MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project
 
Chapter 02: Challenges of Remote and Virtual Work

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Chapter 02: Challenges of Remote and Virtual Work

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In this chapter, Dr. Holladay talks about the challenges presented by a remote/virtual working environment, how to broaden the resources and support systems that are available to people, how to measure and address the issue of burnout, the importance of taking care of yourself, and how best to promote and encourage female leaders.

Transcript

Nina Nevill

Sure. And not to jump around too much, but it seems like in the past year, one big difference in perhaps community and in culture has been the shift to this online, virtual model, rather than being all on campus or being all present together. And so, what disparities did you see or were visible in terms of people having to work from home, and the work-from-home needs and things like fatigue and all of that? I’d just love to know a little bit about your experience with that and things that you witnessed or observed.

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Yeah. So, the remote or virtual environment, there are some positives that were brought as a result. I will say, one of the things that I’ve seen is that some of these more challenging conversations are actually able to be had in the virtual environment. It does seem like there’s a little more willingness to speak up, or even through chat, offer a perspective where people might have sat quietly in a physical room not feeling comfortable. There seems to be a little more comfort in the virtual environment to voice some of the concerns or thoughts. It still requires a psychological safety, obviously, that has to be present whether you’re in person or virtual. But I will say that’s been a welcome surprise of the virtual environment, is that it has lent itself, in some ways, to having some of these more challenging conversations. Now, the other piece is that to the point of people have been working from home. Their lives have become completely blurred. And for some that challenge was more difficult than for others, where education, if they are the primary caregiver for their children, they were also trying to do online education. There were, I can’t even count how many articles or pieces that were coming out about how women in some ways were more burdened with the transition to work from home because they were not only working but they were also the teacher, the technology support, all of these different roles that were in some way asked of them to take on whereas some of their male counterparts didn’t have those same obligations or had another support system that was able to help.

There was also some indication, at least from what was being shared across the organization, not necessarily specific to MD Anderson, but that the technology capabilities for some were not as—not having stable Wi-Fi, not having a setup where they could have a dedicated space in their home. And so, some socio-economic impact that was realized as people were having to transition very quickly into working from home. And so, I think that was something as an organization that we were trying to take into consideration, talking about the flexibility of work. For the example of the individual who may also have kids that they’re caring for who are in online school, are they still getting the work done even if maybe their hours now are from 7:00 to 11:00 in the evening. If they’re still getting the work done, they’re still getting the work done, and how can we flex to support individuals? If people don’t have the stable Wi-Fi that they need then as an organization how do we provide them hotspots? How do we get them the software or the technology tools to support them in their home environment or create spaces for them to be able to do their work? And so, those were some of the considerations that we had to think about to open up so that we weren’t having impact to different communities negatively because of the realities that they were facing.

Nina Nevill

I think for me, looking at this past year, equity is the word that stands out the most in terms of how to use systemic, or at least institutional support to address some of these inequities that are being seen. So, again, this is somewhat of an ideal world, but from the data that you’ve collected and from your own experiences seeing some inequities across lines of gender or race or socioeconomic status, from a diversity, equity, and inclusion point of view, what actions would you have liked to have seen or in an ideal world could provide to folks in order to mitigate some of the disparities?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

I’m not sure I’m going to have a different answer because I think what I’ve recognized is there is no one-size-fits-all. It really comes down to having an individual conversation. So, each leader has to talk to the individuals on their team. Those leaders have to talk to the individuals on their team. It has to be a cascading set of conversations to understand, what are the individual needs that people have, and then, how can we roll those up to care for a wider population? But the biggest thing that I see is it’s not a one-size-fits-all, where one person may need some more help with internet and Wi-Fi connection, another person needs more help with care because elder parents that they’re caring for. And so, I think it gets back to, so there’s a diversity in the needs that people have, so our resources have to be diverse to meet the needs of the populations that we serve. And I think what I would say from the perspective of MD Anderson is, I think the institution has done a really incredible job of trying to broaden the resources and support systems and mechanisms that are available to people. I think we still have room to grow but I think the intent and the support is there and it’s continuing to add to it.

Nina Nevill

That seems like a really—the kind of solution that could be applied to a lot of institutions. It’s just understanding the diversity of needs and how resources can be allocated and all of that. And so, it seems like a really solid plan for folks in all kinds of situations in institutions. I guess I don’t mean to go too far back in the timeline, but I did see that you have published on burnout before and have experience with this phenomenon of burnout that I think is slowly being integrated into conversations more. But if you could talk just a little bit about burnout in the work environment here at MD Anderson that would be great.

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Sure. So, we’ve been measuring burnout for a number of years on our employee opinion survey, getting a pulse of the institution, how employees are coping with the different stressors and demands that they have in the workplace. And we’ve seen some opportunities where it was at one place it dipped down and then it came back up. So, we have seen fluctuation over the years and with this most recent survey, it did dip a little bit and I think that was not a surprise for anyone. I think the fact that it didn’t dip farther was probably the surprise. And what I think it really highlighted was going back to part of the earlier conversation where there’s just so much of the blending of lives and what the last year and a half really has been where it’s just been crisis and pandemic and societal injustices. And so, it’s not just what’s going on in the workplace, it’s everything else is going on in the world and that’s all impacting how resilient we are as individuals, and how we’re coping and dealing with the work that we have in front of us. And so, I think where the institution has moved to really have a focus on wellness and the whole person, how are we as an individual, taking care of, holistically, I think it’s a very important piece. And that self-care is not selfish. It’s that whole—there’s often the story use or the example used of you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help the person next to you on the plane. I mean, that’s the same piece when it comes to self-care.

If you’re not taking care of yourself, you cannot care for those around you. And in a healthcare environment where the focus is traditionally on others, on the patient, I think that can be a very hard mentality that we need to give ourselves that grace to care for ourselves and care for our colleagues and the patient. But it’s not an either or. If we’re not caring for ourselves, there’s no way we can take the care of the patient that everyone wants to put front and center and needs to. But that self-care is truly important. So, I think where the organization has gone, focused on the wellness and the whole person, really speaks to how we can address burnout moving forward from more of the, what’s the support that we empower the individual with? And what are the resources that we as an institution provide to support the person from a shared responsibility component?

Nina Nevill

What, I guess, either similarities or differences, do you see between these practices regarding care, self-care, burnout, with MD Anderson and other institutions? Do you see more similarities in these across the board or does it seem like MD Anderson is doing something differently?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

So, when we compare where we’re scoring on burnout compared to other organizations, we’re actually fairing a little bit better. But I think what we would say is, that’s great from a comparison standpoint but that’s not where we’re going to rest. We don’t want a quarter of our population feeling burned out we want to make sure it’s an environment where people feel like they’re thriving, where people feel engaged and supported, and so, even though our numbers might look better than other organization, it’s not enough for us. We want to make sure that everyone is feeling healthy, happy, and engaged in the work they’re doing at MD Anderson.

Nina Nevill

Do you think in any way other institutions are in comparison to MD Anderson more concerned with the data than with, going what it sounds like above and beyond in making sure that it doesn’t just stop where the report stops?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

So, I think there are a few organizations, similar healthcare organizations, that are very much focused on this like we are. So, I do think like Mayo, Stanford, are exemplars in this space. I know that’s not the case across the board but I do know there are exemplars similar to ourselves that are trying to, to your point, do more than just, “Okay, we have the data and it shows this,” well, what are the actions, the practices, support mechanisms we’re going to put in place to help?

Nina Nevill

That’s definitely good to know that there are others adhering to this quality of, or a culture, I guess, of care, especially in this time with the past year-and-a-half that, like you said, the boundary between the workplace and what’s going on in the rest of the world, it’s feeling more and more impossible to make that a firm boundary. I think the next thing that I’d like to ask, and this is more of a fun question than anything, is if you could say that you are better than roughly 10,000 people at any one thing or large group of people at any one thing what would that thing be? Nobody likes that question. (laughs)

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Yeah, because I think that just goes against my philosophy, is—so, if I could be better?

Nina Nevill

If you had to say that you are better than most people at one thing, or that you succeed in one area more so than others, what would that be?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Honestly, I think that’s—I don’t think there is anything that I am better than most people that I succeed. I feel like that’s part of my drive in life, is to constantly be learning and constantly be learning from others who have more experience, have more expertise, and surrounding myself with those who are incredibly brilliant and smart people, and just good at a lot of different things. So, I honestly don’t see myself as in that camp, which I know is a non-answer for you, I’m sorry. It’s just like, I don’t think there’s anything I could point to.

Nina Nevill

No, that’s completely fine. I think it’s a hard question, especially for folks who see themselves very rooted in community, and as a collective, doing things as a collective rather than in an individualistic sense. But it is fun to ask because I never know what people say.

Courtney Holladay, PhD

What’s the funniest thing that you’ve gotten?

Nina Nevill

Oh, gosh. I don’t know if there’s necessarily been a funny thing, but typically it’s some very specific skill having to do with something that the person has done for decades, many, many years. It’s usually something either technical or a soft skill, something like, compassion, something like that where people feel that is the thing that others can rely on them to bring through, every time. Nothing necessarily funny, yet, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout. I’m sure somebody’s going to have some sort of quick answer, like, “Building model planes,” or something like that.

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Yeah. Man, I need to think on something or work on something so that I can be. (laughs)

Nina Nevill

Well, I guess in terms of, you mentioned surrounding yourself with other people and with brilliant people. I think MD Anderson is obviously a great place for that. Is there anybody who, any key people that you can think of, especially during your early time at MD Anderson, that you felt you could rely on, or that helped you get to where you are now? Mentors, that kind of thing.

Courtney Holladay, PhD

For sure. I think you’re only—like, one of the best—I think that any success that we have as individuals is part of the work that we do with others and learning from others and having sounding boards, having mentors, having coaches, I think is important for all of us to continue to grow. The people that would come to mind for me that I think I’ve learned from and been able to tap into during my journey, Allyson Kinzel, she’s our Chief Legal Officer. She is an incredible female leader that demonstrates such, I think, clarity in how she approaches decisions, and how she takes some really difficult, I mean with law, as you can imagine, with compliance, with some issues that are very challenging, and she’s able to approach them with just such thoughtfulness, and in a way that pulls people together versus creating a divide, especially when you’re coming into things, like I said, compliance, where there’s usually something that’s maybe the right way to do it and something that’s maybe the wrong way to do it, or something that’s in conflict, and she is the one who is just an incredible model for how to bring people together in difficult situations.

Another colleague I would highlight would be Yolan Campbell. She’s currently the Associate Vice President of Human Resources and she will, starting September 1, be the Vice President of Human Resources. And she has been a colleague of mine for quite a while and just had such a sense of calm and community and we can do this together, and there is that path forward, we keep persisting, we can keep going, and has always been a great reality check for me to check in with, of, “Okay, here’s what I’m thinking, here’s what I’m seeing, can you check this for me?” Because we all have baggage that we bring to situations and our lens may not be as unfiltered as we think it is. And so, having her has been, I think, a wonderful source of comfort and learning throughout my journey. And then, the third person I would highlight would be Shibu Varghese. He’s our Senior Vice President of People, Culture, and Infrastructure. And I’ve had the opportunity to work with him now for over a decade. And he, too, is someone that just—I think the positivity of all three of them is a commonality that I see in the three that I’ve highlighted. I think it’s just important for me to surround myself with people who believe we can achieve; we can do something. And Shibu is definitely a role model in that respect of what is possible, where we can go. And he is incredibly supportive of the people on his team and how he can help them be successful and help with—prop them up and give them recognition. And so, just being able to see that, be mentored by that and be a part of that has been an incredible part of my journey, as well.

Nina Nevill

That’s so lovely to hear. Do you mind staying one more time the second person you mentioned’s first name?

Courtney Holladay, PhD

Yolan.

Identifier

HolladayC_01_20210629_C02

Publication Date

6-29-2021

Publisher

The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

Obstacles, Challenges; On the Nature of Institutions; Working Environment; Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Religion; Women and Minorities at Work; Diversity at MD Anderson

Conditions Governing Access

Open

Chapter 02: Challenges of Remote and Virtual Work

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