'In the Very Early Weeks…We Had a Colleague Die of COVID'

Diana Esher

Deputy Regional Administrator, Region 3 
Environmental Protection Agency

What is your current work situation?

So I’m teleworking, and we were in a unique situation during COVID in that our office was starting to move before COVID, so we’re actually in the middle of a move of our office building in Philadelphia. I’ll be teleworking probably through the middle of May until our new space is ready. We were moving between buildings, so we had started moving, had a couple of moves going on of office buildings—one in Wheeling, W.Va., and one in Annapolis, Md., and then the one in Philadelphia—and we got stuck, if you will.

When and how did you find out that the country was going on lockdown, and how did your job change?  

I’m the highest career official in the Philadelphia office, so my manager, is a political appointee, and he and I and several other directors were watching TV all day, kind of looking where the different cities were shutting down, and different states were having different newscasts every day about COVID. So we were watching TV, learning what happened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and wrote a message to our headquarters office and had started closing down before the whole federal government closed down. I shouldn’t say closed down, gone to telework.

How long did you think this would last?

We thought it would last, like everyone else, maybe two or three weeks and then we’d be back. And, probably realized it was going to be a longer challenge probably around the May [2020] time frame, May-June. If you remember, people were having groceries delivered, washing all their boxes, everything, so you were getting a sense this was going to go on for a while.

How has your work-life balance changed, and what do you think your “new normal” will look like?

I’ll start with work-life balance. I set up in my dining room and have been in my dining room since then. So in the middle of my house, my office is always open, and I work pretty much from the time I get up to the time I go to bed now. It was a big change, because I traveled with the train before, I took SEPTA into work, and actually having that commute gives you a chance to shift your mind. Whether you’re reading or whatever you’re doing, you’re shifting from work mode to home mode, but I pretty much wake up, come downstairs, and there’s my office. So I work a lot more hours, and from people I’ve talked to, a lot of people feel like they work a lot more hours. 

On my duties, I guess I’d say, initially in particular, we focused a lot on making sure people didn’t feel isolated and that they had all the information that we had. We were having weekly all-hands calls, sending out lots of emails, talking to people about what anxiety they had, what questions they had, trying to keep on top of everything the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] said from week to week. It was a total focus on that.

A lot of people think, they’ve been able to do their job virtually, so why can’t they keep on doing it virtually, but it’s different. I think the hybrid office is going to be a challenge. The one thing that was lucky with us moving is that we had planned on having a really high-tech office when we moved, so we were making it more technology friendly, all of our conference rooms and all of that. So when we move, we’ll actually have the ability to connect everybody really easily from a hybrid perspective. But I think it’s going to be tough. I just held an all-hands meetings last week and I was talking about how I worked for 37 years for EPA Region 3. Thirty-five of it I went into the office pretty much every day, and for two years now I’ve been working out of my dining room, and it’s amazing how two years can shift 35 years of routine. I think I’m a little nervous, which is totally surprising, about how everything’s going to fit together, how the community’s going to come back together. We had a lot of retirements, and hired a lot of people over the last two years. A lot of them haven’t met their bosses or colleagues.

What were some challenges for you during the pandemic and how did you work through them?

I think the biggest challenge was at the beginning when people were so nervous, and we really were afraid that folks were isolated, so it was trying to help managers establish a rhythm. We asked our managers to meet initially every day with all their staff just to make sure people were safe, felt connected and could answer questions. And then you had, in the early months, the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, which added additional anxiety. In the very early weeks ... we had a colleague die of COVID, so that sent a lot of anxiety through the workforce.

So one of the things we did was we brought in some outside folks, but we also had a person inside who hosted what we called "Mindful Moments." Kind of open sessions where people could come and share and talk, and we’ve actually kept some of that and still do that today. That was the biggest challenge, just overcoming people’s anxiety.

Work-wise, like everyone else, we learned a lot of things we wouldn’t have learned otherwise . . . We digitized our files—part of that was because we were moving, but some of that was because we needed to.

Have there been any positive changes? 

One thing, we have remote offices, we have one in Wheeling, W.Va., we have Annapolis, Md., we have a lab in Fort Meade. One of the things they told us was they finally feel on equal footing with our main office in Philadelphia. So when we do virtual meetings, they’re no longer a voice on the telephone, they’re on this equal footing with everybody. With all-hands meetings, we can actually talk to everyone now. We never had a room big enough for everybody, so now everyone can hear the message in the same way at the same time. We’ve digitized our files. We also learned technology we never would have learned, and I think people went beyond just learning how to hold meetings and things electronically. They also kind of dove into [Microsoft] Teams and learned all kinds of aspects of it, so you can use all the different flow boards and the different applications that are available. That’s been a real plus.

And I have to say, this one being from EPA, we’re using less paper. And the other benefit: people aren’t driving and using gas as much, so there’s some environmental benefits.

If you could go back to the way things were before the pandemic, would you want to? 

That’s a great question. Parts of it. I think what’s really going to be lost, we had an older workforce, where a lot of people had been together for many, many years, and there was a real sense of community. We had an employees association that put on different events and ice cream parties and all sorts of things, and all of that’s been gone. They try to do it virtually, but it’s not the same. I hope we can get some of that back in the hybrid. I really enjoyed going into the office, and I really like meeting with people and working with people, and I think I’m better in person, if you will. I think I can be engaging in a meeting, I find this [meeting virtually] a little difficult, so parts of it. But not totally, because we’ve learned a lot and we’ve learned that we can be really flexible too.

Do you have any other thoughts on the past two years you’d like to add?

Just a shout out to the staff that we have, because we have folks who, regardless of what was going on with COVID, kept going out in the field, meeting with communities, going to hazardous waste sites, really taking care of things. And they never stopped. You saw that all across government. 

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