COVID-19 Staff Heroes – Facilities Operations

Although Yale’s campus is eerily quiet these days, with most of the community working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, frontline healthcare workers and first responders continue to report to campus to confront the crisis. To avoid having them expose their loved ones to the virus, a small team of staff came together in March to create emergency housing for approximately 500 individuals in less than a week.  This was an unusual case where “if you build it, you hope they won’t need to come.”

Determining which rooms to use was the first hurdle. The undergraduates did not come back after spring break, so all their belongings remained in their rooms. Some of the dwellings still housed permanent residents including Heads of College, Deans, Fellows, and some students who could not travel home. Within 24 hours, four residential colleges were identified as the best options that offered the least disruption to current residents. These included Benjamin Franklin, Pauli Murray, Morse, and Ezra Stiles.

Thanks to the efforts of so many people, the dorms now safely house over 30 first responders and some individuals who work at local funeral homes, with room for more. The group tasked to make this happen was a team from Yale Facilities, led by Dev Hawley, Director of University Planning and Facilities Operations.

Dev took a moment via Zoom to answer a few questions and share more about the project.

What were some things you had to consider undertaking this project, given the pandemic?

Developing accommodations in a matter of days for over 550 people, some of whom will be asymptomatic, symptomatic, or tested positive for COVID-19, was complicated. We knew we needed protocols for all aspects of the move as well as the on-going hoteling operation that managed the risks – especially in areas where we were going to host COVID-19 positive guests.  Control of guest circulation within a college that has permanent residents was one priority. We also needed to mitigate airborne contamination risks, so we modified our mechanical air circulation based on American and European building systems standards COVID-19 guidance, programming fresh air rather than re-circulating conditioned air. Past pandemics have taught us to focus on plumbing leaks, so we inspected every faucet, shower head, and toilet. Maintaining reliable communication with our guests was critical, so we developed a temporary booster for cell service. We inspected elevators, checked alarm systems, and other building components to reduce the risk of having to service a building while we had guest occupants.  Lastly, we developed a registration command center, protocols for guests quarantined to their rooms (including food service), laundry, security, and other services required for a large-scale hospitality operation.

What past experiences or skills helped you deal with such a fast-moving enormous task?

In my experience as an Imagineer at The Walt Disney Company, I learned to leverage the benefits of blue-sky thinking and detailed execution while being innovative, creative, and inclusive in problem-solving.  I also learned a lot by managing large teams through major global impacts, while still yielding quick, yet responsible outcomes. Crisis management forces you to shift focus on a dime from your daily routine to rallying multiple stakeholders, many of whom you may not know, to assess enough essential information - and to be decisive.

This particular challenge of creating accommodations for first responders developed so fast, our team needed to reprioritize over a weekend and constantly shift over multiple 24-hour periods. We also got enormous support from across the university to help us better understand certain issues and mitigate other risks as we developed our plan. Dr. Paul Genecin, Chief Ronnell Higgins, Jeff Hughes, Marjorie Lemmon, Camille Lizarribar, and Kathryn Vieillard were some of the key players that helped develop our strategy.

What was the hardest thing about doing this?

Not having all the facts in a developing situation - yet being nimble enough to lead with clarity and direction.

What’s your best pandemic advice for all of us?

An event like this really forces us to rethink our way of living, working, and certainly raises our appreciation for how we come together – whether it be for collaborating, learning, teaching, or just being social.  So, re-think it - and plan now for positive change. 

Also, appreciate this bonus time with family (near or far).  Even after several weeks at home, I can say that I’ve truly enjoyed our time together.

What are you doing to stay positive and to keep your staff positive?

I have weekly informal, no-agenda video calls with my entire team. This gives everyone a chance to see each other and share personal and professional observations – a time for more spontaneous collaboration.  We are also long-term planners, so shifting our focus to the promise of what will come in months and years from now gives us positive perspective.

What positive changes do you see coming out of all of this?

Forced to leave campus suddenly and work from home for this long duration has been an extreme experience.  By contrast, the notion of commuting to/from work every day, working in offices, five days a week is a leftover paradigm from the pre-technology, industrial revolution. I believe this pandemic has forced a new dialogue about how we communicate and collaborate. There is a significant productivity opportunity where flexibility and choice of work environment, including working from home, will benefit all parties. I am confident we will find a new balance as we look forward.

Any special thanks?

So many departments came together to get this done including:

  • Office of Environmental Safety
  • Yale College Dean’s Office
  • Yale Health
  • Yale Conferences and Events
  • YPD and Yale Security
  • Risk Management
  • Yale Hospitality
  • Parking and Transit Services
  • Emergency Management

Thanks to the Yale Facilities team:

  • John Bollier
  • John Buck
  • Regina Clark
  • Bob Doyle
  • Monica Gallegos
  • Ed Grund
  • Jeff Hughes
  • Eileen Kopjanski
  • Anthony Kosior
  • Ed Lipsett
  • Kirsta MacLellan
  • Mark McCloud
  • Julie Paquette
  • Mike Pizzella
  • Jim Reid
  • Georgetta Sheppard
  • Ellen Spychalla
  • Jan Taschner