19 Mar 2021

Returning to Campus: Ellen Mahoney


by Shona Simkin

CHRO Ellen Mahoney at a retirement parade for a long-time co-worker.

As vaccines become more readily available and signs point towards hopeful optimism for returning to campus, we're kicking off a new Q+A series featuring staff members who are already back—some of whom never left, some just recently returned. All of them have faced questions and concerns about working on campus. Starting us off is Chief Human Resources Officer Ellen Mahoney, who is helping to develop this series and is leading efforts to shape and envision a new normal back on campus.

What sparked the idea for this project? The entire staff across HBS have pulled off an incredible year, and I am in awe of their commitment and creativity. We thought it would be wonderful to celebrate and learn more about the many members of our community who have worked on campus throughout the pandemic, or returned in some capacity in this past year. This includes the MBA and Doctoral teams, Operations, IT, and our colleagues who work for Restaurant Associates, Securitas, and C&W custodial services. There are also individuals in many other departments who are helping out in person, such as the Chao team and those in the Dean’s Office. And, when there have been calls for volunteers to help run the testing program and attend the pilot day, staff from across the organization raised their hands and made those successful. Thank you!

What do you want readers to take away from these narratives? This has been a difficult year for everyone, but also a year in which people learned about their own resiliency and about the power of a support network. I hope readers will be inspired by hearing how colleagues have tackled their responsibilities while juggling so much uncertainty, health and safety concerns, and family needs, with grace, optimism, creativity, and in all cases, humor.

In your role you’ve seen the entire range of experiences across HBS staff and faculty. What are some of the most common concerns? The overarching concerns fall into the bucket of health and safety, which is no surprise. It is such an evolving landscape, and it is difficult to feel fully informed—and none of us feel in control. Yet, we need to continue planning for the summer and then the fall. Managers worry about how to balance the operational needs with those of their team members as we navigate through this time together. Another concern is that we miss capturing all the positive advances in work processes, systems, and communication that have evolved over this past year. There has been so much innovation, and we don’t want or need to slip back into former practices if the improvement is a winner.

What are some of the largest misperceptions about coming back to campus? The top concern is that it is unsafe. Health and safety is the School’s top priority, with extensive cleaning protocols, daily attestation of health (Crimson Clear), testing, communication, sanitizer, pre-packaged food, spaces marked to ensure distancing, plexiglass dividers in dining spaces, and upgraded air filtration in almost all spaces. The actual incidents of positive Covid cases on our campus have been very low since the students returned in the fall, averaging less than 1.0% of the population, and the recent data is hovering in the .01% range.

Any return plan will take into consideration many factors, including: density in and near each workspace, testing for anyone working over four hours a week, rotational schedules, and specific health issues. The other worry we hear is around transportation. Many rely on public transportation to come to work, and between concerns about cleaning protocols and more limited service offerings, it is presenting a challenge.

What has been your own experience returning to work? I have been in the office at least two days a week since late summer, and it has been a haven for being able to concentrate. I had no idea how busy my house is, between two teen girls attending school remotely, the phone ringing, deliveries (my daughters have a close relationship with Amazon), and my Labrador retriever and two cats—it is like a three-ring circus. My team coordinates about who is on campus, so there are no more than three of us in separate offices at any time. We remove our masks when alone in the office, but keep them on in the hallways and when we meet in larger conference rooms. It is quiet in Teele, so I have attended meetings on the main campus and grabbed food at Spangler just to see other people. It is refreshing to see familiar eyes twinkling behind masks. I have never felt unsafe in the office or on campus—it is my trips to the supermarket that cause my blood pressure to rise!

Were you worried about anything before returning? If so, how were those concerns addressed? I was concerned that there would not be a uniform commitment to the health and safety protocols, and thankfully that ended up being far from the truth. Everyone is respectful of each other’s space, honors the arrows providing traffic direction, utilizes the sanitation stations, and steers clear when approaching others.

What was nice about being back on campus? Many things! Glimpsing other people and making a connection; having a space to focus; being near the copier, printer, and supplies; knowing that the file I need is at my fingertips and that the network is reliable. With my team, hallway conversations (masked) help solve problems so much faster than email, phone, or Zoom. And, it gives me a sense of hope. It may sound corny, but I have had a long and wonderful career at HBS, so being here is truly one of my happy places.

What are you most looking forward to as we see more people returning to campus? Having lunch with someone who doesn’t criticize the options (one daughter announced she was vegetarian after I made her a lovely turkey sandwich) or who stares at me and drools (the dog, not a daughter!). But, seriously, my joy will be seeing so many treasured colleagues, catching up on their year, thanking them for their support of me, my team, and the work of the School, congratulating them on all they have accomplished, and reflecting together on all that we have learned while together but apart.

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