How one team led one of campus’ largest initiatives through innovation

How one team led one of campus’ largest initiatives through innovation
Wednesday, April 21, 2021

What defines innovation? Often, it means coming up with solutions to maneuver tight corners, navigate tough situations and overcome boundaries. 

Each year, UNC Charlotte recognizes an employee who has done just that: initiated research or successfully established new and outstanding methods, practices, plans or designs benefiting the University and the community. For this year, it was the efforts of not one individual but a cross-functional team recognized as recipients of the 2021 Employee of the Year Award for innovation.

The “Return to Campus” team, Rachel Skipworth, bookstore and licensing manager; Rick Torres, reprographics, vending and ATM program manager; Horace Lytch, mail and package services director; and Katharina Findlater, executive assistant to the vice chancellor of Business Affairs; were tasked with organizing and delegating the assembly and the delivery of 35,000 Welcome Back to Campus kits for faculty, staff and students.  

Return to Campus kitsIn May 2020, the University launched an initiative to provide everyone in the campus community a Welcome Back to Campus kit to help navigate the pandemic while on campus. Each kit contained a folder with general safety information, including an Emergency Management wallet card and handout. A laptop Niner Pledge sticker, a trifold brochure with safety information and a letter from Chancellor Gaber were included in the kit, too. Each kit contained a clear, stadium-approved UNC Charlotte tote bag, two branded and reusable cloth face coverings, three disposable masks, one refillable hand sanitizer and a thermometer. 

Together, the group managed more than 560,000 items and oversaw 200 volunteer hours each day during an eight-day period. 

“There are a few words to describe the dedication and the hard work put forth to create the return to campus kits for the University,” said Rich Steele, associate vice chancellor of Business Affairs. “The days were extremely long, and the work was physically very demanding. This had to be one of the largest logistics efforts in the history of the University —with a lofty goal of saving lives.” 

There were many obstacles they had to overcome prior to and after the kits were assembled. The team worked many additional hours per week on top of their normal jobs for several months and found creative solutions to some of the toughest logistical challenges imaginable. 

Every item was hand assembled, which meant recruiting volunteers and ensuring there were enough people to meet the task at hand. The operation took place in shifts at the Barnhardt Student Activity Center, taking up two of the basketball courts. 

Then came the task of distribution, scouting and picking out the best locations for pickup and event promotion, as well as securing the technology to verify when and if a kit was successfully claimed. With many students off campus, they had to mail numerous kits that were not picked up. Each student’s address had to be verified, and each kit had to be labeled and mailed. 

“COVID-19 created numerous unprecedented obstacles for the University. Most notably the logistical puzzle of safely returning 35,000 people to campus amid a pandemic,” said Robin Sutton, director of marketing in business services and the one who nominated the team. “The Welcome Back to Campus Kits could not have been created without these four dedicated employees and for that, they are well-deserving of the highest recognition the University can bestow.”

In an unprecedented time, where logistical challenges were at every turn, this team completed the task with innovation and creative methods, winning the 2021 Employee of the Year Award for innovation. All winners will be acknowledged at the Employee of the Year awards ceremony at 2:30 p.m., April 23. UNC Charlotte encourages employees to participate to encourage and celebrate the success of the winners for 2021. Register for the virtual event here

They potentially will be advanced as a campus nominee for the Governor’s Awards for Excellence, the highest honor a state employee may receive for dedicated service to North Carolina and its residents.

Photos, top, Innovation Employee of the Year recipients Katharina Findlater, Rachel Skipworth, Horace Lytch and Rick Torres, and inset, the components of the Welcome Back to Campus kits.