for the inspections, testing, maintenance, certification, and review of buildings, projects, and/or systems. We have maintained a drill schedule for the limited number of people on campus. And we are making sure buildings and life safety systems will be PennReady for when the campus will be populated fully.

Janda’s tips

Collaborate and focus
Within our group, members work in pairs to collaborate on completing portions of projects or tasks. Team members work to remind each other of how fortunate we are to be working. There are many discouraging aspects about operating during the pandemic and difficult issues facing the country; keeping focused on our core mission helps.

Bringing everyone together
We conduct weekly virtual meetings opening with every team member discussing the highlights of jobs encountered or anticipated in the upcoming week.

Keep looking ahead
Our group is evaluating current programs to see how we could delete, add, or modify the services we perform to enhance our contributions to the campus community.  

Keeping our eye on the future has given us encouragement and helped us to build team spirit. We always try to use our strengths to our advantage and find ways to enhance our weaknesses through research and networking with colleagues at other peer institutions.