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How Can We Rebuild Relationships After COVID?

Four practical suggestions for faculty and campus leaders

From the first weeks of the pandemic, people throughout the Duke community expressed concern over the likely impacts of social distancing on faculty, students and staff. After two years of canceled events and hybrid arrangements, it’s easy to see how those concerns were justified. While the isolation and overwhelm experienced by students at all levels (especially those who arrived during the pandemic) has been widely discussed, it may be less obvious that new faculty and staff feel similarly — perhaps because they are keen to get off “on the right foot” and not draw attention to either their distress or their needs.

At a recent event with Duke senior leaders on “Lessons Learned from the Pandemic,” sponsored by the Office for Faculty Advancement, participants turned to the question of how to rebuild programmatic, departmental and intellectual communities, especially for those suffering most acutely from isolation, and those relatively new to Duke. The conversation slowed down, as it tends to do when people are thinking hard about a difficult problem. And as I’d observed before in a similar high-level conversation about “what can we do for the students?” the pressure to come up with big, sweeping solutions sat in the way of moving forward.

While I hope there are big, sweeping solutions to regain some of the community we lost due to COVID, I’ve had the opportunity — in my coaching work with both doctoral students and faculty — to identify small but powerful interventions we all can make, in the meantime.

It can be easy, especially when we are busy or distracted, to take another person’s veneer of “having it all together” at face value. But people’s real feelings and needs surface quickly through conversations in which they feel safe and cared for. Our challenge is to make time and space for those conversations.

I remember one doctoral student in particular, who confided in me that his faculty advisor “never asked me how I was doing,” not even after the pandemic set in. I also recall a coaching discussion with a faculty member who had recently moved to Duke after establishing her career elsewhere. She was seeking ways to strengthen relationships with her new colleagues. Switching into consulting mode, I offered that inviting people for one-on-one lunches could be one way to connect. Pause. In an anguished tone of voice, she exclaimed, “No one ever invited me to lunch!”

Although sharing meals can be complicated in a pandemic, the larger point stood out: no one had taken the time to check in with this new faculty member, either to get to know her better, or to see how they could support her in her new role.

So we need to check in on each other, right? That’s partly true, but it’s also something we’ve known throughout the pandemic. And people across campus have stepped up their game — from scheduling Zoom happy hours with their colleagues, to thinking creatively about ways students can continue to gather safely during the pandemic. Nonetheless, good intentions haven’t always resulted in action — at least not enough to mitigate the isolation of the most vulnerable members of our Duke community.

Here, I offer four practical suggestions for faculty or campus leaders who are concerned about their colleagues, students or staff, and wondering how to do more.

Community building requires habit formation.

The pandemic forced us into habits not conducive to building or sustaining professional relationships. Changing those habits will require reflection, intention and effort on the part of both individuals and groups. For example, many of us have fallen out of the habit of regular lunches and coffees with colleagues, or building in dedicated time to be on campus to allow others informal access to us (holding office hours, or perhaps taking a couple hours each week to work safely in a public venue, such as a campus coffee shop). We may not feel safe doing all those things yet, but what small community-building habits are possible for you or your unit to form now?

Don’t underestimate the power of email.

Yes, email. Many of us hate our inboxes, and traffic in email as little as possible. But it can also a powerful tool for cultivating relationships. A simple email, such as “It’s been a couple of months since we talked — how are you doing?” can make someone’s morning. This attention be especially powerful if you hold some position of authority in relation to the recipient (like being a faculty advisor or department chair). And if you happen to be overseeing a team (possibly running a large lab, or directing a center with a staff), who are you not in the habit of communicating with? If you’ve been delegating the work of supervision or mentorship to others, consider reaching out to someone you rarely speak with. Those small gestures will be remembered, and likely appreciated.

You don’t have to fix everyone’s problems.

I talked with a faculty member who is wondering how to “make up” to his graduate students the losses incurred by the pandemic, particularly missed opportunities to do onsite research, and the professional opportunities afforded by in-person conferences. I suspect he’s not the only one wondering this, and I also wonder whether the discomfort surrounding this issue might keep some faculty from engaging with grad students entirely. I found one answer in another conversation, with the director of graduate studies in a small Ph.D. program. “I can’t fix everyone’s problems,” she said,” but I can listen. And sometimes that’s all they really want from me.” All losses incur grief, and people need to experience that grief before they can move on. That’s not to absolve us of looking for ways to offer help, but many people in grief need a listening ear more than a solution.

Look for spontaneous opportunities to connect.

New research suggests that the average person has nine opportunities per day to show empathy (defined as “understanding, sharing, and caring about the emotions of other people”). Yet missed opportunities are common: “People often notice other people’s emotions without flagging them” as opportunities to show empathy. While the study does not offer suggestions for mitigating this tendency, I wonder whether cultivating a greater awareness of these everyday possibilities might be a good first step. If you decide to implement this suggestion (or any of the others listed here), let me know what happens. If would be great to highlight other best practices for relationship-building in this space.