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How to create a more flexible admin workforce to contain costs and respond to evolving operational demands

September 3, 2020

Institutions are currently facing unprecedented financial challenges due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, they’ll likely continue to feel the effects of this crisis for some time, especially given anticipated state revenue declines and shifting student preferences and enrollment patterns. So along with taking immediate steps to shore up budgets in the short-term, leaders should start preparing for longer-term financial constraints—including diminished administrative resources. This will require institutions to develop more flexible staffing arrangements so they can reduce reliance on expensive labor options, like overtime and temporary workers, and adapt to changing business conditions.

Here are three tactics from our 2014 study on Bending the Administrative Labor Cost Curve that leaders can implement now to help slow labor cost growth over time and build a more nimble—and sustainable—administrative workforce in the long run.

1. Create cross-training development plans

Historically, institutions have often paid employees overtime or hired temporary staff to meet variable workload demands. But in a budget-constrained environment, many leaders may lack the resources to support these pricey staffing approaches. A more cost-effective solution is redeploying staff internally to support units that need short-term support. This allows leaders to meet temporary demands without incurring additional labor costs and increase the long-run versatility of their workforce.

Notably, COVID-19 revealed that most institutions are unequipped to pivot staff across units, often due to a lack of proactive planning and effective training. Drawing on learnings from this disruptive period, leaders should begin creating permanent cross-training development plans and resources to hedge against future disruptions and resource constraints. For example, UC Davis has a formal Cross Training Program that equips health system employees with the knowledge and skills required for internal mobility. Their cross training guide includes advice for structuring assignments and a template plan for trainees and supervisors, both of which are broadly applicable for cross-training initiatives in non-health divisions.

2. Design fifty-fifty split roles

Facing tightening staffing budgets, many institutions are using automation solutions to meet increasing workloads, especially around compliance and reporting.  By decreasing processing times for manual and transactional activities, these solutions can eliminate some role responsibilities and free up staff capacity for other tasks. This provides leaders with an opportunity to reevaluate employee duties and create more flexible positions, like 50-50 split roles.

As their name suggests, 50-50 split roles are full-time positions in which an employee performs a portion of their work in one campus unit and a portion in another. For example, the University of Maine hires full-time staff who divide their time evenly across two units that both need part-time support (e.g., a full-time accountant splits his time between Finance and Facilities). This structure is especially well-suited for roles that provide units with beneficial capabilities but are not needed at full capacity. For example, many units would benefit from having a data analyst on their staff. However, some units may not need a full-time employee in this role, and trying to hire one independently could be cost-prohibitive. Split roles allow unit leaders to access valuable skills at a more manageable price point, since units share the cost of the employee’s salary and benefits. 

Key characteristics of split roles

Two units with need for part-time employee hire single full-time employee to work evenly across units

Person with computer

Each unit receives equivalent of 0.5 FTE,
split position funding

Both units gain a high-skill part-time employee while avoiding typical part-time labor challenges

When designing split roles, leaders should ensure that employees perform similar work across units. This encourages staff to develop specialized skills and prevents them from being stretched too thin, which is critical since COVID-19 has exacerbated many employees’ stress levels. Unit managers should also clearly define shared staff schedules and duties so split role employees know what to expect and can balance their work with childcare or other personal responsibilities, especially during the pandemic.

3. Maintain a full-time casual pool

Institutions often rely on casual employees who work on an as-needed basis to fill labor force gaps or temporary staffing needs. However, building casual pools with part-time employees from the local labor market is expensive and often results in under-skilled staff who turnover frequently. As a result, leaders must spend more time and money backfilling these positions down the road.

Large institutions with multiple divisions that rely heavily on temporary workers should instead consider establishing an internal casual pool of centrally managed, full-time employees. This will allow them to reduce long-run costs while also attracting and retaining skilled staff who can pivot to support changing needs across campus. For example, the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Staff Finders Program provides administrative and academic units with access to an internal team of full-time and benefit-eligible clerical staff.

University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Staff Finders Program

Typical Barriers to Using Casual Staff

  • Difficult to schedule
  • High turnover
  • Poor skill match for job

Staff Finders Program

  • Employed full-time
  • Receive attractive benefit plan
  • Highly skilled


  • Reduced overtime
  • Avoided expensive external temp labor
  • Lessened need to hire new full-time staff

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