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Can remote work save higher ed from the great resignation?

Can remote work save higher ed from the great resignation?

Chances are high that multiple articles have come across your feed about the great resignation, staff morale, or employee disengagement. The spring is usually a heavy recruitment season for entry-level positions in student affairs. But this year, there are openings all across the board.

It’s a candidate’s market, which means more power for job seekers and an attraction to currently employed campus pros.

Last week, Marci Walton, a feature in my book Digital Leadership in Higher Education, beckoned in the Chronicle of Higher Ed in an invited piece, “Right Now, Your Best Employees Are Eyeing the Exits.” 

She wrote why people are leaving:

“Very little is keeping them at your institution. You are hemorrhaging talent and institutional knowledge. The pandemic has forced many labor sectors to fundamentally shift how they view work, and if campus leaders fail to do the same, no one will be left to help you “get back to the way things used to be.”

Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asked in interviews and speaking engagement requests to speak to the future of higher ed, especially related to employee engagement, retention, and recruitment. 

Maybe it was my tweet asking, “What’s on your vision board for the future of higher ed?

Or this one, which also prompted my writing today:

Remote work = is work

I have worked from home since 2013, far before the stay-at-home orders of 2020. I went through the trials of internet connections, supportive chairs, Zoom backgrounds, and more. You, too, probably went through these challenges, whether just for a couple of months or a couple of years.

While working from home, some romanticized and missed campus-based work and in-person experiences. Others saw increased productivity and flow states working remotely.

At the time of writing, the significant majority of staff and faculty have been “called” back to campus. The culture and norms of campus operations are too great, even when employees have attempted negotiating one or two days of remote work. Some have succeeded, some have not.

Deep down, could campuses be scared? Not of COVID-19, but from not being a campus anymore. This change in how we deliver services is far too significant to stomach. If we do not physically fill our buildings, classrooms, and offices – are we even a campus anymore? 

So staff, faculty, and students add hours to their days to “be” a campus again: commuting, finding parking (campus pros get this common agony), and walking to their classes, offices, or meetings. I’ve lost track of the number of campus professionals that remark that most of their meetings still occur on Zoom, and the in-person events/programs continue to struggle with attendance.

There is a spark and specialness to in-person events, meetings, and experiences. For the first time in over two years, I spoke on a stage, in-person, a couple of weeks ago. I loved it! But it takes a lot of campus resources (and my own human capital – energy, time, dog care, etc.) to get me there. 

Here’s the thing – not everything needs to be in-person, and not everything should be on Zoom/remote/digital.

The problem is that so many campuses have already made inflexible decisions on how services will be delivered, which include no remote work options. At the same time, vacant positions remain open, searches are unsuccessful, and current employees from all pockets of campus are preparing for or are currently in their career transitions.

This is why we are seeing campus pros leave in droves to EdTech, campus partners at consultancies and search firms, or an entirely different industry altogether.

Is it even a Remote possibility?

While writing and researching this piece, I couldn’t help but ask the Twitterverse about remote work. Specifically, I asked:

The responses are informative and, I may even say, inspiring. Here is just a sample of responses:

  • 5 remote days per pay period. Employees need to apply and include a work plan. Needs to be approved by the immediate supervisor and division head. Still calling it a “telecommuting pilot.” 
  • 3 days on-site and 2 days remote. We have one unit fully remote but the rest are mostly hybrid and for now, it is the mode of work moving forward. 
  • 40% remote (2 days in a 5 day week) with no need to negotiate and it’s indefinite. Very flexible on additional days to fit around life needs as well as long as we are flexible back. Really happy with how we’ve adapted. ☺️
  • I will be allowed to work hybrid after I hit 6 months at my college (8 weeks to go!). The deal is in-person 2 days a week minimum. We get to set the schedule. It’s indefinite and is written into my non-union contract.
  • I’ve allowed my unit to design their own flexibility. There is a mutual understanding of when they need to be physically present while also getting the work done remotely. We utilize the remote/office feature on google calendar, so people know where folks are.

While a content analysis and Twitter bio comparison would be interesting to conduct in order to explore connections between division, duties, positions, and remote options, these initial responses are certainly promising. 

Certain positions and areas of campus may have been earlier to adopt hybrid work due to work functions. For example, I’ve seen a solid uptick in remote or hybrid work among marketing and communications pros. However, I also didn’t notice many, if any, community college pros responding in the thread.

Flexing to Retain Your Staff

Another major thing I noticed from the Twitter thread is that campus policies seem to be all over the place. I was also messaged privately that some supervisors/managers may offer more flexible options to their staff unofficially that go against institutional policies.

I don’t blame them! Managers at the mid to executive level are getting crushed from losing more and more staff. In Marci’s Chronicle article, one of her takeaways was for campuses to embrace remote work as a means to retain and attract employees. Related, we must make staff retention just as crucial as student retention. 

As I looked for hints of campuses even considering this philosophy, I found the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. In 2021, they surveyed 631 employees to understand better how the pandemic impacted them. Alarmingly, they found that 73% showed at least one sign of PTSD, and 40% reported three or more symptoms.

The survey also asked about coping strategies for staff and faculty and space to express the future of the UW workplace to better support employee health holistically. Again, I was not surprised to see these results:

“There was a near-unanimous agreement on one thing: They wanted a flexible schedule and work-from-home opportunities, forever. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents said that working from home represented a life improvement, and more than 60 percent said they’d spent more time with family or friends during the pandemic.”

There are a few lessons we can take from these results. 

Take timely employee data into immediate action. 

Don’t make your exit interviews how you assess your campus culture or employee wellness. Even if the results are hard to hear, you need to constantly ask your people how they are doing, how they work best, and maybe even get a pulse if they have one foot out the door. And then do something about it. I hope UW continues repeating this survey tool as a benchmark and means to improve. 

Rutgers University has created the Future of Work (FoW) Task Force to unpack lessons learned since March 2022. There are several tools the task force has deployed to meet their goal of creating “an inclusive process to help the university community collectively reflect on the last 19 months. In some cases, the remote work experiment, to determine our best path forward.” Some of these include a survey for staff and faculty, a survey for students, a listening tour, and a town hall. Of course, just because you have a task force doesn’t mean you’ve solved all the problems, but I will be especially paying attention to the outcome for this one.

We all should be paying attention to the industry. These decisions and models we set now will build momentum for the future of work. I find these conversations exciting, but at a deeper level – it’s not just about policies – it’s about people.

Create a Community of Care. 

At UW Milwaukee, they are working toward trauma-informed practices, not just fluff self-care statements. I’ve been calling for human-centered communication for years. We don’t need a perfectly crafted email or state of the union. Speak like a person who actually sees their people in need of connection, appreciation, and so much more.

For example, to increase staff appreciation, the division of Student Affairs at Texas A&M created the campaign Behind the Scenes with Students Affairs. They describe the human-centered storytelling initiative as,

“More than 600 human beings work under the Division of Student Affairs umbrella at Texas A&M University. Each individual brings a unique background, knowledge, talents, thoughts, and actions to their work, all for the benefit of students. Whether they work literally behind the curtain of Rudder Auditorium, in a back office at Hullaballoo Hall, or mentoring student organizations in Koldus, every person has a story that is an essential chapter in the Texas A&M narrative. In Behind the Scenes With Student Affairs, we hope to introduce you to their stories.”

Sttttrrreeetccccchhh your definitions of what is work. 

Call it flex, remote, telework, hybrid, whatever. If you have even a chance of holding onto your people while recruiting your next pipeline, this is not optional. I believe those campuses that do not reconsider their policies will continue to struggle. I do not want this for them, but there is too much competition for candidates and current staff to look elsewhere. 

I know we are oh-so tired of change. The word “re-imagining” has turned into a trigger. Yet, at the same time, campuses always seem to move slowly. I get it. After two years of disruption, we could all use a siesta or two. But there is a way to pivot and pause to take on this challenge that is grounded in purpose. You can start small and build up to remote options. 

It’s called flex for a reason – it’s not all or nothing.

Offering your people more flexible work isn’t one size fits all. In the Twitter thread, most responses were not 100% WFH. A couple campus pros shared they wanted to be 100% on campus! I encourage a personalized approach.

While we are on the topic, what are all the tools at your disposal as you look at the collective career/tenure of your staff/faculty? In the piece After the Great Pivot Should Come the Great Pause, the authors list several ideas to get you thinking about time and work delivery for faculty and staff, such as expanding sabbaticals, release time, easing workloads, and cross-campus workgroups. In another piece, Melissa Farmer Richards proposes staff sabbaticals to “refresh your mind and spirit as well as to accomplish a meaningful project.”

Caring for the Humans of Higher Ed

I attempt to wrap up my writing today with an article that just hit my inbox from two Vice Presidents for Student Affairs, Leanna Fenneberg, and D’Andra Mull, called Successful Strategies to Motivate and Reward Teams.

Numerous strategies are listed that I’d encourage you to explore, but the one that immediately resonated considering remote work was this one: Center humanity.

You can give your team all the flexibility, independence, and remote possibilities – but if you aren’t fully seeing and valuing them, you’re doing it wrong. 

Leanna and D’Andra encourage leaders to listen to the challenges your people face. Have continually reflective conversations, just not about work functions and outputs. But don’t just acknowledge the hard work your people put in. Instead, take care of these humans.

There isn’t going to be one thing that will “save” any industry from the current wave of employee resignations. Nevertheless, campuses are determined to get back to normal and return to the way things were. But at what cost? 

When will it be too much not to consider flexible options? When you have entirely burned out and need to take leave? When 50% of your team has left? When 50% of your jobs remain unfilled?

Human capital is priceless, let alone the cost to run a successful search. Higher ed can’t afford the loss. Can you afford to lose another team member? Hundreds (and hundreds) have left. For those that remain, it will be the campuses and leaders that serve and support these humans holistically – with heart, soul, mind, and body – that will stay.

Higher education employees have been through it. Yet, who is caring for them? I implore you. We must extend the same endless care we give to students to those entrusted to serve them on our campuses.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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