COVID-19 has made higher education a virtualized industry. While online learning is the most conspicuous part of this new reality, a quieter but arguably more successful achievement has been the ease with which institutions shifted overnight from campus-bound to remote administrative operations. To its surprise, higher education learned that it had an infrastructure and a workforce flexible enough to adopt new modes of work.
But these crisis conditions shouldn’t obscure the fact that higher education’s work practices remain highly traditional. Leaders have a lot to learn about how to translate our legacy work regime into a virtual environment.
To help institutions understand how they can successfully realize the benefits of a virtualized administrative workforce, EAB is conducting research on remote work policies and practices both inside and outside higher education. Read on to understand the opportunities and risks of a transformation that higher ed leaders tell us is here to stay.
Opportunity 1: Cultivate engagement in the virtual workforce
As the pandemic has dragged on, many leaders worry that staff feel increasingly stressed and detached from the social support they found in day-to-day office interactions. Research shows that though most employees desire a remote work option, they prefer a mixture of office and home work, and dislike extended isolation. Executives and managers may feel that the inability to collect interpersonal cues leaves morale issues hidden—a problem higher education’s lack of experience with remote work amplifies.
Colleges and universities can learn a lot about managing a remote workforce from companies like Gitlab, an all-remote tech company that emphasizes the need to “be intentional about designing informal communication when it cannot happen organically in the office.” Gitlab uses extensive process documentation, meeting recordings, and a remarkable variety of online social interaction opportunities—including hobby show-and-tells, music sharing, and “juice box chats” to which children are invited—to help people connect and perform as teams.
Some higher education institutions are promoting staff well-being with structured outreach that goes beyond regular management check-ins. At one US public university, the Office of the CIO called every IT employee, asking how they were doing and offering a small-group, non-work meeting with the CIO to check in and ask questions. The result was staff appreciation for their concern and the uncovering of issues that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Opportunity 2: Address work-at-home inequities
Virtual operations that leverage living spaces and home utilities have elevated equity issues that existed but were rarely addressed pre-pandemic. Many institutions are providing laptops or Wi-Fi hotspots for staff who need them., but the University of California at Berkeley has gone a step further, offering to provide ergonomic chairs for employees who can demonstrate a medical need for one. At one UK institution, administrators set aside socially distanced office space for workers who have difficult or unsuitable home environments.
Needs and resources will vary, but all institutions that see an extended future for remote work must confront barriers that could exclude some employees or frustrate institutional workforce diversity and health goals.
Opportunity 3: Improve processes by virtualizing them
Workforce dispersion has forced institutions to recognize what CIOs and other process improvement advocates have long known: digitized processes can be much faster and smoother than manual ones. Virtualization has reaped a harvest of low-hanging fruit that might have been picked a long time ago. Among the overdue reforms are the replacement of physical signatures with digital ones, digitizing of paper forms, and increased uptake of conferencing and messaging tools.
No less significantly, COVID-19 has proved that change can happen quickly. At one institution, automation of an overly complex employee benefit process languished for two years before Covid-driven simplifications allowed it to be implemented in a few weeks.
Easy wins like these have made it clear that there is a lot of room for improvement in processes that seemed acceptable in traditional work circumstances. Leaders re-thinking work roles now and in the aftermath of the pandemic should incorporate more intentional and ambitious process improvement initiatives into the transformation.
Opportunity 4: Drive down institutional costs
Institutional leaders tell us they are keen to leverage remote work to reduce demand for office space and parking, and to help them retain employees and compete in difficult employment markets. These and other benefits can add up to significant financial gains. The HR research firm Global Workforce Analytics estimates that savings and productivity gains from working remote 40% of the time add up to over $7 million annually for a 1000-person workforce. Besides these employer gains, employees themselves save about $2000 each annually, mostly in reduced commute costs.
Such savings aren’t automatic. It may be impossible to cut back on office space, for example, if remote work fails to reach a certain threshold, or if offices are widely distributed in hard-to-consolidate nooks and crannies. Institutions need to actively design a work regime that sets realistic goals and that aligns with campus culture. That said, the pandemic has softened some attitudes that in the past put cultural constraints on efficiency and space utilization. In EAB’s recent working groups for senior facilities officers, for example, 78% of participants agreed that institutional staff would accept hoteling or hot-desking arrangements in return for expanded flexible work options.
Opportunity 5: Treat remote work as a strategic asset
The key lesson of the pandemic-driven experiment in virtual operations is that remote work works. This shouldn’t be surprising; one widely-cited study found productivity gains of 13% among call center workers randomly assigned to remote work and 22% among those who self-selected. But EAB’s review of dozens of institutional telework policies that were in place pre-pandemic found remote work tightly circumscribed, limited by an implicit concern that employees would abuse the opportunity to work at home.
By exploding myths that previously dominated our policies, COVID-19 has set the stage for a radical reappraisal of how we mix on- and off-campus work. Leaders need to exploit remote work for what it is—a unique, previously untapped asset that can help us with the financial and strategic challenges that await even after the pandemic is over.
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