With the difficult 2020–21 academic year now behind us, most people in higher education are looking forward to the fall semester return of students to campus, the disappearance of face masks, and a population largely liberated from the fear of disease; hopefully, they are recharged by some summer down time as well. There is much speculation about the fiscal solvency of some of our institutions, the future of online education, and the number of students we can expect to attend. In the coming months, we will learn the beginnings of these considerations and many more.
Colleges and universities have been announcing their instructional formats (online, hybrid, in person; most will be in person) and vaccination requirements for faculty, staff, and students for the 2021–22 academic year. Decisions that have not been widely announced and are likely being discussed by administration are the expected work locations for faculty and staff. That is, will they be required to return to campus or allowed to remain remote in the fall and beyond? The focus here will be on staff; we will consider faculty in a subsequent article.
To include the maximum number of possible staff types, we will consider staff who might be present at a large, public research university. Those readers from small, liberal arts colleges or regional public universities can adjust numerically and eliminate some categories of staff from their planning. Most institutions had pre-pandemic policies governing remote work by staff. These policies were abruptly put aside when instruction went online and campuses were abandoned. Staff took the material and equipment needed to continue what remained of their work—some staff responsibilities were no longer necessary when students, faculty, other staff, external constituents, and others were no longer there or requiring certain services from them—to their homes and commenced working from there. The real question will be whether the remote work policies will be the same as they were pre-pandemic.
This will be a challenging transition back to campus. While many faculty have continued to work on campus and complete research activities, most staff have worked remotely. They have become accustomed to this and have largely proven they are capable of being effective in the remote setting. From what we have read and learned from conversations with higher education staff, many wish to continue working remotely at least part-time (two to three days per week) and in some cases full time. Reasons they cite are the elimination of commuting time, increased productivity, reduced wardrobe costs, less time spent getting ready for work, and the elimination of the “latchkey children” worry. In addition, they suggest it will free up campus space.
There are also good reasons for continuing with in-person staff. Being present together makes employee cross-training and collaboration easier. In-person work allows for extemporaneous moments of creativity to take place and yield something particularly worthwhile, as well as maintaining a sense of community. Those “aha” moments are often lost when a person is alone and can’t immediately engage others. Integrating new colleagues is more challenging when everyone is remote. Finally, three critical reasons for insisting on in-person work are students’ access to key staff, the challenges supervisors face in monitoring remote staff performance, and the crucial issue of ensuring that the process for granting permission for remote work is equitably applied across staff.
You will note that we did not mention the supervision of the online education of K–12 children of staff as a reason for allowing remote work. This is because many remote work policies disallow the long-term care of others as a reason to work remotely. This policy stipulation was waived during the pandemic-induced shutdown. This means that K–12 schools and day care providers must open and that staff parents will not have the option to keep their children at home.
There is an expectation that staff requesting remote work have spaces at home where they can do that work without interruption and distraction. It would also have to be appropriately equipped to replicate the quality of work that was done on campus. This means a computer for most and internet access for all. If the staff member is remote 100 percent of the time, the institution should provide the computer and other required equipment. The internet access cost may not be covered. The situation with hybrid staff is more complex because two workplaces must be outfitted. If, in the case of two work locations, the staff member must provide the off-site equipment, it must meet minimum university specifications.
Depending on the work the staff member does, the remote space might have to be highly secure space. Staff who work with student academic records, do student advising, work on scholarship eligibility, or work in any type of compensation or personal payment areas would be expected to have their off-site workspace set up in an isolated rather than a shared room. Otherwise, wandering eyes could see student transcripts and probation letters, compensation documents, and other sensitive material. Passwords might also be vulnerable in some locations.
If we take seriously the nature of the off-campus space as it fits with the work of a staff member, then institutions must develop some criteria for those spaces and decide how to determine those spaces’ appropriateness. During the pandemic there was no consideration as to the space in which our staff worked. Thus, the staff member determined its appropriateness. While trusting our employees is tempting and generally important, one has to take into account that staff are people who want to work at home and thus may give themselves the benefit of the doubt. One could go one step further by having the staff member complete a form that has questions about the environment of the space, including other occupants during work hours, as well as security questions. Diagrams of the spaces are a possibility as well.
We will now turn to types of staff and make some assessments as to whether their work can or should be done remotely. Combining those that we find at the department and school levels, we have clerical, professional, technical (academic and research), outreach, IT, marketing, development, administrative research, various types of advising, budget, and human resources staff. Looking at campus-level positions, we have academic services (admissions, enrollment, registrar, bursar, financial aid), research (administrative, pre-award, post-award, compliance, support centers), physical facilities, purchasing, architect services, police, grounds, health and safety, and larger, more complex versions of the types found at the department and school levels. Because we want students to return to campus in the fall, a good rule of thumb may be to have those who directly serve students present on campus. In addition, those who conduct research in science and some professional schools must be present on site. Thus advisers, tutors, lab prep technical, research center support, IT, research technical staff would be totally in person. Physical facilities, police, and grounds staff have their work tied to campus and cannot work remotely. Others on the list could work remotely at least on a part-time (hybrid) basis. The most difficult decisions will come at the department level, where staff are more likely to be one of a kind.
Allowing remote work for some staff will create issues regarding equity. We have already seen that some work cannot be done remotely, some work is best done in-person, and other work is amenable to off-site locations. Another equity issue that will come into play is when two individuals who do the same work (e.g., review academic records for admission to the university) both request to work remotely but have very different home space situations. Consider the following scenario:
Person A belongs to a two-income household where their children are all grown and out on their own. An office will be established in a vacant bedroom. Person B is the only income in the household, and one of their children is a single parent of three young children who has had to move back home due to a loss of employment. There are no vacant rooms, resulting in person B setting up a workstation in the den where the TV is located and where the children play during the day. Distractions and security (student records) are issues for person B.
Should the supervisor approve both requests? Or just the one from person A? How can this situation be equitably resolved while protecting confidential material? It seems reasonable that person A would be allowed but person B would not. Before anyone is granted permission to work remotely, we suggest frank conversations between staff and their supervisors that clarify expectations and explain that working remotely is not an entitlement. Even with this preemptive measure, however, we feel there will still be complaints about equity or discrimination.
To combat this, we encourage supervisors to have open conversations about how employees perceive this transition back to campus. As with any change, people will perceive it as a loss; in this case, it would be a loss of some freedom and perhaps time. It is important that we all acknowledge this unique change while also emphasizing how the individual’s role fits with the mission of the school. In addition, being open about how decisions are made—for instance, what criteria were considered, what various options were considered, and consistently using those criteria across staff in the unit level—will foster higher perceptions of fairness and should mitigate complaints.
It is clear to us that the supervisors of staff who are in-person and remote will have increased responsibilities in staff evaluations. Many will need training in this area as well as in determining the suitability of the at-home environment for remote work, should they be assigned this task. Unlike the pandemic year, when salary increments were unavailable, we should soon return to an improved fiscal state where merit dollars are available to staff. This is another area where equity questions may be raised.
Jane R. Williams, PhD, is associate professor and former interim chair of psychology and associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiatives in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
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