A Year in (Virtual) Review: Behind the Screens at El Pomar
By Megan Sanders
2020 has been a year of unprecedented change and challenge for all Coloradans. El Pomar Foundation pivoted in many ways to meet the needs of Colorado communities while also considering the health and well-being of Foundation staff. Like many foundations, corporations and other organizations with the capability to do so, part of El Pomar’s pivot was a shift to virtual work.
This pivot required significant support from El Pomar’s IT Department. Dave Miller, Vice President of IT, said that when COVID-19 hit Colorado in March, the department’s energy went toward equipping Foundation staff to continue their programmatic duties. Getting “the most critical tools in the hands of [El Pomar] staff,” Kyle Boyle, IT & Media Specialist, said, was essential so staff “could continue to support the people of Colorado as quickly as possible. Our shared commitment to our mission made the first days of the pandemic hectic but also inspiring and encouraging.”
The first steps for the IT team were determining how to work with existing systems to set staff up for successful remote work. Where new technology was involved, such as communications platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, the IT team also had to educate staff.
Although El Pomar's systems were not designed with remote work in-mind, with a few secure adjustments, Dave and Kyle were able to shift their focus to supporting staff and their remote work, all while learning how to work remotely themselves. Yet, so much focus on work functionality made focusing on the long-term strategy difficult for the IT team. Even today, Kyle says, “every decision we make must be weighed carefully in the context of its longevity, practicality and security. As many organizations are discovering, it is incredibly challenging to find a balance between providing the right resources and tools to employees during the pandemic while also being mindful stewards of the time, money and other finite resources that go into these decisions.”
Kyle adds: “Back in March, the thought of purchasing webcams that would not arrive until May seemed ludicrous. Rolling out video conferencing platforms to all staff members for a few weeks did not seem crucial until time went on and it became more and more apparent that this would not be a brief work-from-home phase. One phrase that sums up this year incredibly well for IT is that hindsight is in fact, 2020.”
Hindsight also illuminates the many challenges and opportunities that remote work has presented for El Pomar staff and Fellows. One of the major challenges of virtual work is a lack of social connection. “I get my energy and fulfillment from being around people and helping them. I really struggle on the days when I don't get to see people,” said Meg Shaver, Penrose House Conference Center Manager. It is also more difficult to “externally process without another person in the room,” said Kacie Adair, 1st Year Fellow.
The shift to remote work and the lack of regional travel has challenged traditional ways of connecting with regional council members and grantee organizations throughout the state. New regulations also prevented connecting nonprofits by providing the Penrose House as a convening space. Meg shares that in the first few months of the pandemic, “people wanted answers: when would we reopen, how many people will be allowed in the rooms, what sanitizing/safety precautions were we putting in to protect the guests, was food going to be allowed.” There were a lot of good questions but not a lot of easy answers.
Another challenge of working remotely is the disparity in internet access. El Pomar’s staff and Fellows call diverse regions of Colorado home and with that, were challenged by the disparities in resources such as broadband. 1st Year Fellow Mercedes McCue knows the challenges of securing solid internet access well. “Rural broadband is often a limiting factor for many out here in my hometown,” Mercedes says of Arriba, Colorado, where she has often worked remotely.
El Pomar staff and Fellows are learning to appreciate the flexibility of remote work. For Kacie, working remotely has allowed her to spend more time with her boyfriend and parents, who all live at least 30 minutes away from Colorado Springs. Meg has been able to spend more time with her son, a blessing, she says because “he will be going away to college in a couple years.”
Mercedes also appreciates the understanding and empathy that leadership shows to staff as they balance work with family obligations. Mercedes reflects on one moment she was particularly grateful for the Foundation’s understanding, patience and grace: “During the first month of working at El Pomar, our family had been hauling water over to the cattle who were in summer pasture. On a Monday morning, I had some mechanical difficulties with the water truck, and I joined our weekly meeting in a dirty t-shirt, an old hat and with lots of mooing in the background.”
Cows have not been the only animals to “photobomb” the virtual backgrounds of El Pomar meetings. Kacie’s dog has a knack for sitting at her feet while she is on calls and only squeaking toys when she is trying to talk. “It's a little frustrating,” she says, “but also incredibly cute!”
The virtual world has also necessitated a greater sense of creativity and adaptability, especially for Foundation projects that typically require significant in-person planning and attendance.
El Pomar’s Statewide meeting, an annual event that typically hosts over 60 regional council members in addition to El Pomar staff, Trustees and Fellows, was moved to a fully virtual format. Through a virtual platform produced entirely in-house, El Pomar condensed a two-day event into an afternoon of programming. In some ways, the virtual format allowed for increased attendance, and it offered an opportunity for participants to learn from and engage with the speakers in ways not always possible at a large gathering. Despite El Pomar staff’s inability to travel to the region, this virtual Statewide program was one way to bring council members and other foundations “in” to El Pomar, even if only through the screen. With increased attendance, the event also offered a new perspective on how to better engage rural council members and grantee partners in the future.
While everyone looks forward to the day it will be safe to return to in-person community activities, the digital moment has provided many opportunities for creativity and flexibility. As the pandemic continues, El Pomar staff are grateful for the adaptability and support of the Foundation’s leadership and IT support. El Pomar staff are also grateful for the opportunity to leverage the Foundation’s resources to better connect with grantees and council members and further support organizations on the frontlines of the pandemic serving to keep Coloradans healthy and well.