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May 10, 2021

Full Transcript Below.


Hosted by Carol Pankow, Project Director-GWU Team-VRTAC-Quality Management.


Carol is joined in the studio by Natasha Jerde, Director at State Services for the Blind MN and Kristen Mackey, Director of Arizona Combined.

How is VR going to look Post-Pandemic?

Carol sits down with Natasha and Kristen to talk about how they approached the impact of the pandemic and what they and their teams are doing to bring the best continued service and what VR is going to look like post-pandemic.


  • What lessons did you learn from the pandemic you want to carry forward?
  • What have been the pros and cons of remote supervision?
  • What is your biggest challenge moving forward?
  • How do you think employment for customers and the overall VR service and supports will be better with the realizations it seems the whole world has made? Remote work is possible.
  • There are lots of new directors and leaders across the country. What is one piece of advice you have for them?


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Partnering with State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies (SVRAs) to enhance service delivery and maximize outcomes through quality program and resource management. 

The purpose of the VRTAC-QM is to provide training and technical assistance that will enable State VR agency personnel to manage available resources, improve effective service delivery, and increase the number and quality of employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. The VRTAC-QM provides TA and training in VR program and performance quality management, fiscal and resource quality management of the VR program, and general quality management of organizations. You can request technical assistance from the VRTAC-QM by contacting your TA Liaison directly, contacting any member of the Center you wish, or by filling out the information on our main website and clicking on submit. While on the main website, join our mailing list to receive updates on training and new activities occurring within the center.


Full Transcript



Intro Voice: Manager Minute-brought to you by the VR Technical Assistance Center for Quality Management

Conversations powered by VR. One Manager at a time. One Minute at a time.

Here is your host, Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well, welcome and thanks for being on our very first inaugural podcast. I'm Carol Pankow, part of the VRTAC and Quality Management. And I'm joined today by Kristen Mackey, director of Arizona combined, and Natasha Jerde, director at my old stomping grounds at State Services for the Blind in Minnesota. So how are you both doing? Natasha: Good, doing good.


Kristen: Hi, Carol. Doing well, thank you.


Carol: Awesome. Well, I'm super excited about having these important conversations impacting VR today, and I wanted to delve into how we are going to look post pandemic. But I think to get there, we have to go back and have a chat about this past year. And I still have two vivid recollections that involve the both of you in the earlier days of the pandemic. And I can still remember back to chatting with you, Kristen, near the beginning of the pandemic. And I think we were maybe going into month three. And you said something about we've got to quit calling this a crisis. It's the new way of the world and we have to march forward. How did that approach help you navigate this past year?


Kristen: Yes, there was a kind of an aha moment for us and we started talking amongst our leadership team and it was this crisis, this crisis. And we just really thought, you know, we put on our counseling hat and we thought we need to turn this. And it is different. It's unusual. It's something that we don't exactly know how to address right now. But instead of putting that term crisis on it, it made it feel like, oh, my gosh, we can't do anything about this. And so we just started to change our language about this is what's happening. How can we address this right now? What are our opportunities to make things better? And that's really helped our focus shift from crisis management really into solution driven, opportunity focused. How can we do better with what we have at hand right now and where can we minimize the gaps? And so it did really help our team kind of make that shift from, oh, my gosh, the sky is falling to OK, we got a lot to deal with, but we have a definite path forward. So it's been successful in terms of just folks feeling a little bit more comfortable with the uncomfortable situation.


Carol: So do you feel that that was able to get relayed then to your field staff as well? I mean, do you feel like is it just your leadership group or do you feel like your whole group is really feeling kind of like the path forward? This is going well?


Kristen: Yeah, I think, you know, it took a little bit of time, but the teams really, as soon as we took that word out of all of our conversation, it felt like the level of anxiety just tended to drop a bit. You know, we started really enforced with our communication and more consistent communication, weekly updates and letting folks know as soon as we know anything, we'll let you know. Please continue to be flexible. And I do feel like the tension level just seemed to kind of drop just a little bit. Folks realize that we all were not scrambling around crisis mode and that we intended to continue to make that conversation and the communication very transparent with our teams throughout all of our decision making processes.


Carol: I know it really helped me because you actually you kind of reprimanded me. We were doing a webinar and the title of one of our webinars, the million we put on in like six weeks. I had, you know, the crisis of the pandemic. And you said, wow, you could change that language and maybe think about it had stuck with me. And it really did help, like, reframe my brain, too. So I appreciate that. I thought that was just a super tip. Now, Natasha, I remember you jumping right in and coming up with resources. The first was around that whole signature issue. I think we probably had one hundred phone calls or emails about how is everybody doing signatures. And you had the very first process that we shared on the WINTAC covered resource web page. And I know you you're an achiever. You like to get things done. So how did that approach help you in navigating this past year?


Natasha: Oh, goodness. I think every day it was just I think my motto was we're going to roll with it. And much like Kristen had said, it was all about opportunity. We had an opportunity to reshape how we did things. And in a creative way, we were flexible. But really, there was really not a lot of time to just sit and ponder and think it was we're going to try something and if it doesn't work, will shake it up and try something different. When the first challenge of how do we get signatures came up, it was OK, well, let's figure it out. Let's try something and we'll talk to RSA. We'll talk to some other states. But we're going to we're going to go with it. And then after a month or so, we're going to see how it works and then we can change if we need to. And that's how we approached every single challenge. And I have to say, we didn't have to do a lot of backtracking. We were typically on the right path most of the time. We did get a lot of engagement from staff and from partners for things as needed. We just roll with it, and that was our motto, and it still is.


Carol: I love that. And you're rolling with it really helped a ton of other states. I think I either had you or your staff and a number of those early webinars as well, because you guys kept coming up with such great solutions to different issues that everybody was having. So that was awesome. I really appreciate it. So it might be a good time to chat just a little bit about remote supervision. Now, I know you two know it's been a hot topic during the pandemic and both of you contributed information we used in our webinar, "Seven Secrets of Effective Remote Supervision". What do you think have been the pros and cons of remote supervision this past year? I think we'll start with Natasha.


Natasha: Well, I was fortunate. I think I was fortunate to have a new staff start two weeks after we went remote. So I had to learn really quickly how to be creative with onboarding someone when I had only met him one time during the interview. So we set up a clear plan. I sat down and actually just took a few hours to imagine what it would be like to be a staff coming into an organization where I had never met anyone and wouldn't even have known what my office looked like. So I pretended I was the new staff and I asked myself what would be valuable to me, how can I feel welcomed and part of the team when I'm not physically part of the team? So we assigned a mentor, someone that could just pop in and have a coffee or a tea a couple of times a week, someone who was not me, not the supervisor, but a peer or a colleague. I also set up a weekly touch base and then every day I would send an email, Hey, how are you today? Tell me how things are going. Tell me what some of your challenges are. And then we would connect over Zoom or via phone just to socialize and build that connection. Because when you're remote, one of the biggest things is isolation from your team and really having to be intentional about building those connections with peers and colleagues. We had all staffs and every all staff. We would introduce new staff. We'd have them tell a little story about where they came from, who they are, what they're going to be doing. We started building at happy hours and social time so people can get to know one another who are new and really I'm going to say the word again. But it's being intentional and really building in time to build those connections, all while also trying to learn the job.


Carol: That's super fabulous. So have there been any downsides to this past year that you ran into?


Natasha: Oh, goodness.


Carol: As you were working maybe with working with your supervisory team and such as?


Natasha: Well, yes. I mean, you could probably imagine how hard it is to train someone on very complex things. I was onboarding a Fiscal coordinator Assistant and a lot of what we do, you really need to be sitting down and walking through your financial documents and spreadsheets. And it is incredibly challenging to teach someone the complex thing over Zoom, especially if you have a technology issue, if you can't hear what the other person is saying. And the staff that we were onboarding wasn't very vocal. So if he wasn't able to hear something, he just kept going. So he missed about 20 to 30 percent of what we were explaining. And you could see that from his work. So we had to do a lot of reconnecting, being really flexible with the tools we're using to connect, like picking up the phone while also seeing each other on Zoom, sending follow up emails to recap what was said. But it's a whole different experience, trying to do something virtually and walking someone through a process. We did have to come back in person a few times and put something up on the projector and actually physically walk through it in person, and that was much more effective. So there really isn't a lot that can replace that one on one face to face human interaction.


Carol: Absolutely. I heard that from so many people this past year missing the people. Oh, my goodness. I know. I miss the people, too. You're when you're on Zoom from eight to four, you feel like you're with people all day, but yet you're not. And so it makes it tough for you. Kristen, what have been pros and cons of the remote supervision this past year?


Kristen: You know, as Natasha was saying, that really struck me, too. The communication piece, you know, we're all communicating, we're all talking. But when you're on Zoom and you're just seeing those little boxes on the screens, right. You're not seeing people, you're not picking up on that body language to see and confirm the understanding. And so we've really learned that as much as we're communicating, the level of understanding has really dropped. And so it feels like we're having to go back again and again to confirm the understanding of certain topics. And on Natasha's point, some things are just really you got to sit together and go through it. So that's been one of the larger challenges for us. And we continue to try to work on finding other opportunities, know what are those things that are out there to help us engage folks. And so there's other tools in Arizona. We use Google, and so that they're jam boards, there's white boards, there's different opportunities for us to engage people in a meeting. And help them to really get their hands on persay that material and to increase the understanding, one of the other things that we found is those opportunities for your random social interactions that happen. You're passing somebody in a hallway. Those types of activities don't happen anymore. And I think that's really where you get those personal connections with each other. And so the sense of loss almost not having that anymore. And really, do we need to build some time one on one with people that are comfortable going out and meeting and when it was safe to do so, try to be a little more intentional around that or picking up the phone, scheduling, quick chat, random instant message chats throughout the day to different people really seem to help mitigate that a little bit to some extent. We also had some managers that were super innovative and looking outside and kind of really thinking outside of the box and had one region do a month of an attitude of gratitude. And so they journaled every day, what are we grateful for? And then teams share that information with each other. So, again, really trying to rebuild that personal connection with each other has seemed to be one of our largest challenges, but also an opportunity for really cool stuff to come out of it to provide those ad hoc personal options.


Carol: I always think of you two as being some of the most creative people I know. And I really appreciated all the things you shared with us this last year. So as a provider, we were able to share those with other folks. It was so fun. And Kristen always resonate with me because of that positivity. It's one of my five strengths, finders, pieces. And you always came with that approach. I loved. I love hearing about that. So when you think about the past year and you looked at the lessons learned and all of that, and we're looking at the future of VR, and I know I still remember back when staff were asking, gosh, can we work remote? And I remember talking to colleagues and people are like, oh, I don't know if we can do VR. Well, obviously we proved that false this past year. So what do you guys think? Any lessons you learned from this pandemic that you want to carry forward into the new world of VR? Like, are you going to stay remote? Are you going to come back to the office? What are you thinking about what you're going to carry forward?


Kristen: It's a great thing to consider, Carol. We are absolutely going to continue there and continue with remote work and mobile and I'm saying mobile because it is not going to be the same as we're going to make clients come to our office and sit across our desks. We're going to be is we are now fully equipped to work mobility. And so where can we meet the clients to serve the client's needs? Our staff should be traveling to meet our clients. And so that's going to be our new approach. As we're able to continue to get out into the community safely, we will be increasing our community visits. We took the opportunity at the very beginning of the pandemic to get everybody fully equipped laptops, Internet, cell phones, whatever you need in order to work out in the community. And so now it's really think outside of the office. And that's going to be kind of our new tagline. Where can we meet the client to be the most successful for the client and really looking forward to seeing how that will work in the future.


Carol: I love that I just wrote that. Don't think outside of the office fully. So are you thinking about Kristen then shrinking like your physical footprint?


Kristen: Yes, leases are coming up and we're reevaluating how much space is needed. Nobody has a designated office anymore. All personal belongings went home when we did the, you know, a year ago. Now we're saying, OK, this office is a 15 person office. We don't anticipate that it will ever be fully staffed with 15 people, eight to five. The office will be open. We will be open for walk envisage and for one on one client visits as needed. But we won't need 15 designated office spaces. We'll have some hoteling spaces that are fully equipped for anybody to drop in and get the work done that they need to. But we don't need the amount of space that we used


Carol: That is super cool. How about you, Natasha? What's cooking over your way?


Natasha: Much like Kristen saying our new normal isn't new anymore, is going to be a hybrid approach between virtual and in-person service delivery. There's always going to be a need to meet with people face to face in some shape or form. But there's going to be more instances where instead of spending hours on the road to drive to someone, we can accomplish a lot when we use some of our virtual meeting tools. This is also huge because we work with people who have transportation barriers and not adding an unnecessary barrier of having people have to come to us. We're going to have more remote staff and a lot less space in our one-stop than our American job centers. We have already started the process across our entire department and what that's going to look like in the future as leases come up, we are going to be getting out of quite a few spaces, are moving towards satellite offices or hoteling, all of our field staff. As soon as the pandemic hit, we made sure that they have cell phones were actually going to be moving away from even having a desk phone and everyone will be mobile ready. Everyone got a laptop if they didn't already have one and an iPad. The real benefit of this, though, this remote work is we're going to be able to attract and retain staff. People love teleworking. They love remote for the most part. The one thing they have said and that I'm taking to heart is not everything needs to be a meeting. So that's something we are still trying to work through with less meetings, more time interacting with our customers. I think along with that, we are going to be saving some money by reducing our footprint, which means more opportunity to use that money and invest in our customers and our staff in a totally different way.


Carol: That is so cool. So what do you think Natasha's your biggest challenge, though, moving forward with this? I know in the past when we've talked about shrinking space in the American job centers for one that's always brought a lot of tension, you know, with the partners. And of course, money is involved. It gets a little dicey. So what do you think some of your biggest challenges are going forward?


Natasha: Well, you hit the nail on the head. One of our biggest challenges is not everyone is on the same page as us. We have a lot of engagement work we need to do and we need to work hard and getting Buy-In from our partners and helping them also move with us and not against us. And the other challenge we still experience is really our own technology. Great. But we also have accessibility challenges and issues. And if we want to get this right, we got to resolve both those things as well. But the biggest piece is making sure our partners are with us alongside of us and not against us.


Carol: That's good advice. That's really good advice. How about you, Kristen? What's your biggest challenge moving forward?


Kristen: Specific to the work with the American job centers are really understanding to their requirement to have staff and be able to refer. And so similar to Natasha, how do we forge ahead together and know that our infrastructure agreements and our milieus may need to change because we're all doing work a little bit differently than we were before? So working together as a team to make sure that the clients are appropriately and adequately served from all title partner perspectives. And what does that look like? And so each of those are local areas are going through those conversations. Now, how can we be the most supportive and ensuring that our clients are able to get the services as well through those American job centers? And then again, we're a combined agency and have found that through some of our voices of the customer surveys and through our surveys and interactions with staff, that accessibility and ability to use the technology is really one of those points that we have found. We just need to do better at providing guidance tools and ensuring that all of the technology that we use is accessible. And so that's one of our big challenges that's in the forefront of our minds.


Carol: That's awesome. So how do you think thinking about accessibility and thinking about everything that's happened this past year, how do you think employment for customers and the overall be service and supports? How is it going to be better? Like what do you think employment's going to look like for folks or that you're already seeing in your services right now? What do you think is going to change or do you have any predictions or things you're seeing right now, like new types of jobs people are getting into or what's happening for those customers?


Kristen: I'll tell you that specific to our work rate, I said this earlier, I don't know that we would have on-boarded somebody had they said I need to work from home three days a week previous. And now we're like, OK, that's doable. Right? So we think other employers are doing the same thing. They're realizing that can be done remotely. And so we have seen a few positive employment outcomes because the work can be done mobily or remotely reduces some of those transportation challenges, reduces some of the other accommodations that need to be made potentially through ADA because folks are able to work from home. And so I do see that as a positive as we move forward. I see as a positive others are learning about technology and the challenges that are sometimes inherent in using technology. So as employers begin to learn and use this more as their daily work, I think that we will see technology become more accessible just by virtue of the masses using them. And I'm really looking forward to those opportunities to launch that and grab a hold of those new opportunities moving forward.


Carol: Very cool. I know, Natasha, thinking about the blindness population. I know that there's always a lot of fears that employers have been hiring an individual who is blind or visually impaired. How are they going to do the job? And I know working at SSP as well, you know, we combatted that a lot. The staff did, and really helping individuals advocate for themselves. So are you seeing a shift for customers in, like, acceptance or ability to get employment? What do you see on the horizon for that?


Natasha: Perfect timing because on Friday, we actually hosted a roundtable for employers and we called it an untapped labor force for rebuilding the economy, and it was our general agency and state services for the blind. And much like what Christine has said, accessibility is becoming better and better as more people are embracing technology. One of the biggest barriers for our customers who are looking for work is the transportation piece. And as businesses are adopting teleworking and remote work, putting in more accessibility, it's becoming a lot easier for people to get in and start working. There is a huge demand in Minnesota and probably across the country for workers. And I think the stats for Minnesota is for every vacancy there is one point one people. So there's almost a job for every person who is looking and employers are posting positions and not finding candidates. So we are using this as an opportunity to swoop in and market the talent pool that we have and also providing resources for accommodations. Even with being remote, our assistive technology and employment specialists have been working with employers a lot more than ever, helping them build in reasonable accommodations. And employers have been embracing it because they've also been helpful for their staff without disabilities. Some of the different virtual tools out there, they're adopting a more universal design standard for those things. So I see really, really great things for these coming years for people with disabilities and work


Carol: That's very cool. It makes my heart happy. I'm sitting here nodding to you all and you can't see me and smiling. It's just it does make my heart happy to see this change. And for all the staff, I just think about everyone going through so many personal issues this last year, whether it's with homeschooling kids or taking care of parents and all kinds of things happening. So I feel like there's really been a silver lining in the pandemic for sure. Now there are a ton of new directors and leaders across the country. I think when we did a presentation a bit ago, we had counted up since 2013, there's actually been 79 director changes, I believe something like that. And you know, up till was January of 21, it was either 76 or 79. I'm going holy smokes, as well as all the other various administrators or people in supervisory positions and such across the country. So what would be one piece of advice you would give for this group? Because some were new. They started with we just the beginning of a pandemic. And you guys have been around for a while. You know, your staff. What would you tell other people piece of advice you'd have for them kind of going forward into the our new normal, which is not really new? It's been the same now for 14 months or so.


Natasha: I think a recognition that being a director can be very lonely and isolating and to combat that, reach out to other directors, build relationships, you have your buddy. And I think, Carol, you've mentioned this before. You have your people that you go to and that you can ask questions because sometimes you may not have those people internally that you can connect with, but you have us and you can reach out to Krista and then you can reach out to myself. And even if it's just to say, oh, my goodness, this can be really challenging, we've been there and we can work together on that and just help one another out.


Carol: That's awesome. I love that because I always say phone a friend, you got to get a friend. And you guys are my people for sure. So, Kristen, what about you? You got a piece of advice?


Kristen: I should know. I would just echo Natasha. I know that you jumping into the director role and really understanding the connections that you have and definitely VR and your regional reps. I think you're a regional rep. I am a regional rep. The connection between the directors is so valuable and everybody is willing to give advice, provide resources, and maybe it's not even that. Maybe it's just the opportunity to kind of commiserate with each other and know that I'm not crazy about going through this all alone in my own silo over here in Arizona, we are all kind of working on the same things and maybe just a different slant. So reach out to your fellow directors and We are all Very receptive. And I think it's a great group of individuals from the director level. I have not yet met one person that would absolutely not hand over anything that they had to help me be successful and provide with additional information.


Carol: Well said. Well said, ladies. Well, I know you two are incredibly busy and I really appreciate you spending this time with me. I just think you're both fabulous. And I can't wait to hear about cool things happening in your agencies going forward. So thanks for joining us today.


Kristen: Thanks for having us.



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