30 min read

Episode 10: Workplace operations

As some of us start to think about returning to the office, it's important to ask: what kind of office should we be returning to?
Podcast guest Cristina Mendoza is superimposed on a bright yellow background for the episode's cover art

It's podcast day! And this episode is a fun one because it involves a little trip down memory lane...

Today's guest and I first crossed paths a decade ago when we went to art school together and careers in operations were the furthest things from our minds. (We were going to be artists!!)

Since then, our paths have been the definition of "same same but different."

I've focused on scaling small, mostly-remote, mostly-bootstrapped startups. She's worked at some of the industry's biggest tech companies, become an expert on IRL workplace operations, and eventually left tech altogether to join the Obama Foundation as their Operations Manager.

Suffice to say, I had a lot of questions!

What needs to change to make our offices work for everyone? How do you make people feel safe coming to work post-Covid? And what's it like going from a tech unicorn to a nonprofit organization?

We're digging into all these and more!

About Our Guest

Our guest is Cristina Mendoza, Operations Manager at the Obama Foundation.

Cristina worked in office management and facilities at some of the industry's biggest unicorns like Uber, Snap, and Salesforce, before pivoting to her current role in nonprofit operations.

She's a great resource on all things facilities, hybrid work, and general workplace operations so I'm excited for all of us to learn from her.

About this Episode

In this episode, we chat about:

  • Facilities, office management, and workplace operations—what they are, and where they overlap
  • What it's like to be tasked with the "return to work plan" at an organization with hundreds of people, and how she thinks about safety in the face of subsequent waves
  • Why inclusive office design should be part of the DEI conversation
  • How she broke into tech through operations—and why she left to work at a nonprofit
  • Some of the differences (and similarities!) between scaling a startup and scaling a nonprofit

... and so much more!

Listen Now

You can listen to Opsy on your favorite podcast platform, including:

This episode is sponsored by Runner.
Runner connects outstanding operations talent with inclusive startups who need their skills on a fractional or temp-to-perm basis. No more cheap gigs, horrible bosses, or miserable schedules.
Visit hirerunner.co to apply today.

Show Notes

Stay in Touch



Welcome to Opsy, a podcast for people doing opsy work in tech. I'm your host, Caro Griffin. Every month I dig into what Opsy work really is by talking to an operations pro who has something really cool to teach us—in a traditional part of ops like HR or finance, or a newer specialty like no-code ops or marketing ops. Thanks for listening!

This episode is sponsored by Runner, a platform that connects outstanding operational talent with inclusive companies.

Today, we’re talking to Cristina Mendoza, an operations pro who started her career in tech at unicorns like Snap, Uber, and Salesforce, before ultimately joining the Obama Foundation as an Operations Manager.

But, before all of that, if you'll allow me to turn back the clock a bit, we were two artsy college students going to undergrad together in Chicago, where we took some of the same creative nonfiction classes.

The funny thing is—we definitely knew each other back then, as it was a small program—but I don’t think we ever actually hung out or really got to know each other. It wasn’t until a dozen years later that we reconnected.

It was the height of Covid lockdown, back in 2020, and I was speaking at a virtual conference about remote onboarding. And lo and behold, there was my old classmate in the Zoom chat!

We were able to reconnect and bond over the fact that we both went from art school to doing operations work in tech, and also our shared love of nonfiction and nerding out about Latin American history.

So, without further adieu, let’s hear from Cristina herself! 

Thanks so much for joining me today, Cristina. I'm really excited to chat and talk more about ops with you.

Cristina 1:40

Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited for this conversation. It's going to be fun.

Caro 1:43

Yeah, I feel like if you had told like College Cristina and College Caro that we would be here, talking about our careers in ops and tech, we would be like…What do you mean? What is ops? Can you define it for me? I don't even know what that is. I'm an artist!

Cristina 1:59

Exactly. Yep, I was too busy thinking about my future as artiste and like being on tour and doing all this other stuff that… ops is not something I was thinking about at all.

Caro 2:13

Well, I feel like that's so true for so many of the guests and just so many people I know in ops, right? It's rarely something we study in school. It's something we stumble into. And so, I feel like that's a perfect segue to start at the beginning of your story. Tell us a little bit about you and how you fell into operations.

Cristina 2:31

Yeah. Oh, man, speaking of college Cristina. Like you said, I was at Columbia College Chicago. I was focused on Entertainment and Media Management. I was also dating a lot of fanboys at the time and so I think I had this idea of being on tour and running festivals and the tour van life. I think that that's what I really wanted when I moved to Chicago. But I think, over the years, I fell out of it a little bit. You get older, you want health insurance, you want some stability.

It also did help living in Chicago because I very much I'm a Chicago girl. I am a Midwestern girl, my roots are here. And so, it got to a point of like, you either move to the West Coast or the East Coast to do these music careers, and that's just not really what I wanted to do.

I was doing a lot of event work right out of college. It would just be like freelance stuff here or there, or whatever shows were coming into town. I was also doing a lot of interning, so I was interning with Pitchfork, with a local PR agency and so still had this big idea of music being like my main driving force for what I wanted to do. But in the offseason, I was also working in restaurants. I was helping out with hosting so I had this very customer service side, but was also raising my hand anytime… I don’t know, we had an accountant leave and suddenly someone needs to do payroll for the next few months. So, I raised my hand to learn payroll…

Caro 4:06

What a glutton for punishment—living on a tour bus and running payroll!

Cristina 4:09

Exactly, exactly. That's exactly how it was.

I was just raising my hand for a lot of things and was suddenly getting this kind of weird skillset. I knew how to run events. I could manage crazy things, a lot of ambiguity, restaurants - super ambiguous, anything that could go wrong is probably going to go wrong on a Friday night service. And, so, I eventually was trying to figure out what does this look like down the line? I had been working in restaurants for a while, had been doing events for a while, and then a recruiter reached out about a role at Uber. So, then I ended up transitioning into the tech life for a while.

Caro 4:50

What a wild transition, I'm sure. Especially because I feel like you don't hear a lot about recruiters contacting folks for like ops roles, especially for more like entry and mid-level roles. That's just not something that I hear a lot. So tell me more about that.

Cristina 5:07

Yeah, it was interesting because I looked at my resume and I was like, “Oh, I've just been a hostess here. I've been office managing, but it's been like accounts payable, like this is it. This isn't what you're looking for.” But the skillset was very much aligned with what a lot of office manager workplace operations look like. There's a sense of hospitality in it, there's… I'm still serving some customer support role, but there's also a lot of logistics going into it. And, so, the event planning stuff really came into place, understanding a budget really came into place. There were just all of these skills that aligned with it. And so, a recruiter reached out… I thought that it was a joke at first.

Caro 5:54

Did they reach out on LinkedIn or like via email?

Cristina 5:57

They reached out via LinkedIn. This was probably… 2014, I want to say. Very much early [in their journey], especially in Chicago, that's when all the tech companies are starting to really build their offices out here.

It was specifically for Uber's customer support center, so it was going to be a 24/7/365, state of the art customer support center. When I first got there, it was roughly 60 staff [members]. Then, within the year, I would say we moved up to like 350. So it was very much like—

Caro 6:36

Wow, that's a big increase in staff. Also, my eyes immediately bugged out at 24/7/365… the operational challenge in that alone. You had your job cut out for you.

Cristina 6:50

And I was like the only one. And so, now, sometimes I look at even with my small team now I'm like, "Oh, there's three of us now?" I was doing all of this on my own.

There's plenty of crazy stories, everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong in that role, in one way or another, whether it was something… One time, we had the HVAC flood, we've had security scares. It was an interesting time for Uber and it was an interesting time to be there. It was a lot of growth, but I think it really set the stage for how my career would go moving forward. It was really just a big learning experience. So I think that… while I had this interesting new skillset before I got to Uber, Uber really solidified like, “Okay, this is what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life now.” You're good at this. You don't know what this is yet, but you are good at this and you'll figure it out. That was my time in Uber and then tech just followed on after that for a while.

Caro 7:53

I was going to ask you… so many of us, as we've already talked about, stumble into ops, so when did you realize you are an ops person? And, it sounds like, it was at Uber where you were like, "Okay, yeah, this is where I can keep raising my hand and learning new things." It sounds like it was such a great role that really was the next step after having all those roles where you raised your hand and got your feet wet in a lot of things and then this was a very formalized version of doing all of the things and trying all the things, like a great foundational role.

I know you went on to Snap, then Salesforce after that. I would love to talk to you a little bit more about facilities, because this isn't something we’ve really dug into on the podcast yet.

It's funny that you started in events. Because I think, if I look back, that was the first ops job I had that I didn't realize was an ops job - it was planning large scale events at Columbia, our alma mater. Those are ops things that I haven't had to touch since then, like those facilities, security, janitorial, catering things. And so, I would love to hear a little bit more about how you think about facilities and the role of facilities and what goes into all of that.

Cristina 8:59

Oh, I love that question. It is so layered too because I think, over the years, we just keep learning more and more about how place is such an important part of everything, right? It's a core memory of where you grew up. It's a core memory of where you first worked. Place is super important. And, so, I think that that also translates really well into the workplace and how you create the environment that folks can work effectively in, not so much like work harder, but work smarter. We want folks to feel like they have everything they need.

I think it was really, again, like going back to Uber… They had such a strong workplace operations team. It was massive. They had a team that was just overseeing food and beverage, a team that was just overseeing the leases, just the design components. We had entire workbooks on, like, here's what the Uber design interior should look like. And, so, it was something that I had nerded out about a lot. My mom is a graphic designer and so I grew up always thinking like, oh, color schemes, oh, this should look like this. I feel like that graphic design definitely translated into our home design too. [Laughs] But it just seemed like a… It was an exciting thing to start learning.

Then I just took that along with me to Snapchat and to Salesforce. While I was in both of those roles, we were also going through some larger construction projects. And, so, while I had helped do some construction at Uber, it was really at, I would say Snap and then mostly at Salesforce, where I got to see the interior design process come to life and what a workplace could actually look like.

So at Snap, I think they were still trying to figure out what their design would look like. But then at the time, Salesforce had had an older branding that was this… almost like Aloha-themed, tropical theme throughout their offices, which was interesting. It aligned very well with what we were doing at the time. They called the Salesforce Ohana. It was this big Hawaii-themed thing. But then they were moving to this Dreamforce Trailhead design. And, so, a lot of the offices started going through large repaints, or we were completely redesigning what the kitchens look like to make them more functional for staff who maybe wanted to grab coffee and also have a meeting right next to the kitchen area.

It was really interesting to see the thought and care that Salesforce put into their workplace design. I think, while I was seeing that at Uber and at Snap, I think it was Salesforce when I really started to get involved with it and really help to put the pieces together. These are the vendors we're going to need, this is the exact coffee machine we're going to need, here's what our snack program can look like…

Caro 11:58

I feel like this is going to come across as sarcastic… but the like, really important decisions, right? You were responsible for the coffee maker, Cristina! No pressure!!

Cristina 12:05

Yes, no pressure at all! If it went down, it was the end of the world. Mind you, this was… The building that we were at had seven floors and then we had two additional offices nearby. So it was pretty large, not a small footprint at all and we were a small team. I think that's the one thing that workplace operations, as a whole, they tend to be smaller teams, but they tend to get a lot done. And I think that's something I also have always really enjoyed - we're scrappy. We are the scrappy kids at the party and we're going to figure out how to get things done and make it work. Sometimes there's going to be Band-Aids involved, but we'll figure it out later on.

Caro 12:51

Yeah, absolutely. I would have never pictured this conversation going into workplace design, and interior design even. That's a whole branch of the facility space that I had never considered. I love learning more about that, for sure.

Cristina 13:07

Yeah. I will say, too, it's evolved even more over the last couple of years where, especially as we start returning to work, we're also seeing this DEIB [component]. DEIB is diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging and so we're seeing that really come into place.

We're starting to discuss more about what a neurodivergent space could look like, what quiet spaces look like in offices. It's interesting. The snacks are important, but also let's start looking at what a quiet workspace looks like.

Caro 13:43

Yeah, absolutely. And how does inclusivity transfer into the workspace, right? If you're… especially when, rightly so, tech companies get all this pushback about being inclusive and hiring people that are different, it's like, okay, you can do that and maybe your staff photo looks diverse. But how are you supporting those people when they get there? I think particularly, you know, the neurodivergent folks are so rarely considered in the office floor plan. So I love to hear that that's happening. I feel like I could do a whole other episode on that. Maybe we'll circle back on the blog about that…

You obviously spent a few years in these big tech companies. What drew you to nonprofits and the Obama Foundation specifically?

Cristina 14:27

Oh, man, so this was a big timing thing. We're hitting that 2016-2017 period and I think I knew that I wanted to be at a place that was a little more mission driven. I was getting some semblance of that at Salesforce. They do a lot of really great work with volunteering. They encourage their employees to do a lot of volunteer hours. But I think I wanted something more. I wanted to feel like I was helping some community, my community, the national community. It just so happened that the Obama Foundation was hiring an office manager role. I'd been doing facilities for a while but I was like, "I would do office management again. I could do this." I also had some aspirations of maybe going into politics, maybe going to campaigning, but wasn't sure if I was ready for that life and so this was like a good middle ground.

Caro 15:28

Were you also obsessed with The West Wing at one point in your life? Because like.. I just feel like…

Cristina 15:30

Yes, absolutely.

Caro 15:30

I also definitely consider the politics route, both the political person in me and then also the mission-driven person, and the ops person in me is like… campaign ops. That's a whole other ballgame.

Cristina 15:48

A whole other thing! It was one of those things where, I would see shows like that where I would be like, "I could do that. I could figure that out. Give me that problem. I could figure that problem out."

And this seemed like a good middle ground, right? I wasn't completely going into the campaign world, but I was also going to be working with a lot of former campaign folks and so ended up with the Obama Foundation in fall of 2018. It was a lot of folks that had previously been on the Hillary Clinton campaign, that had previously been in the Obama administration, but also a lot of folks that were coming from other nonprofits, or some folks like me that were coming from tech or large real estate firms.

It was an exciting move because I was suddenly dealing with a whole new group of people that I think, also like me, were looking for something that was very mission-driven and very aligned with their values as well. I think the nonprofit world was something that I had considered for a while but didn't know how it fit into that with my skill set and this seems like the perfect segue into it.

Caro 16:56

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there is too…I have only very limited experience in nonprofits. I did development internships and stuff in college, looking for mission driven work. But, it feels like there's such a difference, too, between a really small, scrappy nonprofit and something like the Obama Foundation. I would imagine, just from the outside, it feels like the Obama campaigns and administration had such a reputation for being tech-forward. What do you think the differences between working at a more established, bigger nonprofit like the Obama Foundation versus one a little smaller, scrappier?

Cristina 17:33

We are definitely very tech savvy… or, well, most of us are very tech savvy. [Laughs] There is a learning curve sometimes. But for the most part, we function like a startup. I think that there's a lot of different reasons for that, right? We are still figuring out our infrastructure. We're just now hitting the point of really growing as an organization. But there's still a lot of the same standards that you would have, especially in workplace and facilities management. A lot of those same standards really come into play at the foundation as well because we want to provide a reliable, efficient and smart space for not only our staff, but also our guests to really enjoy.

We do have a lot of community members that come through. We have a lot of programming that takes place in the space as well. And so, there is this additional level of guest service and radical hospitality that comes out when we're trying to focus on supporting our staff essentially.

Caro 18:37

Yeah, I had like four follow up questions and my brain is like, wait, what comes next?

So wait, radical hospitality, let's start there. How do you define radical hospitality? Because I feel like I love it already.

Cristina 18:47

Oh, man, and this is where I wish I could tap in one of my colleagues who's working on the Obama Presidential Center. Because, as they're building that out, that's something that they're thinking of constantly. How can we provide radical hospitality in the space? It's [about] going above and beyond. And really being mindful that hospitality looks different for every single person, right? Some people may not want the over communication piece, or they may want that. There's also people with disabilities, like being mindful of what that looks like and how you take care of anyone who has a disability coming into your space.

I want to say too that it comes from Disney, who were the original creators. I want to say it's a Disney thing that we've started to really look into, but that is something that we're just keeping in mind as we build out the Obama Presidential Center and even as we continue to grow as an organization. What does radical hospitality look like for our team and how can we ensure that folks really feel comfortable in the space, and really feel welcome here? And also have everything that they need to, whether it's coming through our future museum or whether it's walking through our offices, they really feel like they belong and they have a sense of belonging while they're in our spaces.

Caro 20:10

It feels like that goes so hand in hand with the workplace operations and that experience and that cultivating a sense of belonging for everyone, right? Because, like you said, hospitality looks different for everyone and so how do you bake that in? That's very cool.

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Caro 20:59

So, I feel like I actually should ask - how do you think about the mission of the Obama Foundation? What kind of programming are y'all doing? I feel like that is important context for this conversation.

Cristina 21:10

Yeah, definitely. So the Obama Foundation is guided by the core belief that ordinary people working together can change history. It's our overall mission to inspire folks to take action, to empower them, and to help them change their world for the better, and to connect them so that they can achieve more together than alone. With that, we have a number of different programs available. We have our leaders' program, which pairs up different civic engagement leaders to move their work forward. Some folks have different nonprofits that they've just started. Others are doing really amazing research and helping out with their communities.

Caro 21:50

You're definitely doing a lot so I get while you would definitely need a multifunctional space that can do a lot of different things. So, pivoting a little bit, tell me about what does it mean to be an operations manager at the Obama Foundation? Are there like multiple operations managers? Do you have different focuses? How is it all structured?

Cristina 22:08

Yeah, that's a great question. I think that's something that we're still learning and figuring out. So, right now, I am the only operations manager at the foundation, but I'm mostly focused on infrastructure and all of the internal operations. We do have a few other teams that have operations roles, such as our programming team—they're running the operations of what our programs look like out in the real world. But then, with the Presidential Center that we're building, we also do have an operations team there that is figuring out what the future operations are going to look like on site at the Presidential Center.

That work is getting done and we're starting to scale for a lot of those roles. But our work, in particular, for my team on the infrastructure side, we're assisting a lot of teams with just general day to day office management resources. We overlap a lot with people operations, as well. We're working very closely with our finance team, our IT team, and our legal team, as well. We're working really closely with a lot of different people in administrative teams to just really set the culture and the engagement for the foundation as a whole.

We have a mission to really build our leaders up externally, but we also want to focus on building our leaders up internally as well. Our team partners a lot with a lot of additional teams to provide the resources needed for that work.

Caro 21:10

Yeah, so really the ops that are keeping things moving internally.

With that, I know that you spent a lot of time thinking about what work looks like. I mean, you've spent your whole career trying to figure out what is work and what does a working workplace look like. [Laughs] But, particularly in this post-COVID world, what does hybrid look like and what does a safe workplace look like? And so, I would love to dig into that a little bit with you. Starting [with how things looked] pre-COVID - was the Obama Foundation hybrid or remote? Was it primarily colocated?

Cristina 24:17

Yeah, it was interesting because we definitely had workspaces. We had some co-working spaces on the West Coast and on the East Coast. Then our two main offices, Chicago is our headquarters and we have a larger office in DC. I say larger, but it's really like 60 people, so probably smaller…

Caro 24:37

It's funny because, to me, that is a large office. Because I'm like a very early-stage startup person and I'm like, 60? That's when I'm like, too many people, someone else take over. Hire Cristina! [Laughs] It's funny how our definitions change.

Wait, how big is the Chicago office now?

Cristina 24:55

Chicago office… we are about, oh God, I think like 120ish, 130.

Caro 25:00

Okay, so definitely the headquarters. So I interrupted you— [crosstalk 00:25:05]-

Cristina 25:09

People worked remotely or from the road pretty frequently. We had a lot of stuff traveling all the time. I think it was very dependent on your team as well. Some teams were always in the office, always had back-to-back meetings. I think if you supported an executive member, that was the norm. But we also had a lot of teams that had a lot more flexibility.

One thing that I've really enjoyed about working here is that we understand that people have lives outside of the office. People have kids, people have passions, people have things that they want to do. And, so, even pre-COVID, it never felt like you needed to be at your desk all the time. If you needed to stay home because you were having a couch delivery, that's fine, work from home. As long as things are getting done in the office, that's all that matters. Usually, we would have backup or something if someone needed to be on site.

Caro 26:03

Exactly! That's how it should be. I wish that wasn't the revolutionary concept. Stuff’s getting done! We're hitting our goals and we have a couch now. [Laughs] We're all good.

Cristina 26:13

Yeah, everything is fine. Nothing is on fire. We were doing a lot of Google Meets and Zoom calls anyway, pre COVID. And so, when we needed to go remote, it just seemed like, okay, business as usual but now I'm just doing it in my sweatpants, not the worst.

Caro 26:30

So, that part was an upgrade, I think for a lot of us.

Cristina 26:35

Exactly, exactly.

Caro 26:36

We already talked about our business up top and party on the bottom before we started today…

Cristina 26:45

Yeah, it's the way of the future, business on top.

Caro 26:46

Exactly. So you transitioned to, I assume, an all-remote for a while there. But two years into this thing, how has work as normal changed since then? And how have you been involved in shaping what that looks like?

Cristina 27:00

Yeah, it's been a whirlwind to say the least. I think we've had at least like three rescheduled office reopenings. The first one—I think we're supposed to go back in November of 2021, held off. There was probably one that was supposed to come sooner, but I wasn't assisting with that one quite yet. Then we were supposed to return in January [of 2022], that got pushed back. Then, finally, we ended up reopening on May 2nd of 2022.

I will say that we were definitely on the more conservative side. We had folks going into the office as needed, if they needed to print things, if they needed to just work at the space… It was available. But we worked really closely with our staff and we asked a lot of questions. We wanted to gauge how people were feeling before we forced everyone to go back to the office without any goals of being in the office. We also have a lot of staff that have young kids or that have immunocompromised family members, or they themselves are immunocompromised.

So there was definitely a sense of needing things to be as flexible as possible for staff and also wanting to have a clearer understanding of, “Why do people need to be in the office?” I think that's something that we're still figuring out. We haven't perfected the return to office… anything. I don't think a lot of people have. But I think the one piece that I'm very proud of with this is that we have done a lot to ensure that staff feel safe and that they feel comfortable and that they do feel like they can take time away. If they do, unfortunately, come down with COVID, they can take time away from their work, or if they need to take care of a family member, they can do that. So, ensuring that the flexibility is in place, but then that we're also providing space for people to come work, was a pretty high priority.

Caro 28:52

It sounds like you got pulled into this big project, somewhere along the way, of thinking about reopening and… This isn't something that people have had to do. Our industry had not had to figure this out before in the same way that it had to be figured out this time. That's not an uncommon place for people to find themselves, like, trying to try to create a new wheel, I guess. But this just feels particularly challenging, particularly as you try to think about understanding the medical needs here and the science involved. So how did you get looped into this or roped into it? [Laughs] And how did you go about approaching, getting yourself up to speed and wrapping your head around what this should look like?

Cristina 29:37

So much reading! [Laughs] So much reading. I will say, early on in the pandemic, I know that our team was definitely the team that was the most attached to our phones and any single COVID update that came in. It's actually funny, right before everything shut down, we were in DC and we had scheduled a meeting with the Gates Foundation. They've already scaled, they've gone through a lot of the stuff that we're just beginning to go through as an organization and we were meeting with their operations team. That team is probably like 30, 40 people, something large, and they're talking to us about, “Oh, yeah, we have sanitation stations set up for COVID-19.” We didn't even know what COVID-19 was at this point. We just knew it as the Coronavirus. This was when like when the Cardi B meme was around. That was like the most that we knew about COVID at this point, right?

And so, they were talking to us about sanitation stations and getting things prepped and if we need to go remote and we're looking at them like… What are you guys talking about? Do we need to worry about this? Two weeks later-

Caro 30:44

Oh, no. In that moment, do you just go along with it? Do you admit that you have no idea what they’re talking about?

Cristina 30:49

We just went along with it. And then I just remember us walking out and being like, "Oh, I wonder if we should start getting concerned about this." Then, as operations folks do, we all go back to the hotel that we're staying at and we start ordering supplies. We start getting some face masks, we start getting some hand sanitizer, things are already starting to run out. So, we're just like, "Okay, let's just order as much as we can and we'll just keep them on site as the offices figure it out."

Then, by the following week, we were starting to have conversations with our executive leadership team on what this could look like and how we should start planning for it. Then, two weeks after, was when everything shut down. So it was just like a very quick, paced very like-

Caro 31:31

It happened fast. Yeah, I feel like we've had that conversation where we're like, "Wait, should we worry about this?" Everyone has that moment.

I will always remember going to the movies. I was in Bangkok when COVID hit and I went to a movie theater and they took my temperature. It was the first time anyone had taken my temperature for COVID prevention. And me and my friend looked at each other like, "Wait, is this like a real thing?" Then two weeks later, booking a last-minute flight back to Mexico, like wild.

So yeah, okay. Well, I'm riveted with the story. Please continue.

Cristina 31:58

Yeah, so we shut down. Then I will say my partner in crime, Amber—she was our DC office manager at the time and I was the Chicago office manager—we were just attached to our phones. It was one of those things where, looking back on it, maybe I should have detached a little bit, but we were watching these cases, we were going back and forth between our team and then the executive leadership team and trying to navigate this when no one has ever navigated something like this before.

So then, obviously, I think everyone knows the story, two weeks turns into two months, which turns into two years. And I would say it wasn't until… probably November of 2021 that we finally got some assistance from the University of Chicago, which we have a lot of close partnerships with just given that we are located in Hyde Park in Chicago.

Caro 31:58

I'm nodding along and then I realized this might be like a very Chicagoan thing of us [to do] where we’re like Obama, yeah, obviously, Hyde Park. Obviously, the Obama Foundation is in Hyde Park, Chicago. [Laughs]

For any non-Chicagoans listening, it's a very famous Chicago neighborhood where Obama and the University of Chicago and the Obama Foundation are all located.

Cristina 33:17

Yes, and I will say Valois is great. If you're ever in the area, come and get some pancakes. It is a go-to spot, one of the best diners in the city. [Laughs]

Anyways, so all of this is happening and we do eventually get paired up with an epidemiologist, Dr. Emily Landon from the University of Chicago. She's done some really great work with Governor J.B. Pritzker, and has even worked with the Chicago Symphony on how to navigate their COVID strategies, which has its own nightmares…

Caro 33:52

Oh god, I just immediately pictured people blowing air into instruments and I was like, oh, wow. Just when you think we're all in this together, like nope, that's an extra level.

Cristina 34:02

Yep! So she has like a pretty lengthy list of things that she's accomplished during this time. And so, we get paired up with her and she's been such a great resource for us in terms of the science and in knowing… Here's when we may see cases rise, here's when we can probably bring people back, here's when we need to start masking again, here's where we can remove masks. And, so, we check in with her like every couple of months now just to make sure that if there's a new wave that's rising, do we need to do anything different?

Again, we've been very conservative. We still require masks in the offices, unless you're by yourself. A lot of it is just because our staff have noted for us that they feel more comfortable having these additional [measures]. While it may feel uncomfortable in the moment, ultimately, it's like for the greater good, and keeping the rest of our staff safe.

It's been a really interesting whirlwind of us being like makeshift Dr. Fauci's in trying to figure out a lot of science, but I will say that… The exciting piece is that this did a massive reset of what workplace operations should and could look like and how to… I think communicating with staff just became such a bigger piece of the operations puzzle during this and really engaging staff.

[Siri interrupts, both laugh]

Caro 35:37

That's so real. We've all had Alexa or Siri or an Apple Watch jump in. I love that.

But yes, no, I agree with you. I feel like staff surveys used to be something you did once or twice a year and it was just… Not that it wasn't thoughtful, but not to the same degree it is now, where it really is more about psychological safety and stuff. I'm really optimistic and hopeful that some of that will carry into the other stuff we've been talking about around crafting belonging, particularly for people who have been traditionally excluded or forgotten about in a workplace. So, I'm glad that you, as someone who's closer to that part of the industry, is seeing that firsthand.

Cristina 36:17

Yeah, it's been interesting to see and I think that there's still a lot to be learned. We maybe have two years of data, if that, right? And so, even when I've joined different conference calls to just talk about hybrid remote work and what the new Corona-normal workplace looks like, no one has it figured out. Everyone is still trying to decide—is it two days in the office? Is it as needed? Do we need to require people to come in?

I think if there's any advice I can impart on folks navigating this as well, it's just keep in touch with your staff. It's been the biggest help for us. We have a really, really good pulse on what staff do and don't feel comfortable with. And while the thoughts of our leadership do matter, they are also willing to really listen to the rest of our staff as well. With them and the guidance that staff feedback has given us, I think that we're better able to make decisions for the long term that just fully engage staff appropriately and really make them feel like they have a reason to come back into the office. That's the biggest trouble right now, right?

I also feel this, like I need to have a reason to be on site. I think the best leaders have definitely started figuring that out. We want to have folks on site once a month because we're going to have one large staff brainstorm session. That is how we're using our time. We're going to be creative with it or we're going to be collaborative with it. And so, it looks different for everyone, but I think the best leaders do keep a pulse on how staff are feeling and what they feel comfortable doing when they're in the office.

Caro 38:07

Yeah, and not just defaulting… like that we need a reason to not be in the office, right? I think that has shifted a little bit. Super interesting.

Well, I guess, maybe a note I would love to end on is, what advice would you give to someone who wants to do ops work like you do?

Cristina 38:27

Oh, man, lean into the ambiguity.

Caro 38:31

Great advice.

Cristina 38:33

Yeah, just lean into it. I think the reason I am at where I am now is because I've just said yes.

Caro 38:40

You raised your hand a lot! That's definitely something that I've learned from your story, the power of raising your hand.

Cristina 38:47

Exactly! Yeah, I raised my hand a lot. I'm sure I got annoyed or frustrated with things. There's a terminology that one of my coworkers uses… It's like, be a duck right? You're-

Caro 39:00

[Laughs] I don't think I've heard this, but I like it already.

Cristina 39:04

[Laughs] Yeah, I love it. The first time I heard it was for one of the Obama Foundation Summits and she's like, "Everything may be going crazy and your feet may be paddling like crazy underneath you. But on top, you'll look like you're gliding and everything is smooth sailing."

I think that operations folks in general, we're ducks. We're really good at being ducks. We know the chaos, but we also know how to put our best foot forward and we know how to navigate.

Caro 39:30

And just keep swimming, right? To quote another lovely Disney movie there, just keep swimming.

Cristina 39:37

Yeah, just keep swimming. And raise your hand. Yeah, lean into it. Things are going to go wrong, but also things are going to go right sometimes and that's when it's going to feel amazing.

Caro 39:50

Yeah, I feel like those pieces of advice you can go far with that.

On the flip side, I always like to ask too, what are you working on this year that you're trying to learn or get better at, that if people are experts on, they should reach out to you?

Cristina 40:02

I think I've mentioned this a few times, we are at the point where we're really starting to scale over the next few years. I think we're about to double in size in the next year. I love when we hit those periods of growth. I think that's what I'm used to, but this has seemed much more different because we have so many different people from different industries, different generations. And, so, I think what I would love in terms of resources or feedback or anything… Caro, I know you also have a lot of thoughts on onboarding.

Caro 40:36

Oh, I do. [Laughs] We can definitely talk about that.

Cristina 40:41

[Laughs] Yeah, it's like resource creation, documentation, just like the whole onboarding process… I think people really enjoy our onboarding. But it's like, once they're done with their first week, how are you setting everyone up for success and how does onboarding last past that initial first week?

Caro 41:00

Yeah, like how does it last those first 90 days, those first six months? What's the check in cadence?

Yeah, I mean, absolutely. We can definitely talk about that. And anybody else who wants to talk about it, maybe we'll have a separate nerd-out session in the Opsy Slack about onboarding and scaling and all those fun topics because there's so many of us that I feel like are dealing with those exact issues. So we came to the right place.

Well, Cristina, thanks so much for diving into all of this with us. It was so great to reconnect with you through the happy joy of the internet and to learn more about your path into tech and into nonprofits. So yeah, thanks again! We'll include all the links, including that Chicago diner rec, in the show notes and that way we can reach out to you and yeah, thanks so much.

Cristina 41:42

Amazing, thank you so much for having me. This was great.

Thanks for listening to Opsy. You can find resources and links from this episode in the show notes at opsy.work. While you're there, I hope you'll take a second to join our free community where we share resources and opportunities that help us all level up in our ops careers. Again, that link is opsy.work. Until next time, stay Opsy, friends!

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