We asked HR leaders what’s top of mind heading into the summer, fall, and beyond. Here’s what they said.

Expert Insight

We asked HR leaders what’s top of mind heading into the summer, fall, and beyond. Here’s what they said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced campus human resources (HR) leaders to balance rapidly evolving staffing needs with pressures to manage labor costs. To help institutions thread the needle, EAB facilitated three one-hour working sessions for senior HR and finance leaders. Leaders from 18 institutions in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. joined the conversations. Participants discussed ongoing COVID-19 workforce concerns and their responses.

In case you missed these sessions or want a recap, we’ve summarized seven questions on HR leaders’ minds and key takeaways from the conversations.

1. How have institutions incorporated workforce considerations into their COVID-19 response efforts, and what roles have senior HR leaders played in the process?

HR leaders assumed critical roles in shaping their institutions’ crisis response but are increasingly feeling spread thin. Most HR leaders reported active involvement in both cabinet-level crisis response conversations and emergency response committees. Many shared that their institutions leveraged HR expertise to create effective, targeted crisis communications for faculty and staff. At the same time, several participants expressed symptoms of meeting fatigue and frustration due to constantly evolving governmental and public health guidelines.


of participants said that making Reductions in Force (RIF) decisions is their most urgent concern
of participants said that making Reductions in Force (RIF) decisions is their most urgent concern

2. What labor cost containment strategies do institutions intend to pursue across the summer and fall?

Many institutions are delaying making major workforce decisions until they have actual fall enrollment data. Some plan to use reductions in force (RIFs) as a last-resort cost-cutting measure. When asked to rank their current priorities, approximately 50% of participants across sessions reported that making RIF decisions is their most urgent concern. That said, most plan to implement RIFs as a last-resort measure if their institutions do not meet certain FY21 financial targets.

In the short term, institutions in both the U.S. and U.K. are relying on natural attrition and hiring freezes as their primary labor cost management strategies, with some planning to offer buyouts and early retirement packages over the summer. Most leaders also plan to continue using furloughs and salary reductions to contain costs as they await greater clarity on fall enrollments (and correspondingly, FY21 revenues).

3. What are the pandemic’s long-term implications for the higher ed workforce?

HR leaders are assessing the medium- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 and thinking strategically about their workforce. Several leaders raised questions and ideas about the pandemic’s long-term impact on the future of higher ed administration. Leaders in the U.K., for example, envision a blended in-person and remote workforce, which could allow their institutions to expand their talent pipeline and reduce costs by shrinking their physical campus footprint. However, the shift would require leaders to develop new management skills and protocols to better support remote employees.

4. What are the logistical considerations associated with bringing staff back in the fall (e.g., on-campus staffing levels, testing strategies)?

As campus leaders grapple with the logistical hurdles of a return to campus, testing strategies and return-to-work criteria are top of mind. Testing strategies for the fall run the gamut from self-monitoring to on-campus clinics, but most institutions will rely heavily on daily self-checks and symptom reporting. Some plan to use apps to facilitate daily employee self-screening, perform contact tracing, and communicate isolation protocols. One institution decided to follow the lead of their local healthcare providers by adopting the same app.

Most institutions are deploying a phased approach to bringing staff and faculty back to campus, prioritizing researchers engaged in critical experiments and then progressing to staff in student-facing roles. To enable and promote social distancing, many leaders are planning to operate with reduced on-campus staffing, implement staggered schedules, and continue remote work for those whose jobs do not require a physical presence.

5. How should HR leaders balance staffing needs with accommodations for faculty and staff who are not comfortable returning to campus?

Some leaders expressed concern over establishing equitable policies for faculty and staff who do not feel comfortable returning to campus, as well as balancing operational needs with accommodations. They observed that at-risk populations may feel especially hesitant to return, while employees with families may experience logistical hurdles if K-12 instruction remains remote and childcare facilities do not reopen.

Leaders recognized that when granting requests, they will need to strike a delicate balance between addressing workforce needs, ensuring compliance, and demonstrating empathy for staff. In addition to the complexity of creating equitable policies, leaders are also struggling to manage the administrative workload created by a surge of accommodation requests. One U.S. institution reported already having difficulty recalling staff back to work, in part because of the robust unemployment benefits afforded by the federal CARES Act.

6. How should HR leaders and managers keep remote staff engaged and productive?

Although staff accommodated atypical workloads early in the crisis, leaders voiced concerns around workload sustainability and employee engagement heading into the fall. During institutions’ initial crisis responses, many staff members embraced remote work and novel job responsibilities. However, several U.K. institutions reported that “the honeymoon is over.” Their staff increasingly expect employers to recalibrate workloads in accordance with current and anticipated staffing levels so that employees are not overburdened.

Some HR leaders are also worried that new responsibilities and staffing arrangements could violate unspoken employee expectations or contract stipulations, thereby leading to disengagement or legal issues. For example, student support staff may expect in-person interactions, while some instructors may object to staggered schedules that extend beyond a traditional 9-5 workday or 5-day work week.

7. How should HR drive progress on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives amid workforce challenges posed by COVID-19?

Leaders reported feeling increased pressure to tackle DEI challenges, though they are unsure how to make progress on initiatives in a budget-constrained and remote work environment. Heightened global attention on inequity and the Black Lives Matter movement have further elevated the importance of progress on DEI initiatives. Several leaders said these priorities are now intertwined with other COVID-19 pressures and further complicated by remote operations.

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