Debra Schleef, a sociology professor at the University of Mary Washington, learned early on that the coronavirus would soon enough require staff and faculty to remotely work and teach from home.

It prompted Schleef, who also works in the provost’s office, to pull together a collection of paper and electronic files she’d need to work from home with the other three folks in the office.

She was a bit ahead of the game, already having a laptop that uses an internet connection so that makes it “not too different from sitting in front of my computer at work.”

Like most folks making the shift to remotely working from home, Schleef fairly quickly found differences between her long-perfected set up of computers and desk at work and the single laptop suddenly ensconced on her dining room table.

“In my office at work, I have two big screens, while at home I have a single laptop with a fairly small screen,” she said. “It feels like it takes a while to do more work, as I can’t see everything as well this way.

“Those two screens made it easier to multitask instead of bouncing back and forth between programs. But I’m slowly getting used to this new way and I can get everything done I need to.”

The other thing she’s still working out: “From the start, I’d made my work space the dining room table, with room to spread papers and things out as I’m working. But I need to find a space where I can leave all the paperwork spread out.”

Schleef is one of thousands of Frederickburg-area workers who are shifting to a new normal, doing their jobs at colleges, businesses and other local institutions from home to try to protect themselves and their colleagues from the spread of the coronavirus.

The University of Mary Washington has one of the larger work forces doing their jobs remotely from their homes.

Beth Williams, UMW’s executive director of human resources, said the university moved quickly to survey supervisors as to which staffers have jobs that could be accomplished remotely, and which don’t.

“We have a fairly large contingent of people whose jobs don’t really lend themselves to that, like the folks who take care of our facilities,” she said. “In cases like that, we’ve asked our managers and supervisors to think very broadly about projects these folks can work on.”

She said those projects for some UMW staffers involve professional development.

“One example: Our housekeeping staff has been directed to training they can do off-site and online, OSHA training and methods, and cleaning for public health situations like we’re in now,” she said. “They haven’t had training before.”

Williams said the university has found lack of reliable connectivity to be a big problem for workers and for students now taking classes and interacting with professors remotely from their homes. Provost Nina Mikhalevsky said the shift to at-home learning for students across the state and country underscores the truth about broadband.

“There is a true digital divide, and the University of Mary Washington students” who lack internet and even cellphone coverage in order to continue classes “truly reflects that,” she said.

She added, “Another challenge is that many of those students who lack that connectivity had planned to instead use spaces like public libraries, Starbucks or other businesses that profide free Wi-Fi. They’ve all now closed.”

She said one way to get around that lack of connectivity for students and staffers is using printed materials or even communicating at times by conventional mail.

Williams said as soon as the university knew that staff and professors would need to work remotely, a survey pointed to the need for additional laptops.

“It was a bit of a challenge to get them, because the move to working remotely has them in high demand,” she said.

The HR chief said workers and supervisors seem to be adapting well.

“Overall, we’ve found that a big challenge in this shift to working remotely is keeping people communicating and feeling like they’re part of the team,” Williams said. “It’s challenging in times like this, but we’re finding that our employees are stepping up.”

Bob Pleban, president and CEO of RPI Group, a defense contractor in Spotsylvania County, said the local office has about 15 employees and all but one are working remotely from home. As a defense contractor staffed largely by veterans, his work force is used to shifting gears for different missions and adjusted to the latest change quickly, he said.

Pleban said when it became clear RPI needed to shift to working from home, he put together a “continuity of operations” team that worked out all the technical details of staying in touch and providing channels for staffers to get their work done.

“We’ve worked tele-conferencing and have found that we had technology we’ve never used, like the Sway application our HR department used to distribute a beautiful newsletter to the staff,” he said. “We discovered many assets and programs we had that we would never have used if not for this coronavirus challenge.”

RPI employee Jessica Byl jokes that she and her husband are juggling working at home while caring for two small children “with grace and many tears.”

“We’ve turned a scary global situation that includes mass hysteria and breaking news and distanced it away from our impressionable children—who are having the time of their life building forts at home,” she wrote in an email. “We manage to be successful by alternating between shifts of work and parenting, while one hides in the bedroom, the other herds the kids downstairs. And we learned pretty quickly that this separation is vital; kids and video conference calls do not mix.”

“And while I’ve been away from the office, being virtual has made me more accessible to my coworkers and my family. I believe what I’m feeling is a mixture of gratitude and guilt, that my social responsibility to distance myself has brought me closer to so much goodness,” she added.

Another large institution that’s coping with a new normal, with many staffers working from home, is Mary Washington Healthcare. While doctors and nurses must be onsite at the system’s two hospitals and various clinics, chief Human Resources Officer Kathryn Wall said about 200 staffers in IT, finance, recruiting and other support positions are working remotely.

She said after the technical issues of connecting staffers to the systems and information are worked out, the challenge is keeping those employees connected to their coworkers.

“We have had leaders suggesting things like a video huddle once a week, so people can check in with their teams,” she said. “A lot of us are in positions where we do a lot of collaborating.

“Even if you’re doing that remotely, it’s important to make sure people feel like they are part of the team,” especially when much of that team is made up of medical staff still in the hospital buildings.

Working from home is a bigger challenge for other large local employers, such as call centers.

Employees of Geico office in Stafford County, who asked not to be identified, said the company is slowly shifting to having them work from home. A Geico spokesman refused to comment, saying: “We’re in crisis mode. Business comes first.”

Others interviewed about working from home agreed that finding a good spot for a “home office” is key.

Leslie Petrey, associate payroll manager for the University of Mary Washington, set up a desk of sorts using a folding table in her sunroom, which provides a great view out of back windows of her Spotsylvania County home. Her husband, who’s worked remotely for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington for a while, has his own home office on another floor.

Petrey said although things have been changing quickly in this shift to remote working, she feels like the setup she has in place, with a VPN line connecting to her office and easy access to email and texts, has kept her in touch.

“People still have to get paid. So in that sense, it’s business as usual, even though I’m not on campus,” said Petrie. “Students are gone, but the UMW world is still turning.”

She acknowledged that “it’s a crazy time,” but said for her personally, the stress of coping with the coronavirus crisis has been tempered somewhat by being “at home in my own surroundings.”

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

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