Now is the time for institutional leaders to ask employees what they need to successfully transition back to working on campus. It is also a good time for employees to ask their managers what remote work options will be available in the long term.
In late April, EDUCAUSE conducted a QuickPoll survey asking the higher education technology workforce how they are doing.1 The results of the poll provide great (and timely) insight on how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the work, location, and workload of technology employees. The results also show how the pandemic has impacted these employees as individuals. The looming questions that remain are, "What now?" and "How can institutions embrace new opportunities that may arise?" Institutions need to actively reach out to employees and ask, "What do you need?"
The QuickPoll results summary ends with a look at the work changes that nearly 1,800 respondents said they hope will continue after the pandemic eases. The most impactful of the identified changes, perhaps, were the following three values: collaboration, communication, and transparency.2 Higher education institutions are working hard to provide employees and students with a clear picture of what the immediate future will look like. These three values provide a nice framework to help institutions determine what is needed right now so that they can effectively plan for how to successfully transition employees back to campus.
COLLABORATION: When dates to return to campus are announced, employees will need time to coordinate their disrupted lives. That doesn't mean, however, that all employees' needs will be the same. The following are just some of the things that will require an open dialogue and collaboration among supervisors and their teams so that all employees can return to campus as a supported and committed workforce:
- Childcare: Many states have closed schools and daycare centers for the 2019–2020 year, and some states are looking at remote learning even into 2021. Summer camps and other childcare options may be similarly unavailable. Balancing childcare with a remote work experience cannot be maintained over the long-term. What flexibilities can be put into place that won't unduly burden others or stigmatize those who need accommodations for childcare? What opportunities are available for shift work or adjustable work schedules to accommodate childcare needs over the summer?
- Caregiving: COVID-19 is hallmarked by the number of people who have become infected as well as the severity of the illness. Some employees may be caring for friends or family who have fallen ill. Others may be filling in as temporary caregivers to support family members who may no longer have access to full-time hired caregivers. These employees may require additional time during the recovery period to arrange for family care and, if necessary, to appropriately and responsibly self-quarantine. What information and supporting documentation will employees need to provide to support these needs?
- Personal grooming: Institutions should be sensitive to employees' need to attend to personal grooming prior to returning to campus. In the beginning, it may take time for employees to secure appointments with their barbers or salons. Institutions should plan accordingly so that employees have enough time to make these appointments. Attending to personal grooming will help employees feel comfortable and confident when they return to campus and interact with their colleagues.
- Anxiety: The pandemic has affected individuals in many ways. Some employees may need more time than others to be comfortable ending their social isolation. What accommodations to help these employees gradually transition into their routines will institutions consider?
- Supporting time off: Employees at all levels will need time reschedule and attend appointments, activities, and life events. Some employees may have immediate needs related to their personal health and wellness. It will take time for employees to reclaim the many aspects of their lives that have been put on hold.
- Staggered or rolling returns: Supporting a staggered or rolling return schedule that supports social distancing can help to reduce stress and anxiety among employees. Will there be a way to determine which employees need to return to campus first while also supporting those who need more time before they return?
COMMUNICATION: Returning to campus when there is so much uncertainty can be disconcerting and uncomfortable. Employees will be concerned not only for their own health, but also for the health of their family and friends, and members of the campus community. There are a lot of unknowns, and while it may be difficult for campus leaders to answer all of the open questions, they should be clear about where those conversations are today. Here are some of the topics that need to be communicated to campus employees:
- Return-to-work requirements: Back-office workers appear to be better positioned for remote work than customer-facing employees. It will be important for institutions to account for these differences and have a plan that includes scenarios to allow for staggered employee return dates and options for employees to petition to extend their remote work. Campuses should also have a way to solicit and respond to employees' concerns about returning to work.
- Social distancing guidelines: When employees return to campus, continued social distancing measures may be in place. What—if any—guidelines will the institution have for its students, faculty, and employees? Will those guidelines be the same for all roles (e.g., back-office versus customer-facing employees)? What health and safety requirements will campus visitors be asked to follow, and how will those requirements be enforced?
- Privacy concerns: If employees' health will be monitored, will they be required to share that information? If so, how will health information be reported and recorded, how frequently will it be monitored, and to whom will it be reported? How will that data be protected? What happens if employees must temporarily stop working on campus? Will the employees have to use sick time, or will there be an option for them to work remotely?
- Health and wellness issues: Transitioning back to campus will likely be a cause of stress for supervisors who are tasked with communicating plans to employees while balancing leadership decisions. Will leadership provide an FAQ and offer flexibility to managers and supervisors to support more specific needs of their direct reports?
- Recognizing burnout: Employees at all levels have responded to this crisis to help institutions pivot, adapt, and respond to current needs—all while performing their normal job duties and balancing responsibilities at home. How do institutions protect their workforces from burnout while determining next-stage priorities? How can the new dynamics that are surfacing be used to redefine the expectations of a "typical" work week?
TRANSPARENCY: While the coronavirus pandemic has brought about many changes to where, when, and how people work, it has also presented some potential new opportunities. Campus leaders and employees should have transparent, open discussions about work arrangements. Prior to the pandemic, workforce needs and expectations were already shifting, with some institutions piloting remote work programs. Here are a few topics that leaders should discuss with their employees:
- Equity and fairness: Many employees will want to continue to have remote work options available to them. In reviewing these requests, how will leaders ensure that decisions are equitable and fair? What remote work tools will be provided? What on-premises workforce threshold is required to support campus life? How will employees with limited options for remote work be supported to ensure their preferred time-off requests are supported? How will rotating remote work experiences be managed?
- Remote work tools: There are a variety of remote work tools available that allow employees to stay connected throughout the day. Some of these are free initially but may come with a cost later. How will campuses shift their purchasing efforts to provide tools that meet accessibility requirements while supporting an effective blended work experience?
- Relationships: Working remotely has altered employees' working relationships with each other and, in some cases, provided employees with new insights about the day-to-day lives of their colleagues. Co-workers have seen each other's homes, kids, pets, and more authentic selves. But will employees continue to value their colleagues as professionals if they are not present in the office?
- Responsiveness: Remote work has also changed the traditional workday: some processes are taking longer, impromptu hallway meetings are being replaced with often-longer calendar meetings, and workdays are being interrupted by children, family members, or household concerns. Regular work hours may start earlier in the day or extend later into the evening. As institutions shift back into "business as usual," campus leaders may need to be more agile and flexible in how they define a workday. At the same time, clarifying expectations regarding responsiveness to colleague requests should be determined. For example, how should employees schedule their lunchtime and breaks when they may also be receiving requests for back-to-back meetings throughout the day? What best practices can be documented from this experience?
Many organizations are a few months into remote work. Some employees are curious about whether the opportunity exists to continue working remotely. Would a higher education workforce model that encourages ongoing remote schedules still be able to support the mission of the institution? The results of the EDUCAUSE QuickPoll surveys have provided curated talking points that EDUCAUSE Community Groups can use to generate healthy discussion. We are all in this together. So now we ask you: What do you need now?
For more information about enhancing your skills as a higher education IT manager and leader, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Professional Development Commons blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Career Development page.
The PD Commons blog encourages submissions. Please submit your ideas to [email protected].
- Susan Grajek, "EDUCAUSE COVID-19 QuickPoll Results: The Technology Workforce," Data Bytes (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, April 24, 2020. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
Marcia Dority Baker is the Assistant Director of Academic Technologies, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Teri Abbo is the Director of IT Services Alliance at Oakland University.
© 2020 Marcia Dority Baker and Teri Abbo. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.