Last month, Jen O’Malley Dillon (LA’98) was given the daunting task of leading a team of people she barely had the chance to meet. As the Biden campaign’s newly selected campaign manager, she was given just one day to meet her new co-workers before COVID-19 forced the campaign into remote working.
In her one day with the whole team at the campaign’s Philadelphia headquarters, O’Malley Dillon, a Massachusetts native, did her best to lay the groundwork for strong teamwork and interpersonal relationships.
“The first day … [as] I was introducing myself to the campaign … we had to tell everyone that the next day, everyone would have to work remotely, and we didn’t know how long that would be,” O’Malley Dillon said.
COVID-19 has changed how O’Malley Dillon has worked to create relationships, as well as how the Biden campaign as a whole functions.
“From the beginning of my tenure here, we really have had to flip upside down all the things that we know and we traditionally do in campaigns,” she said. “I was most focused on the first day in making sure that I had the opportunity to greet and meet all the staff to make sure that they knew that even though I was coming in late that I had so much respect for what they had done.”
At this point, in the middle of March, the Biden campaign had employees spread across the country in temporary housing, moving from primary to primary. Given how quickly the COVID-19 situation was escalating, the campaign and O’Malley Dillon decided that it was their responsibility to make sure their staff members around the country were able to return to their homes safely.
Despite all of the reshuffling, O’Malley Dillon told the campaign staff on her first day that it was her priority to keep the staff engaged with each other and the campaign running smoothly.
“I committed to making sure that we all stayed connected. We didn’t know exactly what this was going to look like but we’re going to work together to figure it out,” O’Malley Dillon said. “And I think sometimes when you voice that there’s uncertainty but that we’re going to work together to solve something, that’s honest, and it’s authentic, and it’s real, right? Nobody has all the answers to what we’re going through. And I think being able to talk, in an honest way, was really important, and it’s still important, and it empowers people to have a voice in figuring this out together.”
Since then, O’Malley Dillon has been working tirelessly to keep the human element in the Biden campaign.
“When you’re managing something like this, it’s [about] how do you show up for your team, especially in times like right now where we’re not able to physically see each other,” she said. “Every single week, we have an all-staff Google Hangouts meeting where everyone can see everyone else. We start it with music, and we end it with people telling stories about what’s going on in their lives, and we try to think of that as our home base.”
Looking back, O’Malley Dillon credits much of her success and who she is today to her time at Tufts, where she said she made many of her closest friends. At Tufts, O’Malley Dillon played on the softball team, where she gained many of the teamwork and leadership skills that are so essential to her job today, especially in a time of crisis.
“I am absolutely who I am today in part because of Tufts softball,” O’Malley Dillon said. “The leadership experience and being part of teams are a really big part of my background, [and] Tufts softball was just one of those really critical things about my life.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only forced Biden’s whole campaign staff to work remotely, but has also overturned conventional campaign methods.
“How do we reach people in this new environment? How do you have a political conversation when people are struggling with maintaining a roof over their head or finding food? How do you talk about a primary contest when there are stay-at-home orders?” O’Malley Dillon said.
In addition to people not being receptive to political messages as they face crisis, it has also become more difficult to reach people at all.
Door-to-door campaigning, which O’Malley Dillon calls the “gold standard of campaigning” for the way it engages people and makes them feel recognized, is impossible for a country in quarantine. To make up for this and to be sensitive to people’s needs in a difficult time, the Biden campaign has adopted new strategies.
“If you’re on our email list, for instance, we want to make sure you have the opportunity to unsubscribe and even unsubscribe for a couple weeks because you just need some time out from getting this content, but not forever,” O’Malley Dillon said. “We are adjusting the tone and the way we’re engaging with people.”
O’Malley Dillon said Biden has been focusing on listening to the needs of the people in this country during the current pandemic.
“One of the things I think that is missing in the discussion from the administration is the people that are on the front lines, the everyday people that are impacted economically and physically, because of this virus,” she said. “Biden … is talking to real people about what’s happening in this country.”
This means reaching out to supporters across the nation.
“We’re spending our time reaching out to people in our communities, our supporters, all across the country … and instead of saying, ‘How do you feel about this election? Are you supporting us?’ we’re actually saying, ‘How are you doing? We’re just here to check in. We want to make sure you’re doing okay. Is there anything we can do?’” O’Malley Dillon said.
O’Malley Dillon feels that her personal experience with Biden has been similar to how he presents himself to voters during the campaign.
“He’s the exact person on the stage or on TV as he is in his personal life,” she said. “Because he has that connection to people, because his life has been a challenge in many ways, but also a blessing in so many more, he can really connect and relate to what people are going through and has the empathy to show up for them.”
While she prioritizes building connections within the campaign and with potential supporters, O’Malley Dillon makes sure to take time every day to spend with those she holds dear.
Part of that is spending time with her three young children. Every day, she makes sure to set aside time to spend them without the interruption of work. In fact, she set a clear end time for her interview with the Daily to make sure it did not extend into her “family block.”
O’Malley Dillon says being a mother and woman is a central part of her identity.
“So often women in the professional world shy away from or are discouraged from talking about their personal lives or the impacts that their family has on their choices,” she said. “And I feel that I have a responsibility to talk about the fact that I am trying to juggle this.”
O’Malley said she is attempting to adapt to her children’s at-home education by providing constructive lessons, but that, like everyone else’s experiences, it has been “chaos” and “a mess.” Despite these challenges, O’Malley Dillon finds a way forward.
“So, to me, I think as a mom and a mom to young kids, I want other women to know that you can figure this out, that we should be leading this stuff with the big jobs,” she said. “There’s a real opportunity to have all the things, it’s just balancing them at different times and in different ways.”