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Conservation Districts: Working Through the Pandemic

To get a better perspective on how conservation districts are handling work during the pandemic I met with Mary Hendrix, CD Specialist at the DNRC’s CARRD. I have already written a little bit already about some technology that might be helpful for districts during remote work, which you can read about here. The intention of this post is to examine how other facets of the conservation district workplace has changed in the past year.

At CARRD, Mary’s job consists of outreach to conservation districts on behalf of DNRC. Originally this outreach was focused on a portion of districts within a section of Montana, now, with fewer staff in the CARRD office she is responsible for this district outreach across the whole state. This consists of website upkeep, DNRC social media, PR related work, and other communications tasks, but like many other things, this changed in the Spring of 2020. The onset of the pandemic brought the CARES act and new responsibilities for the CAARD office.

The breadth and depth of the pandemic’s effect on Montana is hard to capture succinctly. Within certain sectors of the state economy, the day-to-day responsibilities did not change much, while for others the world flipped upside-down. In the case of conservation districts, the impact of the pandemic was predominantly felt by employees in how they performed their work, by the tools district employees use to collaborate and enact their projects. For Mary Hendrix, in addition to adjusting to the methods of work during the pandemic, the nature of the work changed too. The CARES Act brought administrative responsibilities to the CARRD office and Mary’s work hours were consumed by the BAG grant (business adaptability grant) for which she was the compliance lead.

Along with government and conservation district employees across the state, Mary also transitioned to remote work. Working remotely brings its own unique set of personalized challenges: from finding a decent workspace in your home, to learning new technologies and living without a physical separation between personal life and work. Working from your personal space can make it difficult to keep personal events from impacting work life. Without separate spaces, challenges from work can spill into life at home and visa versa. Suddenly personal tasks like moving apartments means moving your work life as well, that constant appliance noise isn’t just a mildly irritating household quirk, but now it is also a nuisance during zoom meetings.

For some, stepping away from work can also be a difficult thing to remember to do, particularly if one’s workstation is in a place where there is no door to shut — their bedroom or kitchen. Without a physical space or the right mental fortitude, work hours can become less productive and longer than necessary as a result. To be clear, working long hours can be good, but by distinguishing between work and personal time and managing our time, those hours become more productive.

Internet and cell connectivity commonly pose issues too. The spatial variability of both high-speed internet availability and cell reception across rural and semi-rural West is wildly disruptive to remote work. In my own experience, network connectivity was a persistent and deeply disruptive problem in rural Washington State (where I lived and worked prior to joining MACD as the Communications Specialist). Cell reception at my home was unreliable and the only internet service provider was via satellite. After switching cell providers, and increasing our home’s satellite wifi speeds, we were finally able to solve our connectivity problem through a hotspot loan service offered by our local library. Conservation district employees live across the entire state of Montana, often in remote areas with poor network connectivity. The demands of remote work means that district employees are still working through connectivity challenges today.

As Mary and I talked through the sprawling challenges of the past year, the resiliency and resourcefulness of conservation districts consistently came up as a common thread across these stories.

“Conservation districts are used to working with limited resources, they’re smart with what they have”, Mary says, “and working through [the pandemic] is no different.”

I agree. Ultimately, conservation districts are better for working through such a difficult time. This past year has pushed conservation district employees to embrace new technologies and re-examine their presence online. It has also encouraged districts to look outward, connect, and coordinate with our network of 58 CD’s across the state. In 2021, as work slowly shifts to back to the pre-pandemic routine, we’ll carry these new skills and resources with us — more connected than ever.

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