In a guest column, Jan E. Odegard of The Ion Houston, discusses the ways COVID-19 has affected the workforce permanently. Getty Images

When the Houston-area was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and instituting a shelter-in-place to keep residents safe, The Ion's mission to build a world-leading innovation hub didn't change, but the way we advocate and engage with learners has.

At a programmatic level, we're bringing our networking events to a virtual platform, convening our high school STEAM Innovation Challenge program via online meetings, and moving the Ion Smart and Resilient City Accelerator, which incubates technology to support the City, coursework, counseling, and mentoring online.

At a philosophical level, we're exploring and evaluating how current sociological and economic conditions will change and drive the way we'll provide programming and resources. We're not entirely sure what changes we'll institute, what programming we'll need to tweak, since this is a global "experiment" that has not yet played out, but ideas, technology, and offerings are being explored and developed. It's in the Ion's name to keep the ever-forward motion of discovery.

As senior director of Academic Programming, my job will be to implement those ideas and move new programs forward. To do this, the team is developing and pivoting programs we had on the drawing board and are engaging in conversations with academic stakeholders, workforce development programs and executives with innovation-driven hiring needs.

Through the course of the conversations and self-observations, one thing is very clear: we may never work and learn the same again. This is why.

The digital transformation has accelerated exponentially

Universities moved thousands of courses online in a matter of a week, if not a few days. In an era where consumers can order goods or purchase a book with the tap of a button, this may not seem to be a big deal, but for campus centric academic institutions and employers, it is.

To put the technological infrastructure in place and equip students and employees with the tools necessary is momentous. While many organizations were well equipped, some never needed to, and others just had a handful of offerings online, they are now 100 percent online. This rocks the core of their operation and many of the lessons learned during COVID-19 will transcend past COVID-19 and transform these institutions.

What we do not know yet is what the impact of this will be on the student, delivering education and training material online is only half the problem, how students access and learn remains to be seen.

Soft skills matter

Soft skills, or interpersonal (people) skills, are not only harder to define but to evaluate and build, especially from home. Soft skills include communication skills, listening skills, and empathy. When you're alone with three screens up, you're inherently more distracted and maybe more concerned with what's going on there than with the outside world. Working from home not only requires discipline, but also requires you create boundaries.

While Slack channels, video meetings, and online mentorship are critical avenues during a time like this, we must make an extra effort to feel the dynamics of a mentor, mentee or teammate, and to ask the right questions. Probing deeper where needed and recognizing when backing off is the better path forward.

As we look at performance and work habits, changing or tweaking online behavior is different from modifying in person behavior. Critical thinking skills and clear communication and expectations are imperative (most of us have sent what we thought was the "perfect" email, that was not only misunderstood but misinterpreted), as is not losing sight of the person. Refining soft skills can do this, and now we need to do that online.

While developing and practicing soft skills one-on-one or in small groups can be done, the question is how to scale this to larger groups and courses. One way we're seeing this done more successfully is in the format of flipped classrooms. While instruction is often based on completing assigned reading before live class lecture; online recording gives new opportunities. Instead, the time allotted for live lectures, students will watch pre-recorded lectures followed by instructor supported small group Q&A and problem-working sessions.

Learners of all age groups can spend time problem solving or presenting an assignment rather than the material itself (practice and teach what you learned). This format not only offers opportunities for more personalized engagement, but also opens opportunities for more senior students to participate and practice leadership and mentorship by supporting these sessions.

The death of the 9-to-5 work schedule

It's very clear. We're all scrambling. Scrambling to get fresh air when there aren't too many people out. Scrambling to procure food. And for many, scrambling to watch our kids, manage their education, and get our job done.

Work is shifted to the early morning or bleeding into the evening. Without the confinement of going into the office and leaving at a certain time, personal bookends are further moved. In some countries it's frowned upon to send emails outside of work hours — in the U.S. it is a lifeblood.

COVID-19 forced us to work from a home model, and corporations and employees are now co-creating rules of meaningful engagement for accountability and developing the right framework for success and trust to get the job done. Daily video/call check-ins with staff members, as many are doing right now, is suddenly not abnormal (or intrusive) but now an integral part of working together and, helps create a shared purpose. While the job might just be done after the kids fall asleep, or that afternoon stroll, these calls ensure we are connected.

At the Ion, these daily check-ins are not just about what work you did and will be doing, but about building and supporting the individual, the team, and a shared purpose. The lessons learned from COVID-19 will make corporations and organizations more open to working from home moving forward, because we learned how to do it, and lessons learned will survive COVID-19.

Physical connections will be back

I am an introvert that must act as an extravert to do my job. Well, after 4 weeks working from home, I do miss the social engagement offered by the office.

While I can work with the team, and schedule virtual coffee and cocktail hours, it is not conducive to impromptu water-cooler talk. So, while I believe we now have the skills and methods to work from home, we have reinforced the importance of a physical space to convene.

There has been a long discussion about roles of traditional, work and school campuses, and whether or not it is outdated. I disagree, and if there is one thing that stands out it is that physical campuses serve a critical role, even if we tweak how learning will be delivered and work will be performed. Going back to a collaborative setting such as an office, lab or classroom will give us an opportunity to see, create, and build to scale. Physical connection is also imperative for building the soft skills we mention.

Engaging in a conversation on a video call from your bedroom isn't the same or as meaningful as reacting to a question or conflict in-person. If you are a student in an aeronautical engineering course you can simulate something until the wrong button is pushed. But you need to see and feel it "blow up" to react and internalize. Online reaction is still different than in-person reaction.

Holistically, it's also imperative for our health. Loneliness, which can be brought on by the isolation we're experiencing, is associated with physical isolation. Together, in a workplace setting we're sharper mentally, and simply better together.

As a career academic, now in my second act, and deeply embedded in operations and strategic partnerships, these observations give me great excitement. With a city keen on innovation, and partners willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with learners and entrepreneurs, I know Houston will play a part in changing how we learn. I hope the next time you're reading something from me it's about just that.

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Jan E. Odegard is the senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion.

While COVID-19 has forced so much of the workforce to work from home, the trend was already rising in popularity — and will continue to do so. Here's how to be a better remote worker. Getty Images

Houston expert shares tips for mastering working from home

Guest column

The novel coronavirus has propelled companies to encourage their staff to work from home, requiring many employees to adjust quickly to a new — and sometimes tricky — reality. Those who are accustomed to the traditional working environment, the physical office space, and the presence of colleagues can find this setup challenging.

However, working remotely has been a rising trend for companies as technology has reduced friction when connecting team members, accessing information, and delivering work product. In fact, 3.4 percent of the workforce work from home at least half the week (Global Workplace Analytics), and 44 percent of employees say that part of their team is full-time remote (Buffer).

If you're an employee and this is your first time remote working, here are some pro tips that will help you nail it:

Get dressed

Prepare for your work day as you would be going into the office and follow your same morning routine. Doing so will help you switch to work mode and create some mental separation between your domestic state of mind and your professional demeanor. Studies show that dressing up affects your confidence and ability to think creatively, not to mention how colleagues on the other side of the camera perceive you.

Designate a workspace

It's tempting to work from the couch, the comfort of your own bed, or the dining table, but establishing a work zone can help with adding structure to your physical environment. If your spouse or partner is also working from home, it's a good idea to have your own, separate working space to stay focused and on task. If you have children or other family members at home, they will be tempted to engage with you. The physical space will serve as a reminder that you're on the clock even though you're physically nearby.

Tap into technology to get organized

There are myriad technology tools that can help you organize your day and prioritize projects and tasks. Many of them are free and included in most productivity platforms. Use shared calendars to set deadlines with other team members, task trackers to check in on the progress of complex projects, and to-do lists with reminder notifications to keep you accountable.

Communication is key 

Remember that your colleagues and managers might be working remotely for the first time as well. It's a good idea to be patient and over-communicate progress on your tasks, check-in on your team's tasks, and clarify your priorities as you work through them. Don't wait for your superiors in case something is held back. Be proactive and, most importantly, be helpful and present. When working from home, the concept of managing up is critical.

Stay positive

Maintain the same dynamic and energy you would if you were physically sitting next to someone or in a meeting. Just because you're using the phone, video conference, or messaging app doesn't mean your interactions have to be awkward, weird, or stale.

Find your work-life balance — even from home

Make sure you take adequate breaks and move around to clear your head and fuel your creative mind. Go on a quick dog walk, take a stroll around the block, or take care of your family so you avoid burnout. Staying fresh and alert is important at a time when many would otherwise expect a drop in productivity and quality.

Regardless of what's happening in the world, working remotely will continue to rise in popularity. While the coronavirus may have created urgency, mastering this setup will be essential in keeping you sane and focused while developing skills that will make you a more desirable colleague now and in the future.

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Carey Kirkpatrick is the CEO and founder of CKP Group, a Houston-based marketing and public relations group. She previously served as director of marketing at CultureMap, a sister site to InnovationMap.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

As Houston transitions into summer, the city's tech and innovation ecosystem enters a new season — but with the same level of entrepreneurialism and can-do spirit.

This week's innovators to know includes a Houston tech founder fresh off fundraising, an architect with the future of the workplace, and a startup leader with a way to digitally connect churches to their congregations.

Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard

Courtesy of Liongard

After raising a $17 million round for his startup, Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss fundraising during a pandemic and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding." Listen to the episode and read more.

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Photo courtesy of Church Space

Large gathering places have been shut down for months at this point, and that includes places of worship. Houston entrepreneur Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, usually focuses on connection organizations to spaces for worship or events. But, she is now focused on getting services online for congregations to connect with.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," says Edwards. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time." Read more.

Larry Lander, principal at PDR

Photo courtesy of PDR

While much of the country has been working from home for weeks, Larry Lander opines that this has made physical office space more important than ever.

"As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success." Read more.

Houston area gets failing score on social distancing, according to report

We got an F

According to a study that evaluated social distancing execution in counties, the Houston area didn't do so well and earned failing scores all around.

A widely used social distancing scoreboard from Unacast, a provider of location data and analytics, shows only one county in the Houston area — Austin County — received a grade above an F for social distancing as of May 20. But Austin County doesn't have much to brag about, since its social-distancing score is a D-. The Houston area's eight other counties, including Harris, flunked.

Relying on a huge storehouse of cellphone data, the Unacast scoreboard measures social distancing activity on a daily basis in every state and county compared with activity before the coronavirus outbreak. The scorecard assigns a letter grade of A through F based on current social-distancing behavior.

Each grade takes into account three factors:

  • Percentage change in average distance traveled compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Percentage change in visits to nonessential places compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Decrease in person-to-person encounters compared with the national pre-coronavirus average

So, how did Harris County, for instance, fare in those three categories? On May 20, its grade in each category was an F. Why? Because it had less than a 25 percent reduction in average mobility (based on distance traveled), less than a 55 percent reduction in nonessential visits, and less than a 40 percent decrease in "encounters density" compared with the national average.

The scoreboard indicates Harris County's grades have bounced around. On April 4, for example, Harris County received an A in the nonessential-visit category for reducing those visits by at least 70 percent.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an interview published May 20 that he's worried the easing of social distancing in Houston will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

"I think here in Houston we're underachieving in a lot of aspects in public health, and it's no fault of the … public health leaders," Hotez said.

In Texas, the Houston area isn't alone in its apparent failure, at least recently, to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

On May 20, not a single county in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio metro areas earned higher than a D on the Unacast report card.

All five counties in the Austin area got F's, as did all 13 counties in Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the scoreboard.

But as with Harris County, other metro areas' scores in individual categories have fluctuated over time. Here are a few examples:

  • On April 4, Travis and Dallas counties earned an A for at least a 70 percent reduction in nonessential visits.
  • On April 11, Tarrant County received a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent drop in average mobility.

In the San Antonio area, Bandera County earned the highest grade (D) of any county in the state's four major metros. Atascosa and Medina counties eked out grades of D-, while the remainder of the area's counties wound up in the F column.

In line with trends for its major-county counterparts, Bexar County's social distancing scores in individual categories have gone up and down. On April 11, for example, Bexar County earned a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent decline in average mobility.

The scores for the state's major metros appear to reflect the recent loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across Texas. But health experts still recommend sticking with social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, Unacast points out that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite social distancing as the "most effective way" to combat coronavirus infections.

Unacast says it launched the social-distancing scoreboard in March to enable organizations to measure and grasp the efficiency of local social-distancing efforts.

"Data can be one of society's most powerful weapons in this public health war," Thomas Walle, co-founder and CEO of Unacast, says in an April 16 release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Texas startup’s at-home COVID-19 test finally approved by feds

CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

After its earlier effort was tripped up, Austin-based startup Everlywell on May 16 finally gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch its at-home coronavirus test.

In a May 18 release, Everlywell says the self-administered test will be available later this month. The company, which specializes in at-home tests for an array of conditions, is the first to receive approval from the FDA for an at-home coronavirus test that's not associated with a lab or a manufacturer of diagnostic products.

The FDA's emergency authorization allows Everlywell to work with a number of certified labs that process authorized tests, rather than just a single lab.

"The authorization of a COVID-19 at-home collection kit that can be used with multiple tests at multiple labs not only provides increased patient access to tests, but also protects others from potential exposure," Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says in a release.

Everlywell's at­-home test determines the presence or absence of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID­-19 illness. Everlywell's test kit uses a short nasal swab and includes:

  • A digital screening questionnaire reviewed by a healthcare provider.
  • Instructions on how to ship the test sample to a lab.
  • Digital results within 48 hours of the sample being received by the lab.
  • Results reviewed by an independent physician.

Anyone who tests positive test will receive a telehealth consultation. All positive test results are reported to federal and local public health agencies when mandated.

On March 23, Everlywell was supposed to start shipping 30,000 coronavirus test kits to U.S. consumers. But before a single test was sent, the FDA blocked distribution of at-home, self-administered tests from Everlywell and other companies. After that, Everlywell pivoted to supplying coronavirus tests to health care providers and organizations.

As with the company's previously approved coronavirus test, Everlywell says its test for individuals is sold at no profit. The $109 price covers costs such as overnight shipping to a lab, lab-processing fees, and kit components. Some health insurers cover coronavirus tests.

Everlywell says it's working with members of Congress to enable companies that are neither healthcare providers nor labs to be directly reimbursed by health insurers. The startup also is exploring how its coronavirus test could be made available for free.

"Widespread access to convenient testing will play a crucial role in the country's ability to address the pandemic and prevent overburdening our healthcare facilities. As the national leader in connecting people with high­-quality laboratory testing, we are committed to fighting the spread of this virus in America," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, says in the Everlywell release.

The company continues to supply its coronavirus tests to qualified healthcare organizations and government agencies.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.