The era of flexible work in higher education has begun

Read Time:26 Minute, 5 Second


The COVID-19 pandemic immediately and drastically altered our collective relationship with work.

But how will faculty, staff and administrative jobs look different going forward?

In mid-November, in the brief lull between the onset of the Delta and Omicron variants, Inside Higher Ed’s The Key podcast interviewed administrators at two universities that were out in front in addressing questions a lot of individuals and organizations are wrestling with.

Natalie McKnight is dean of the College of General Studies at Boston University and co-chair of its Committee on the Future of Staff Work, which crafted a new policy allowing many employees to work from home up to two days a week. Bryan Garey is vice president for human resources at Virginia Tech, where nearly 10 percent of the workforce has already qualified to work 100 percent off-site under the university’s evolving flexible work policy. (Listen to the entire podcast episode here.)

The following interviews, first with McKnight and then with Garey, have been edited for clarity and concision.

Inside Higher Ed: Tell us what the Committee on the Future of Staff Work at BU was charged with doing, and what the major issues are that it addressed.

Natalie McKnight: President Bob Brown initiated this committee in February 2021. It has members from all across campus, and he charged us with looking into what kind of remote practices already existed at BU. We didn’t have uniform policies, but we knew there were pockets of people using remote work [before the pandemic]. Then we looked into what was happening in higher ed in general, and did a survey of faculty and staff about their ideas about remote work and how productive they felt they had been. Then we pulled all that together for a proposal about what we thought should be in a remote work policy for BU.

He wanted us to move fast, and we moved fast. We launched in February; we delivered a report to him in July. Then it was launched in August, along with a remote work application online portal, so people could apply. They would be vetted by their immediate supervisor, and then their supervisor’s supervisor would also have to sign off. At this point, we have over a couple of thousand people who have applied for and received [approval for] remote work. We suggested that people in most cases should be able to work two days remotely per week, unless their job was 100 percent forward facing. There are whole sectors, like the police force, and if you work in the cafeteria, you can’t do that job remotely. And some jobs would allow more than that. So we are off and running, and implementing it, and so far, so good.

Inside Higher Ed: This is focused on the nonfaculty employees, correct? What was the high-level thinking there—faculty already have more flexibility in their work?

McKnight: Very few faculty come to work five days a week, eight, nine hours a day around the calendar year. Most faculty, unless they run a research lab, come to campus when they have classes and office hours, and very few faculty have classes five days a week. I’d say three to four days is pretty typical for faculty, so … faculty are already working remotely a lot and always have been.

There are some tensions between faculty and staff, I think, because staff do have to be butt in chair, five days a week, eight, nine hours a day. I think sometimes there’s a little bit of resentment of faculty who maybe don’t show up all summer. They teach a couple of classes, have a couple of office hours, waltz away. And here is staff member X, sitting in her seat and thinking, “Well, jeez, that must be nice.”

During the pandemic, we all saw that a lot of staff work could be done remotely because we were doing it remotely. In the survey we did of faculty and staff, people self-reported that they felt they were more productive working remotely. You might expect that people might want to put a positive spin on their own work. So we asked supervisors, did you feel that people were more productive? And they said yes as well. So there was a general consensus that people were actually very productive working remotely.

So if you know you can do it remotely, you know you can be at least as productive, and you can avoid what has been called the worst traffic in the nation here in Boston—people spend two hours a day on the road. If you can avoid that a couple of days a week and be more productive, well, why wouldn’t you do that?

Inside Higher Ed: A lot of our jobs are hard to measure and quantify productivity. Were you wholly dependent on the surveying for the judgments about productivity?

McKnight: We had internal metrics from our own units about productivity. I’m the dean of a college, and there are certain things we have to get done at certain times every year. And we had to continue to do all those things that we would always do—we’re still teaching, we’re still doing performance evaluations. All of that had to get done. And on top of that, all of the things related to COVID had to get done—compliance checks, testing, attestation—and completely refiguring our program to first fully remote, then hybrid. So everything we always had to do, we did. And then on top of that, we did this whole other layer of things that we’ve never had to do, and it all got done. It’s not just self-reporting, it’s not just delusion—we were able to do everything.

Inside Higher Ed: What were the thorniest issues that arose during the committee’s deliberations?

McKnight: There’s a huge issue around culture. How do you maintain the culture of an organization if this person’s in these three days, this other person’s in these three days? How do you coordinate unit meetings if you never have a single day of the week when everybody is all together? If you’re a large university like Boston University, you cannot come up with a policy that gets that granular that would apply to everybody, which is why it’s very much based on local practices. Your immediate supervisor has to sign off on a specific remote work schedule for you. And the supervisor’s supervisor has to sign off, because somebody in my position needs to look across the board and say, well, do we have adequate coverage on a day-to-day basis across units? But those are the kinds of matters that can be handled locally and should be handled locally.

Who knows where we’ll land? I know it’s not going to be like it is today. And it’s not like it’s going to be like in the pandemic, and it’s not to be like it was before the pandemic.
—Brian Garey, Virginia Tech

But it does raise those larger questions about culture. Bob Brown formed just this fall a task force on understanding BU culture, particularly the culture vis-à-vis these new remote work practices. That’ll be part two: What is our culture? How is remote work affecting that?

Inside Higher Ed: Of the roughly 2,000 staff who’ve been approved for remote work, is there anything that you can say about what you’ve seen so far that would help us understand how it’s unfolding? More women than men because of childcare issues, etc.?

McKnight: Those are great questions, and childcare definitely plays a huge role in this. I think we’re so much in early days here, and these applications are still coming in. My guess is the kind of analysis of the numbers that you’re talking about will probably start happening in the spring semester.

Inside Higher Ed: I’m interested in the competitive landscape. How much of a factor in the committee’s deliberations was the recognition that we’re seeing a cultural shift toward demand for more work-life balance, and that failing to respond to it would put BU at a competitive disadvantage?

McKnight: Huge, huge motivating factor in having the committee and rolling out a policy. Even before we created this committee, and certainly while the committee was meeting, we were already having retention issues, because we’re in Boston. There’s a lot of competition, a lot of great universities in the area. And if some of them are offering remote work and you aren’t, unless you’re offering a ton more money—and even if you were offering a ton more money, you still might lose them because it’s a quality-of-life issue, or it’s the childcare, or just simply wanting to have more work-life balance even if you don’t have children. We’re seeing very much that if you want to hire and you want to retain, you’re going to have to do this. You won’t be a player if you don’t.

Inside Higher Ed: Do you consider this to be an almost perpetual issue going forward? If we’d all been playing closer attention, it was probably an emerging issue beforehand. But do you think that it’s something that you’re probably going to have to revisit consistently? Do you think it’s likely to be something that consistently sort of edges in a particular direction? Do you think we might sort of bounce back and forth?

McKnight: I can’t see going back to not having a remote work policy. I just don’t see any signs that that would work well on any level, nor is there really a reason to do that. That said, some of the remote work applications were approved on a provisional basis, like for a six-month trial period. We will see some shifting, but I don’t see shifting back to a no-remote-work policy. I think that remote work is here to stay. I think if it evolves at all, it will be more remote work, not less. I see the next iteration of this being the four-day workweek. I don’t mean working at home one day a week. I mean, you work from home two days a week, you work here two days a week and you have an additional day off every week. I think that’s going to be the next one.

Inside Higher Ed: That’s addressing a related but slightly different issue of employee burnout, because all of us have been in a marathon that’s been a sprint for the last 18 months. And the sort of overall larger work-life balance issues that a lot of us wrestle with personally, as well as organizationally. When you think about those six-month provisional acceptances, what will individual supervisors and the university be looking at in terms of ultimately judging the impact of this, and the success of it, or lack thereof?

McKnight: All jobs have certain responsibilities, and certainly the first line would be to assess, did the tasks, the job part, get done? And did they get done well? That has to be a supervisor’s viewpoint on that. In addition to that, it’s maybe something a little bit more ephemeral, but communication.

This might be the biggest risk of that remote work, because I have occasionally seen some communication snafus, something missed in email, somebody said something in an email that maybe wasn’t really clear, and if they were just right next door, they might pop in and say, did you mean X? But because they’re not right next door, they don’t. They just go ahead and do something, and it was not the right thing. While I fully think that remote work is going to continue and we’ll get probably more of it, communication issues are going to be something we really have to stay on top of, because I have seen a few dropped balls there.

Inside Higher Ed: You think those issues are going to be visible enough that we’ll be able to judge them?

McKnight: To a degree. In my own college, working with the leadership team, I’m hoping to get us all to … slow down a little bit. I think that’s going to be key to communication. We don’t need to do things instantly, as soon as they hit your inbox. I increasingly have people call me, because my inbox is a big mess. But we’re all in this sprint mode, so I’ve got to do it now, got to do it now. And that’s not always the wisest thing to do. So I think we’re going to have to slow down, catch a breath and maybe be more deliberate and intentional about everything, and then I think the remote work will be fine. It’s just because it’s remote and we’re sprinting, and we at some point stop sprinting.

***

Inside Higher Ed: Can you fill us in on the current state of discussion around remote work at Virginia Tech?

Bryan Garey: We’ve been talking about this subject of what I’ve framed as “flexible work” really since the [start of 2021], when we were still deeply in the throes of the pandemic. But there was a general sense that we needed to look ahead at the post-pandemic university workplace, and how do we actually capitalize on all that we learned from, at that time, almost a year of 80 percent of our population working 100 percent remote.

We all know the story. Within four weeks, we went from a largely in-person environment to a mostly remote environment. I often joke with colleagues that if I had a million dollars and was asked to do a project to get 25 percent of the campus remote within a year, it would cost me a million and a half and I’d have 10 percent remote in a year, and I’d still be working on it. But we did it in four weeks.

So when I started talking about it early in the year, honestly, people kind of rolled their eyes at me a little a bit. I mean, they were very kind and generous, as they are at Virginia Tech, but you could tell they were thinking, “Why are you talking about this?” And, honestly, I think we were on the right track, and I think it helped us, because we have been trying to challenge people to think about how we can harness what we’ve learned and reimagine the workplace in a university environment while still supporting students as fully as we need to.

Inside Higher Ed: I used the word “remote,” you used “flexible.” Tell we what that distinction means.

Garey: It’s a frame I like, because to me, flexible work … embraces certainly where you work—this is where you get into remote or on-site work—but it also looks really differently at work schedules, and allowing people the flexibility to work at different times. It also really embraces a new paradigm about caregiving and work.

There used to be this real separation—you can’t really have kids around or adults if you’re caring for them. And certainly that can be a distraction, and it’s certainly not a no-holds-barred sort of situation, but I think there’s a greater tolerance and respect and understanding that people have fuller, richer lives. And so flexible work may be accommodating some caregiving at times during the workday, allowing people to maybe work different shifts in the day, if it works for their job, in addition to working remotely or in a hybrid environment.

Inside Higher Ed: This is a big set of issues to explore. How do you and your colleagues at Virginia Tech go about attacking the topic?

Garey: We had obviously been tracking our workforce through the pandemic in terms of just trying to get our arms around where are people. That was something we did early to be able to tell the story of the workforce through the pandemic. It wasn’t to monitor people—it was really just to get an understanding of where people are, and are we supporting the university through modified operations. So we had some experience of outreach, data gathering, discussing practices of managing in a remote environment, and technological issues, and Zoom acclimation, all the things we all went through. We really started with a frame of saying, can we establish some guiding principles in our university, recognizing that like many universalities, it’s highly decentralized in terms of decision making and culture?

I worked directly with our president and our senior leaders to start looking at the future of work at our university, but to do it by looking at some practices that we can have consistently, at least at the philosophical level. Then we broke it out by doing outreach at all of our colleges and units to really understand, “Where have you been? What have you learned? Where do you want to be?” And then we could share the guiding principles to say, hey, look, we’re going to give each dean or vice president the autonomy to determine their own strategy, but it will align around these guiding principles so that we can have some consistency across the very complex, large university.

How do you maintain the culture of an organization if this person’s in these three days, this other person’s in these three days? How do you coordinate unit meetings if you never have a single day of the week when everybody is all together?
—Natalie McKnight, Boston University

By and large, that’s worked well, but as you would imagine, it’s had its pros and cons, because you are going to have variation of approach, based on a leader. I don’t see any other way to do it. A one-size-fits-all approach, if you try to have one, is ultimately going to lead to “everybody comes back.” That’s the easy button, in my opinion. It’s much harder to try to live with the nuance and complexity of what I call flexible work than it is to just say, “I want everybody to get back.” A lot of universities are doing that. My opinion is they’re going to pay the price at this time of talent shortage and people really kind of reimagining their careers and their futures. And they’re going to lose people.

Inside Higher Ed: What would you say are the biggest reasons why flexible work is essential for a place like Virginia Tech?

Garey: I think flexible work’s essential, one, because the cat is out of the bag, the genie is out of the bottle—pick whatever metaphor you want. We had a year of working remotely and we were able to, by and large, keep operations going, and you can’t just unwind all of that, and say, “OK, we’re done. Crisis is over. Let’s get back to the way it was before the pandemic.”

Because all the studies you see out … say faculty and staff want more flexibility. They want to preserve some of what they’ve enjoyed and learned through working from home. So I don’t think we have the choice to retreat.

I also think the data show that people are more engaged and more productive. I believe in more hybridized environments. The data’s starting to come out there. It doesn’t mean that fully remote can’t work and doesn’t have advantages. We have to acknowledge that a good third of our roles have no flexibility. They’re either operational or they’re doctors in a clinic, and they’re going to be on-site. You know, that’s just the nature of our operation. So that’s why it’s important.

Inside Higher Ed: What are the biggest potential cons of remote work? Are most of them cultural, or operational related to productivity? What have been the pushback or the arguments you’ve gotten that have been most persuasive … about limits of this?

Garey: There are a lot of cons. They’re legitimate cons. I think it’s what we have to kind of work through.

One is familiarity. People are more familiar with having people around, and that’s what they liked and they missed it. And they were afraid, we all were afraid during the pandemic, and we’re less afraid now. And people just want to go back to that. So some of it is, I’m just more comfortable with one way. So that’s a tough change to navigate.

The other is, it’s a lot harder to lead through a lot of different schedules and modalities. You can’t lead the same way, and let’s face it, we probably didn’t have great leadership to begin with in places. Leadership is hard, it’s complex. Supervisory skills are hard to master. It’s very difficult to be good at being a leader no matter what, and now we’re asking leaders to deal with people that are at home, or they’re working odd hours, or they’re in and out, and they’re doing hybrids. So it’s very easy to go, “I’m tired of this. This is too hard. Let’s just get everybody back here to the way it was.”

I do think it’s harder for people, even at an individual contributor level, you have to take a more active role in communications, relationship building. Everybody’s got to change the way they work for it to work well. And we’re not there yet. So a lot of people just kind of want to throw the baby out with the bathwater in my opinion, and say, “This is ridiculous. It’s not going to last. We’re all going to go back to the way it was, and let’s just do it now.”

Inside Higher Ed: One question that has perplexed me a little bit is this whole question of productivity. Most people if asked believe they were as productive if not more in certain ways. How does a place like Virginia Tech think about and assess employee productivity?

Garey: We get asked a lot about it. And, of course, the flip and cynical answer that I give is, how good were we at measuring productivity before the pandemic? The answer is we’re not very good at measuring productivity. Because then you could say, well, let’s measure it the same way, and we’ll see if we’re more or less productive. I think it’s really hard assessing someone’s productivity.

I really believe that over time as this evolves and matures, it’s really going to force each of us as individual employees, faculty and staff members, to have a really good grasp of the value that we bring in our role. That value is not going to be just because I’m there and showing up.

It could create an opportunity for us to take a deeper look at, OK, your job is to be communication specialist. What does that really mean? What do you do? What do you produce? How do you add value? Then we can account for that, not so much are you in, are you out, are you working late, are you working in the morning? You’re either fulfilling the potential as designed or you’re not. And hopefully, you’re doing it happily and you feel connected, and you’re part of the culture, and all those things that are important. So that’s like four steps away.

I think we need to get back to basics in many ways and really reimagine communications, setting expectations, having regular touch points, all those managerial 101 points that we don’t do very well anyway. I can’t tell you how many people still don’t talk to their people on a regular basis. They don’t carve out time to say, “how are you doing? What’s going on? What’s going well? How can I help you?” They took for granted that they’d run into each other in the workplace. Frankly, they didn’t, but they let it be a possibility.

Inside Higher Ed: How clearly are you differentiating between staff and faculty in your thinking about this?

Garey: We made a really clear distinction between academic faculty, because we recognize that your traditional tenured and research faculty had the most flexible work environment even pre-pandemic. Their work hours—they can even do meetings by Zoom. Faculty meetings are often done virtually. People come and go. They do their research and service in different ways. So we kind of set those aside, because those are part of the culture.

Inside Higher Ed: You have some pilot projects going to test out some possible models. What are some of those, and how may they point the way forward?

Garey: About 85 percent of our IT organization is remote. That’s an interesting experiment, and that’s the most remote we’ve seen in any group. Our advancement group … is really looking at hoteling spaces and really changing how they schedule together time, recognizing that much of their work is done outside of the campus. Engineering is focusing on advising and some of the student services in that college.

We also built what we call “solutions teams” to start really thinking ahead about the core areas that are going to feed us for the long term—technology, space, policies, benefits and wellness, out-of-state employment.

Delta kind of put everything in a limbo state. So I believe it’s going to be another year or two before we settle into something that we can say is stable. And that poses a real challenge, because employees want to be done with this. They want to know, what I do right now is the way it’s going to be forever. And you’ve got to say, “No, we’re not done.” Leaders are done with it. They want to know when is everybody going to come back, largely, and so we’re kind of living with that tension.

Inside Higher Ed: So have you actually approved new remote or flexible work arrangements?

Garey: We did launch a flexible work agreement form—an automated process for a manager and employee theoretically to talk, then to document their work plans for an interval that they put into the agreement. And then it’s automated to remind them when the agreement’s expiring, and then we can pull data from the agreement. Not everybody’s adopted the agreement, but of the 5,500 in this pool, we’ve got over 2,000 agreements filed. A third of those are 100 percent remote. So we have probably close to 10 percent of the entire workforce 100 percent remote, probably 40 to 50 percent have some kind of flexible work agreement. And many have yet to document it.

Inside Higher Ed: Would you say that those numbers are up significantly from three years ago?

Garey: Oh my goodness. It’s radically different. We all sort of did lip service to the idea of flexible work, where, you know, the state would come out and say, “We support remote work,” and then nobody would do it. Or you’d feel really good if maybe one day every month you got to work from home, and then people thought, you know, you weren’t working at all. I mean, it was all these stereotypes and sentiments about it.

Inside Higher Ed: So it really is total before and after to some extent.

Garey: I think so. And yet we’re not done. I really do believe that in the future we’re going to mostly land in the world of the hybrid and we’re going to probably understand through data and experience what hybrids work best for which organizations, and which departments. I think we’re going to need to have intentionality around these in ways that we don’t right now. And I think that’s where a lot of critics come in. They think, well, it’s not working for me. I don’t know where my people are. I don’t know what they’re doing.

Well, there’s something you can do about that. Maybe you schedule a day where everybody’s in together, and you have some meetings in person that are very intentional, or you have one-on-ones in person, again, assuming it’s safe to do so. But that takes intentionality that we haven’t had before because everybody was just here, and you’d have a meeting, and the only way you had a meeting was in person.

Who knows where we’ll land? I know it’s not going to be like it is today. And it’s not like it’s going to be like in the pandemic, and it’s not to be like it was before the pandemic. We still don’t exactly know where we’re going to be. But the element that I’m fascinated by is never has the employee been as powerful as they are right now in our lifetime. It is an employee market.

Some folks are going to have to experience flight and attrition before they realize we have to pay more, which people are realizing. But it’s not just pay. It’s about engagement, supervision, belonging, sense of mission, feeling that work is valuable, that you’re getting valued for the work you do and appreciation, things that we all know about but not enough people do.

Inside Higher Ed: There is an increased interest among people my kids’ age in greater work-life balance. That’s why your focus on flexibility is probably the right one. It’s not that people want to work less hard—they just want to work differently, and they do want to have more control. And that’s hard for us as employers sometimes to grapple with.

Garey: I think that’s right on. It’s not that people don’t want to work. That is often a stereotype. That millennial generation, which are now turning 40, and then the Generation Z, they have a different relationship to work. They’re digital natives, and they’re willing to work on their phone or in the evening, and they also want to be able to break away and do things. And in many ways, they could teach us older people to not necessarily be wedded to, I’m only working if I’m behind my desk or in my office a certain amount of time.

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