Play ball! At Berkeley, it’s one solution to pandemic-era team building

The Student Affairs Summer Softball League, for staff members in the Division of Student Affairs, holds games twice a week after work on Underhill Field. The games, back after a two-year, pandemic-era hiatus, will end in a championship game on Aug. 9.

Glenn DeGuzman is a baseball fanatic, but when asked in March to revive a UC Berkeley staff summer softball league, dormant during the full-blown phase of the pandemic, he initially declined. Berkeley’s director of residential life, DeGuzman - on the campus’s front lines through two years of COVID-19 response - was suffering secondary trauma, had lost two family members to the disease, and continued to juggle a heavy load at both home and office.

"I was exhausted," said DeGuzman, who’d been the league’s enthusiastic commissioner since 2017. "Softball brought up great, fun memories for my department and me, but I didn’t know if I had the energy." He also wondered if employees would take to the field like they did before COVID arrived, and before it changed the workplace.

But DeGuzman was offered a helper, colleague Harris Mojadedi, as head of softball operations, and a small committee to bring back the Student Affairs Summer Softball League. And once again, he chose to play ball.

To his surprise, so did about 100 staffers in the division, including many who now work remotely, either all or part of the time. Dozens more - family, friends and co-workers, some with babies and pets in tow - attend the games, held a few evenings a week from 4:45 to 6:30 p.m. The league does not include student staff.

"Oh, my gosh, we have a full roster!" said DeGuzman, enthused to have enough players from the division’s nearly 40 departments - which include housing, residential life, the ASUC Student Union and the registrar’s office - for five teams. About 1,500 staffers members, excluding student staff, work in the Division of Student Affairs.

The league also has a pom-pom-waving cheer squad of staff members in Cal gear, walk-up music, team T-shirts and rules that accommodate all players. For example, teams pitch to their own players, with each batter getting five chances at a good pitch. After pitch No. 5, if the ball’s not in play, it’s an out.

At bat, "if players in knee braces can’t run, people run for them," added Bahar Navab, assistant vice chancellor and chief of staff for student affairs, who plays on one of the teams. "The league provides community and connection in a way that can feel safe and bring you closer to your colleagues."

Debra Dias, a Tang Center medical assistant whose dream of playing softball in college ended with a high school sports injury, said she eagerly joined the summer league in its earlier, pre-COVID years. Returning this summer, though, took effort.

Debra Dias, a medical assistant at the Tang Center, runs to home plate wearing her summer team’s grey T-shirt.

"I feel like I’d become an introvert during COVID, with the lack of in-person meetings and events. I used to be outgoing," said Dias, who plays second base on the UHS/Student Affairs Information Technologies team. "But this takes me out of that shell. Being in-person pressures you to talk, to communicate, to be outgoing. And that, in a sense, is amazing. It feels really good."

Jonathon Walker, a new campus employee on Dias’ team, said the games help him for a different reason - he gets to meet and talk on the field to co-workers he rarely, if ever, sees while working in his business operations office at the Tang Center.

"The sun is still shining after work, there’s friendly banter going on the whole game, we shake each other’s hands, take a group photo," he said. "After my first game, I met my best friend, who also works at Tang."

"I don’t know what it is," added Walker, a third baseman, "but softball always works."

"I think that there is something special when people come together and are in each other’s presence face-to-face,” says Glenn DeGuzman, director of Residential Life and the softball league’s commissioner, pictured here. "We’re communicative people, and through conversations, you start to find commonality that you can’t online.”

Rituals help build work culture, social connection

While Berkeley’s student body returned for the 2021-22 academic year, found that 38% of staff respondents work from home all week, 24% three to four times a week, 23% one to two times a week, 4% a few times a month, 2% once a month and 9% never.

A Forbes article earlier this year cited data showing that, nationally, 90% of full-time remote workers feel they’re working as productively, or more so, as they did at the office. Another 74% say remote work is better for their mental health, and 84% report they’re happier at home.

But most workers are on teams, and effective teamwork requires social connections that "are very hard to effectively build over Zoom," said Juliana Schroeder , a Berkeley Haas faculty member. She’s an expert on the management of organizations and the Harold Furst Chair in Management Philosophy and Values.

"Social connection is critical for worker well-being," she said, "as well as for cooperation and trust among work teams."

"Being in-person and in close proximity usually will lead naturally to social engagement,” says Juliana Schroeder, a faculty expert on the management of organizations, "but that also can be facilitated via structured interaction.” She recommends that managers, at this point in the pandemic, try to "get people into physical proximity more often and also try to structure their social experiences to give them more opportunity to engage.”

One way to build work culture, including with remote workers,áis through rituals, Schroeder said, describing them as "structured physical actions characterized by rigidity, formality and symbolism." An example, she said, is a meeting, whether in-person or remote, that always starts with people sharing their successes from the week.

Cynthia Weekley never imagined a time when most of her 107-member team would no longer step foot regularly on campus, if at all. Or that a key part of her job would be brainstorming ways to keep her non-client-facing group connected.

Cynthia Weekley (center), executive director of Berkeley’s Engineering Research Support Organization (ERSO), poses with colleagues outside Gather, a local restaurant where she recently invited her 107-member team of remote staffers to reunite over lunch and a business update.

"Those precious interactions we’d had walking down halls, going to someone’s cubicle, don’t happen anymore," said Weekley, executive director of Berkeley’s Engineering Research Support Organization (ERSO) and assistant dean of human resources for the College of Engineering, "Now, they have to be planned and coordinated."

So far, Weekley’s held a kite-flying party at the Berkeley Marina, hosted a recent lunch and business update at a popular Berkeley restaurant, and plans an in-person "ERSO Swag Day" in September, so employees can reunite while picking up ERSO jackets and other team freebies.

She’s also assigned a new hire to spend half her time creating employee engagement activities to celebrate everything from birthdays to work milestones to personal and team achievements. Weekley’s "We Hear You" form allows staffers to anonymously email her questions, which she then answers publicly.

"We’re also exploring ideas like a hosted outdoor FaceTime walk through campus for out-of-state team members we’ve never met and will only know on Zoom," added Weekley, who has employees as far away as North Carolina. "They’ve never seen the campus. How do I make them feel welcome and engaged?"

Sarah Gaugler, an ERSO contracts and grants supervisor, said she devotes up to 20% of her time each week thinking of ways to engage her all-remote team. (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese) Sarah Gaugler, an ERSO contracts and grants supervisor, has a seven-member team that includes an employee in Southern California and another in Missouri. "I spend 10 to 20% of my time a week thinking what I can do with my team, to engage them," she said.

Each Thursday, Gaugler offers Zoom office hours, "so people can pop in with a question, like it was my cubicle. The whole group might be there at the same time." She’s held a virtual happy hour, and her team does "self-care shares" in a Google chat on Fridays, telling each other of ways they’re prioritizing mental health and work-life balance.

And at the end of monthly team meetings, Gaugler added, "I ask a powerful or fun question: What drives you? What song makes you start dancing immediately when you hear it? What’s your favorite smell? It’s fun and ends the meetings on a light note."

Residential Life cheer squad members (from left) Alex Camacho, Rochelle Pierce, Adriana Bolds and Tanya Koroyan bring on the team spirit.

Softball offers catharsis and community

Ending the work day on summer Tuesdays and Thursdays with a light-hearted softball game seems to be working for members of the Student Affairs league. One of them is Tanya Koroyan, assistant director of residential life, who organizes the residential life team’s cheer squad.

"The biggest joy is to get to meet new folks and to revisit and connect with folks we haven’t gotten to see in a while, and it’s casual and fun andánot a meeting or on Zoom," said the former high school cheerleader.

"Even though I’m not playing, it boosts my energy and puts me in a better mood and reminds me why I’m here at Cal and in Student Affairs," she said. "Watching the game, laughing with new and old friends... it’s helping me more than I imagined."

Koroyan, who created a play list with a walk-up song for, and chosen by, each batter on her team - DeGuzman’s, for example, is Pinkfong’s "Baby Shark" - said she’s hoping the squad can produce a special performance for the championship game in August, "maybe one where everyone can run onto the field and have fun."

Work and colleagues are " social circle" for a lot of Berkeley employees, said DeGuzman, who has a Ed.D. in organization leadership, and "being with each other can be cathartic, a reminder that we’re a campus community.

"A lot of people have moved on and left. There is a need. The campus needs it, needs that collegiality. It’s hard to form that on the computer."

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Stephen Sutton leans into a pitch during Game 1 of the Student Affairs Summer Softball League’s 2022 series.

At the softball games, managers and their employees, who might rarely see or speak casually with one another at the office, mingle on the field. Guy Nicolette, associate vice chancellor for University Health Services, and Stephen Sutton, vice chancellor for student affairs, both play in the league.

"Guy and I are on the same team, and I work on the same floor as him," said Dias. "It was a little intimidating, at first, cause he’s so high up there" on the organizational chart.

But then, said DeGuzman, while waiting to bat or sharing the outfield, barriers begin to erode, and players get to know "the person behind the role. It balances the playing field across positionality."

The games also allow staffers to actually each other - without masks, said Lauren Magdaleno, a health educator at the Tang Center. She is co-captain of the UHS/Student Affairs Information Technologies team with her husband, Robert, a senior resident director in Residential Life.

"Seeing people without their masks after years together in the building is really cool," said Magdaleno, who works most days on campus. "I’m also with co-workers who I realize I’ve never seen in person before, just on Zoom, and without a mask for months - or even a few years."

Outside of office hours, on the turf, these staff members - from disparate parts of Student Affairs - aren’t just playing ball. They’re engaging in informal team building with colleagues they don’t typically collaborate with, said Kathy Kwong, a Residential Life administrative assistant who is a league committee member. There are players from a mix of departments on three of the five teams.

DeGuzman organized the first softball game in July 2017 to forge closer relationships among departments within Student Affairs. A league soon followed. By 2019, it was even more robust; 2020 was supposed to be the biggest yet. Then, the pandemic hit.

After a two-year hiatus, the league’s popularity today is "crazy," said DeGuzman. "But I’ve always felt that games are a great way to bring out joy and laughter; they allow others to authentically connect and have fun. This is not a forced team-builder. When you can do something like this, magic occurs."

By Gretchen Kell

View all articles by Gretchen Kell

This site uses cookies and analysis tools to improve the usability of the site. More information. |