Virtual Lao New Year Celebration organized by Staff Association. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR.

In the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic, many organizations have implemented mandatory work-from-home routines in order to stay safe. That means, majority of us are dealing with unusual challenges for the first time. But for me, the first day of lockdown in Laos happened to also be my first day of joining UNDP.

Imagine that you neither know about what you are to expect from your first few weeks in a new position, nor who your colleagues will be. Clearly, I have never once been exposed to such a situation before in my professional life, where I was scheduled to meet my new colleagues and participate in orientation sessions virtually.

Just like many other circumstances, there are both pros and cons. But for a month, there were several things that I thought I would have encountered, yet I met with certain events that were very much to my surprise.

Who wouldn’t enjoy the flexibility of your work schedule, being able to take a break anytime you wanted, or having lunch during unconventional times to suit your own liking. I could wear any kind of outfits I felt most comfortable in, while spending more time with my family, exercise and cook for my son. I didn’t have to commute or be stuck in rush hour traffic before reaching the office, and didn’t have to sit at the same place. As long as I could get the job done, everything else just seemed to be great.

Well to be completely honest, those wonderful things aren’t always pleasant and can be extremely distracting when it comes to self-discipline. The urges to do the various household activities and chores can drag away so much attention, especially when you need to complete some rather urgent tasks. On the contrary, there can be less distinction between work and personal life, occasionally making it harder for me to shut down and end up overworking as a result.

Given the timing and my background in health, there had also been new challenges for me to take on. I had the chance to contribute my knowledge to two new project proposals in response to COVID-19. We had to learn about the support needed for provincial health preparedness and capacities, including at points of entry to identify, assess, prepare and manage quarantine centers and the establishment of isolation facilities in the coming months.

Furthermore, I had the opportunity to provide inputs for the drafting of our medical waste management proposal. It was on the improvement of capacities at the provincial and district levels and the increase of access to information on COVID-19, alongside proper medical waste management for communities, with a special focus on the vulnerable including the poor, women, ethnic minorities, youth and people with disabilities. Therefore, I was able to be acquainted and work with different people from different organizations, such as through the coordination I was tasked with to carry out between the Lao Ministry of Health and partners, in order to find out about the current situation.

Establishing trust and developing relationships with colleagues and partners hasn’t been easy. Well, at least it’s not the most ideal way to do so as a new staff. Being physically distant from co-workers the entire day isn’t at all helpful when you need guidance or advice on new and unfamiliar issues. It’s more than just when you are having problems using new tools, or need to learn about what each platform is functioned for, but more about the sense of being in each other’s company. Especially when there are urgent matters, being away from everyone is even more overwhelming because I still have so much to learn. Making video or phone calls aren’t the same as knocking on your colleagues’ door to ask for advice, or just to unwind a little over a quick cup of coffee after a series of back-to-back meetings.

However, I have been receiving amazing support from our colleagues in helping me move forward and settling in. I am extremely grateful to have been assigned a work buddy, who has generously shared her own experiences of when she first onboarded, along with great tips on how to identify and prioritize tasks, as well as learning opportunities to consider. She was also sincerely opened to help whenever I felt concerned and willing to guide me with whatever she could.

The introduction of new and modern technology, enabled me to get creative with how I interacted with my peers. Additionally, the team organized a weekly local staff “check-in” sessions, to update on our lives, as well as regular unit team meetings to touch bases with one other. With that, I have been able to avoid feeling disconnected whilst literally not being in the same location as everyone else.

While loneliness can be a problem for people who work remotely, making it a priority to schedule virtual events is all the more worthwhile when you have a great team to overcome the challenges together. The highlight of the whole journey was the fact that, our country office took the initiative to organize a virtual Lao New Year celebration via a video-conferencing platform. We had team members singing and performing from their homes to keep our spirits up and the atmosphere was unlike anything else I’ve known before. After such an interesting experience, I am even more excited to finally see everyone in person, once the lockdown measures are lifted.

Written by:

Khanphoungeune Volaot, Programme Analyst, Governance Unit, UNDP Lao PDR

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.

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