09 Jul 2021

Returning to Campus: Rick Smith


by Shona Simkin

Rick Smith is a senior tech analyst for Technology Support Services (TSS), and has been at HBS for nearly 13 years. Rick was the only in-person IT staff member in Shad for the first two months of the pandemic, shifting his role from handling escalated work tickets to shipping out dozens of laptops and various pieces of computer equipment for new remote work needs. We asked him about that experience, and about what has been challenging and helpful.

How and why did your role shift during the pandemic?

For me, the move to remote work was interesting because I have anxiety and other mental health issues. I was happy to work remotely, but my doctor said that would not be a good idea—that if I worked remotely I might never go back! I already try to lock myself away from the world—with work I can count on leaving the house at least 40 hours a week, but if I went remote, I might not ever leave. So we had to switch it on the fly. My managers were great, and the whole team from HR worked with us and communicated fantastically.

Since I was the only one in the office, I took on some tasks that could only be done there, and my needs were also accommodated. It worked out really well. Because we went remote so quickly, we realized we had to ship out equipment like laptops and cameras. I was a shipper, receiver, everything for getting any piece of equipment out the door, and figuring out all of the complications with FedEx, international mail issues—you name it.

Two and a half months in, two other team members came in for rotating shifts. Now we have a whole rotating process so that every member of our team can come on site—every six weeks someone is in the office to help share the on-site work duties and make sure nobody gets burnt out.

Did you have any concerns about being on campus?

At first I was worried about visitors to campus and how restrictions could be kept in place. What if someone comes on campus who doesn't belong and doesn’t know what the health and safety requirements are? And then, the very first time I saw an outside person on campus, security was right there asking them for Crimson Clear, and if they didn't have one, they were asked to complete it or leave. I instantly felt relief when I saw that—everyone was taking this very seriously and controlling the environment.

Was there anything that was particularly helpful?

The best part of the whole situation for me was communication from administration. With so much information out there, some of it wrong or bad, it was great to know that I’d get emails with facts and information for me to digest. It meant I didn’t have to figure out what to listen to, I could wait to hear what Harvard’s own doctors and lawyers said, and how we were handling it. I really trusted in that communication process, the emails that gave us medical updates or invalidated a news story that could have added to our stress. I loved that.

The management group in Business Operations were absolutely phenomenal. I could have never survived those two months without them—they provided masks and the wipes while we were trying to find large amounts of them, and they helped me figure out shipping. I had never shipped anything from TSS before, and during that time I was sending about 50 packages a day. Operations helped us figure out not only how to send everything, but what the process was—how can we make this work every day and be sustainable throughout the entire pandemic? Anyone we ever reached out to in any part of Operations just jumped in to build it, get us masks, help us with things that were lost in the mail or with FedEx, how do we ship things overseas if those countries weren’t accepting packages? We had very big delays because packages were stuck in customs for weeks, and Operations helped us navigate a process for shipping, receiving, and labeling. It was a real work in progress that was updated every single week as there was some sort of change. I could never have done it without them.

What are your thoughts now that people are returning to campus?

I hope that I can assimilate easily as everyone gets back to campus. I communicate weekly with my managers about how I’m doing and feeling, and believe that if something gets to be too much it’ll be addressed. I do have my anxieties and can be a pretty tough person to work with!

Is there anything you want to convey about your experience?

This was the first time in my 13 years that we couldn't do things as we always had, and from the beginning it was about how management could support us and move forward. The whole school just adapted so quickly and amazingly, and I don’t think we’ll ever go backwards. For me as a whole, it was awesome. Everyone got it, everyone adjusted, every single role on campus had to change, and they did it with three days’ notice of going remote. Sometimes I can be frustrated by a big institution’s administrative bureaucracy—I’m in tech and I like things black and white, but this was one time I just loved it. I loved how our community handled it, how our leaders led through it—I really loved it all because I was on campus and my safety was never once, not one time, ever put into jeopardy. We provided our service, but were not putting people in harm’s way. I've never been asked to do something I wasn't comfortable doing. That's been pretty amazing.

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