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Last Thursday afternoon, Peter Dougenik, a cook in the Lowell House dining hall, moved quickly and expertly through his newly-renovated kitchen area, preparing for dinner.
"This place is up and running, and it's running pretty good," he says as he slides a tray of chicken breasts into the oven. "There hasn't been a major difference. It's the same basic menu, the same basic job. Everything went smooth."
Dougenik's nonchalance comes in sharp contrast to the upheaval experienced by staff in Eliot and Kirkland Houses as they dealt with a similar remodeling project a year ago. Workers there said mechanical failures, increased physical labor and adjusting to an entirely new workspace were taking their toll on staff morale and sanity.
Things haven't been perfect following the renovation of the Lowell and Winthrop House dining halls this summer, but managers and staff say the transition has been considerably smoother--thanks mostly to an extra year's worth of experience getting a new dining hall up and running.
"Every time you start a new place, you have similar difficulties," says Michael Kann, chief of residential dining for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS). "But having Eliot and Kirkland behind us was very good. Forewarning is half the battle."
No Way to Know
"There was no way to put them through what it would be like," he says.
But with Winthrop and Lowell, administrators were able to better prepare the staff for the upcoming renovations.
Beginning in January, cooks were able to rotate through the Eliot and Kirkland kitchens in order to familiarize themselves with the new equipment and different styles of cooking.
Under the new design, chefs cook smaller dishes of food more frequently--something which some chefs last year said was too taxing.
"One of the things that is most challenging is sauting," says Rosemary McGahey, associate director of residential dining. "It's surprising how unwieldy it can be. Having a lot of months to practice made [the cooks] very prepared."
Administrators also initiated regular meetings with the staff in order to share prospective floor plans as well as work on teambuilding exercises.
In addition, the staff was brought in over the summer for a series of barbecues to let them see how the renovations were progressing and offer their input.
"A lot of what we see [in the dining halls] comes from what they told us," says Angelo Dalla-Santa, general manager of the Lowell and Winthrop dining halls. "We got [staff] the equipment they wanted, and they're proud to work in their kitchens."
Some workers say the administration is more open to their comments.
"I don't know what they say behind closed doors, but they did seem receptive to us," says Gregory Lee, a Winthrop House cook.
Administrators say that teambuilding between the Lowell and Winthrop dining halls was key since the two halls would be merging certain function--such as the dish room--after the renovations were complete.
McGahey says HUDS tried to start meetings off with different "energizers" such as a juggling activity with stuffed animals and a teambuilding exercise using a balance beam.
But some workers say that although the administration had good intentions, they may have overdone it with the games.
"We're all grown ups, no kids here," Lee says. "They kept overemphasizing certain things in the team aspect. We were going to work together no matter what, they didn't need to keep stressing it. If we had only a few meetings, the outcome would've been the same."
Dougenik says the motivations behind the frequent teambuilding and planning meetings were good, but the meetings themselves sometimes added extra stress.
"We don't have time to sit down all afternoon for a meeting when we have a job to do," he says. "The meetings were helpful except they were time consuming, and we didn't have the time."
Ultimately, many say, knowing what to expect was what really helped smooth the way for Lowell and Winthrop.
"Showing us how to use these," Dougenik says, gesturing to his cooking burners and supplies, "was the only training we really needed."
Lee says that overall, workers are happier in their new dining halls.
"There are bad and good points to all of it," he says. "Some people don't get along. There have been tensions in the dish room. But I think we're more happy because of the way it looks."
And although there have been problems, Lee says the management has been more open to change.
"Managers are receptive--they have to be," he says. "Everyone is looking in on this place."
Lee says the management has also been very forthcoming with praise for the workers, but it could do more to recognize the employees' effort.
"I know a lot of companies and corporations that give employees something for appreciation. Harvard should do more of that," he says. "They should do more for thanks. I think they're trying. They say it to us a lot. But actions speak louder than words."
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