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How University HR Officers Are Shaping New Flexible Work Policies

Episode 63

July 20, 2021 33 minutes


EAB’s Michael Fischer and Michael Varda examine key takeaways from a survey of HR Officers from colleges and universities across the US, Canada, and the UK.

Among the biggest concerns expressed by survey respondents was how to develop remote work policies that are equitable, and how to guide managers in monitoring performance of remote workers.

They note that nearly half of HR leaders appear willing to take on additional tax and regulatory complications in order to recruit from a broader talent pool of potential candidates who live in other states or even countries.



0:00:13.9 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. On today’s episode, EAB researchers share key takeaways from a new survey of HR officers from colleges and universities across the US, Canada and the UK. They identify emerging best practices as well as pitfalls university leaders should avoid as they update flexible work policies for campus employees and offer guidance to supervisors on how to monitor their performance and productivity of remote workers. Thank you for listening and enjoy.


0:00:54.4 Michael Fischer: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Michael Fischer, and I’m a director of research advisory services here with a focus on facilities and the state’s issues, and I’m pleased to be here today with my colleague, Mike Varda, who’s a research analyst with a specialty in remote work research that we’ve been doing here at EAB. Mike, thank you for joining us today.

0:01:19.2 Mike Varda: Hi, Michael. Thanks, it’s good to be here. And as Michael mention, I’m a research analyst at EAB. I’ve been involved in our research on the future of flexible work arrangements, recently attending two webinars on this topic, the first direct towards human resources and the second intended for facilities officers covering a lot of the topics that we’re going to discuss today.

0:01:43.9 MF: I’m really glad for you to provide a perspective. I think you’ve also been behind a major surveying activity that we did of Chief HR officers. What’s that entailed?

0:01:56.5 MV: Yes, so we ran a survey across May and June of this year on the future of remote and flex work for administrative staff at universities, we ended up receiving 50 responses from senior HR leaders at institutions in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. And the survey was meant to be a snapshot of institutional planning for remote work, hybrid work, the degree that flex work would be implemented on campus. And also some of the challenges that they were facing. We focus that specifically on administrative staff, because faculty were often working with flexible arrangements and a pre-pandemic environment, well, that was less common on the administrative side.

0:02:46.4 MF: Well, I think it’s best we not bury the lead because I’m sure the question that everybody wants to know is, is remote and flexible work here to stay post-pandemic? What was the major finding from the survey? Should we expect to see it in the future?

0:03:00.2 MV: Short answer, yes, we can. I’m about to give you a bit of a rapid fire here of some key takeaways, we found that 44%, so nearly half of university HR officers, they are open to the idea of hiring a non-faculty employee not living anywhere near the University, so they are expanding their reach when it comes to recruiting and looking beyond the traditional geographic barriers, they also anticipate a four times increase in the number of administrative staff working in a hybrid manner permanently, and over two-thirds of institutions, 65% to be exact, they will allow hybrid workers to spend the majority of their work week operating remotely. And when you start thinking about specific units on campus that might have specifically a higher increase, IT, finance and procurement functions are estimated and anticipated to see the largest increases in those hybrid work arrangements.

0:04:08.1 MF: I think it’s what we’re all expecting to hear a lot of that but it’s good to hear that the data is sort of backing us up, and this is generally where everybody is falling out. Let’s unpack a couple of these each in detail, let’s start with the recruitment angle, because I’m hearing lots of conversations when I talk to senior leaders saying that the hopes for remote and hybrid working in the future really comes down to being able to access a deeper recruitment pool and being able to be more competitive on the market. I think this is probably the most relevant in the IT space, you have this talent that’s working with IT, with data, with computers and software that can really do that work anywhere, and oftentimes they were being poached from institutions because someone was able to pay them a lot more in the private sector, one of these industry leaders and not requiring them to move. And universities were kind of being restrictive, holding those people in, and they were hemorrhaging talent, and I think that this is good to hear that institutions are rethinking this, realizing the competitiveness that comes from being able to have somebody who lives far away from the university, but wants that mission-driven environment to be able to participate in the workplace environment without having to necessarily move out to where that University is located.

0:05:33.1 MV: You’re absolutely right, Michael. I think that you highlighted a lot of important points there, first being that the largest hurdle, perhaps for higher education is in this IT space, because they, quite frankly, can’t compete with most private sector offers, and we’ve heard from institutions and round tables and research calls that they are losing some of this IT talent to more flexible work arrangements, whether that be other universities with more friendly policies or the private sector like we’ve touched on, and I think what you might end up starting to see is universities that are having some of these losses and they might scale back on those restrictive policies and begin offering those flexible arrangements, just to remain competitive in the space.

0:06:26.5 MF: It’s not just about competitiveness, it’s also about diversity and inclusion, the ability to access talent that previously was inaccessible, and maybe being able to work with groups, with individuals from certain backgrounds, certain family situations that otherwise maybe would have either leave the workforce or not be able to participate in that, they’re now actually accessible. And I think that it’s not always about dollars and cents, sometimes it’s about the importance the university plays in being a community driver, a mission-driven institution in the wire community, and helping to write some of the wrongs that maybe past work environments didn’t allow to take place.

0:07:10.5 MF: There’s also a benefit though on the retention side, I think that there’s a lot of data out there that suggests that in particular our younger workers, those who are in the millennial and very early stages of Generation Z really find remote work appealing and actually would take a job somewhere else if remote work wasn’t being offered. What have we found from the survey from the conversations that you’ve been having, Mike, with senior leaders about the retention benefits from some of this remote work?

0:07:41.6 MV: Yes. So one institution specifically began their remote work efforts even predating the pandemic, and what they found is they shifted to a hotel in best system, they shifted to… If you need to come into the office, you need to preserve time, you don’t have an assigned space, and a majority of a work week being spent remote, and the employees really reacted well to that. They are there, they are happy, a lot of the things and the benefits of working from home, more time spent with the dog, more time spent with their kids and their families. Those are the things that they don’t necessarily want to give up. As we shift out of the pandemic here, and this specific university, they said that they have kept an overwhelming amount of their IT staff upwards of 85% with a full-scale change, they were very accepting of that change and really enjoy the perks that come with these remote work arrangements now.

0:08:51.1 MF: So clear benefits from the recruitment side, clear benefits from the retention side, clear benefits from trying to access talent that maybe was otherwise inaccessible, it sounds like such a win-win. There must be some challenges that are preventing institutions for moving in this direction, what did HR leaders tell us when it came to the barriers to implementing these effective remote work arrangements in the post-pandemic environment past this emergency that we’re in right now.

0:09:21.5 MV: One thing that we heard quite a bit about is thinking about tax and regulatory difficulties from employing staff and different geographies, if your institution is in the state of Ohio, for example, and you have employees just across the country, the different kind of tax and regulatory burdens that that could put on your HR department. That’s something that institutions are still figuring out right now, one institution that we spoke with the employee staff in 24 states, and to handle that, they actually hired a third party consultant to handle the tax conversations to benefits explanations, but in the same breath, spoke about, it’s going to be really difficult to track perhaps the return on investment of hiring that third-party consultant with actually hiring employees dispersed all over the country, and that’s certainly one area I think that you’ve also had a little experience and hearing some first-hand knowledge of institutions dealing with that.

0:10:31.1 MF: Oh, absolutely. I mean during the pandemic, employees move home, they move to new areas, they left their apartments, let the leases expired because it just didn’t make sense to do so. Now they’re in environments that are very different from what they told their universities that are working in the universities try to move back to their normal operating procedures, they’re having to sort all of that out and it’s a giant mess. But I think to the point you mentioned earlier, Mike, what we heard from these chief HR officers, is that a strong plurality of them are open to the idea of hiring someone who doesn’t live nearby, doesn’t live in the state, so there’s the demand for that, but it really speaks to the need for greater collaboration between HR, legal, foreign interest, diplomatic, all those groups on campus who can help to sort of sort through these issues, make sure we’re all in compliance and meeting all the regulatory and tax expectations that come from being in these situations. It’s very much a mess. What else have we heard from HR leaders in terms of challenges?

0:11:34.8 MV: Yeah, so moving away from perhaps the administrative side of the tax and regulatory, there are three challenges that we can dive into here that they identified as top of mind as they move into a post-pandemic like world, the first being monitoring and evaluation of hybrid employees, I think being fair and equitable policy decisions on remote eligibility and the third, preparing managers to manage remote and hybrid workers.

0:12:12.2 MF: That that’s fantastic to hear. Let’s take each of those in turn. The first being basically about, can people effectively do their jobs in this remote work hybrid environment, the pandemic gave us an emergency and excuse for our service net levels to maybe slack, by having the same kind of constituents on campus, having students and faculty who are away from campus, to bring people back, I know there’s a lot of consternation around, can we effectively do our jobs and provide the high quality service that we expect from our employees if they’re not physically present on campus?

0:12:50.6 MV: Service levels is a really interesting thing because during the pandemic, universities and staff did what they needed to do to get through, but as most universities are welcoming their students back to campus with open arms, the question of will those services, for example, student advising, registrar, financial aid, if you think about what students need to go on campus for, will it be the same if those staff are working from home and a student needs to go to financial aid because they have a scholarship or a financial question. And thinking about staff can obviously perform their duties in a remote environment, but that was complete with students also in a remote environment. So thinking about how we get back to balancing the staff’s desire to stay in a somewhat hybrid environment while you welcome back the students full-time, that’s going to be an area of specific interest.

0:14:00.5 MF: I know there’s been a lot of push towards, Well, if students are on campus, we need to have their services on campus, we want our student to be able between classes to walk in and get some advising, get some counseling, figure out some sort of financial issue, but at the same time, there were lots of students who were telling that their advisors, leaders on their campuses that the best time for me to do advising is at 8:00 PM on a Thursday, and normally the office isn’t open then, but when you have these remote arrangements you can have some staff who are available during that time and they can access them online through a secure network, and that’s because of my schedule, because of my unique circumstances, this actually was a better environment for me to engage with, so we’re gonna have to find a balance there, continue to bring back those in-person engagements, but offering those more remote options for students that some, especially non-traditional students have really taken advantage of during the pandemic.

0:14:56.1 MV: And one quick addition here before I move to the second, we heard a lot on research calls of the popularity of Telehealth and remote mental health services as well, that’s another area traditionally always thought of as on-campus services, but students particularly took a liking to those as well during the pandemic.

0:15:22.3 MF: Moving on to that second challenge around equity, this is really fascinating to me, ’cause I think it’s a problem we don’t fully appreciate. When you have some staff on campus, I know you mentioned IT being the big one, that can basically do their job entirely remote, help the campus constituents with their technology issues, but on the other side, you have custodians and maintenance workers who can’t really do their job effectively without being 100% on campus and the divide that that creates between, this is a perk as a benefit of working here, we can offer it to one type of employee, but not another, it seems like it would be a huge challenge.

0:16:00.8 MV: Leaders are between a rock and a hard place on this one, Michael, and the challenge, exactly as you painted it, is you don’t want to devalue any staff or create a perception that remote work is more privileged than on-campus work, because all work keeps the wheels spinning on campus and keeps the campus operating successfully. What some institutions are thinking about here are job description based decision-making, where if you are to take the example of the custodian, that position is not going to be possible in a remote environment, but if you can offer some kind of flex work, maybe you can have 7 to 3, maybe you can have a midnight shift. The way that institutions are trying to get around this right now and figure out how do we create this fair and equitable policy, looking at the different kinds of jobs that are on campus and trying to have an open mind to the flexible capabilities, even if it can’t be remote.

0:17:12.5 MF: Well, and the advantage too, of having those decisions to be made based on job descriptions is that it ultimately isn’t at the discretion of a manager for individuals, you’re not sort of doling this out as a perk here, you’re saying that all people regardless of their circumstance who work in a custodial role are going to have this type of arrangement, all people who are in a finance management role are going to be given this opportunity here, it kind of takes away from the potential for discrimination within roles between individuals, which would be a very negative consequence, a wedge that remote work could drive into workplace culture, it’s not a perfect solution, but I think it’s one as we sort this out that seems to be gaining traction amongst the institutions that we’re talking to.

0:18:00.0 MV: Yes.

0:18:01.7 MF: On the final challenge, training, getting managers prepared, we’ve had 18 months of remote work, shouldn’t our managers kind of be up to speed by this point?

0:18:15.1 MV: A very, very difficult question. Touching back on how remote work was initially an emergency initiative, it was a band-aid on a much bigger problem that universities had to figure out for themselves. Now that we’re talking about making it more formal and hiring people without potentially even having them on campus day in their lives before they begin working for the university, preparing managers to manage remote workers and hybrid workers is going to be a challenge moving forward. Some of the issues with that come from historical policies coming from almost a disciplinary point of view, where working from home is a privilege that can be stripped at any moments, that kind of language and managers coming with the shift of, just the way that our society has moved towards this hybrid work, managers are going to, more likely going to have to come from a trust-based position and knowing that things pop up for hybrid workers and you might not be online for every hour of every day, but as long as managers are coming from that point of trust, knowing that the employees can and will get their work done, I think that that’s going to be a major shift from pre-pandemic to post-pandemic, the disciplinary view to now more a trust-based approach.

0:19:56.0 MF: And I know that from our survey results, we also asked Chief HR officers about whether or not people could start remote or whether they were gonna require people to do some portion of their job on campus first, build up that culture, build up that trust and then allow them into that remote environment, where did our chief HR officers sort of land on that spectrum of onboarding and starting off remote?

0:20:23.1 MV: Yes. So 44% of respondents said, “No, almost all new hires will start on campus before becoming remote work eligible,” but then you had 42% saying, “Yes, they can start remotely immediately from the date of hire,” and another 15% saying, “Yes, they can start remotely, but onboarding and orientation is required in person.” So this is an area where those HR leaders were split about as evenly as you can be on this question of, “Do you need to start on campus prior to your remote eligibility?”

0:21:04.1 MF: One of the things that we at EAB have been doing over the last couple of months, simultaneous to this survey into the roundtable series, Mike that you’ve been sharing about is we’ve been actually looking at institutional remote work policies and trying to figure out which are good, which need some work and where are those opportunities for growth. I know, Mike, you’ve had a chance to actually look at some of these and talk to some of our researchers who have been up to their noses in remote work policies, what are we seeing that’s good, and where are we seeing the most opportunities for growth, if anybody who’s listening, wanted to go back and look at their remote work policy and see where there might be some opportunities to make some changes?

0:21:47.8 MV: Sure. I’ll start with the good. And what we’ve seen in exemplar policies has been that it’s not just about remote work, it’s not just about having an employee that’s fully remote, the type of different hybrid or flex options really is immensely long and it’s beyond what we normally think about, so to just touch on a few of those, you could have flex hours where you work from 7:00 to 3:00, you could have seasonal hours for certain employees and certain administrative units, you could have a hybrid schedule in the summer when there are fewer students on campus, you could have the traditional hybrid schedule where it’s three days in person, two days remote, not to go too far down a rabbit hole here, but just bringing it back, the more options that you can offer your staff, the more likely they’re going to be happy and think that they’re getting a fair shot from the flexible work policies, and the more likely they are to be retained at that university.

0:23:02.7 MF: And potentially to find a working arrangement that is productive and allows them to do their job perhaps even better than what they did prior to the pandemic.

0:23:12.2 MV: Right. And to touch on some things where it could be improved, going back to the point of the traditional idea of more disciplinary policies of language showing that it’s a privilege that can be taken away at any moment. We did see one policy where the supervisor could make an un-visited, or excuse me, an unscheduled visit to the hybrid worker’s work environment to see if they were performing or what they were doing. That’s perhaps one level of an extreme, but making sure that you have, rather than that kind of language of we can check out your workspace, from the beginning, think about having regular communication with managers and communications around setting up workspaces, and we think a lot about equipment as well, making sure they have the proper computer, proper desk chair, and some of the best policies also will offer the things that aren’t necessarily common, you actually might be able to get a standing desk from your university, but thinking more about coming from, “This is the way things are,” rather than, “We’re going to knock on your door.”

0:24:35.6 MF: I think as I reflect on where we’ve come in the remote workspace and where the conversation seems to be leading us, there are sort of five questions, I think anybody, but certainly people in the HR office should be asking themselves as they think about their remote work arrangements. The first is, does my remote work arrangement surface employee well-being concerns? It’s not just about whether they’re productive, but does this take into account the fact that some of our employees are more economically insecure than others, some of them have greater mental health concerns, and are we finding ways in the policy to make sure that we’re addressing those issues and giving them the resources and tools they need to be successful?

0:25:15.9 MF: Second, is my policy making the informal intentional? Am I ensuring that built into the structure of the remote work environment, there are regular check-ins, there are up-skilling mentorship development programs, will my remote employees or hybrid employees feel left out from opportunities than my in-person on campus employees? So that’s number two. Number three, does my arrangement establish goal-driven policies. So am I making sure that there are data points, metrics that I’m looking at to determine whether we’re going to retain staff, whether we’re using space effectively, whether we’re going to leverage the technological resources we have in a comprehensive way, and backing that up with data so that we know that the arrangement that we’re saying into is not only benefiting us productively, but it’s also improving staff well-being, engagement and retention.

0:26:11.9 MF: Fourth, does my arrangement address equity issues? We mentioned that equity concern that managers have, two of the biggest ones there, I think internet access, it’s I think shocking to a lot of people, there are large parts of the United States, large parts of the world where internet access is not a guarantee, where it’s expensive, where it’s inaccessible, how are we going to support those employees? Employees who maybe don’t have a desk environment, are we going to give them resources to buy a desk, buy a monitor, buy a keyboard, are we gonna provide those for them? What level of investment are we gonna make there and how do we ensure that everyone gets equal treatment? And then finally, how do we ensure that we’re keeping an eye on multimodal interactions? Are we gonna set defined work hours or let people work whenever they want, or you’re gonna limit the amount of hours, because I know one thing that we’ve heard from a lot of people is that, in this remote work environment, it’s very easy to accidentally work 12 hours a day, and that can really lead to burnout in the long run. So those five considerations about well-being in making things intentional, having the data to back up your goals, addressing equity, and thinking about those multimodal considerations, I think are core to the decisions that we’re trying to make here.

0:27:28.2 MV: I couldn’t agree more. And that touches on so many of those challenges that we’ve talked about earlier, when you think about the fair and equitable policies, making sure your arrangement touches those issues on internet access that aren’t initially thought about in those conversations. One thing that is really interesting on those multimodal interactions, thinking about, Are we going to be virtual first? Are we going to be in-person first? Thinking about how you’re going to have meetings for the future and making sure that everybody is going to remain accessible for those meetings, and it’s just going to be really interesting to see how it plays out. I think one thing that almost all institutions have touched on is they realize that they may not get it right with this first back-to-work, return-to-work policy. They’re approaching it as an iterative process where they know that things are going to change and they’re asking for flexibility from their hybrid workers and remote workers as they figure out what works and what doesn’t.

0:28:33.6 MF: Providing feedback, making this an iterative process. I can’t emphasize that more, because the kind of remote work policy that you wanna have in a pandemic environment, even if it’s hopefully nearing its end is very different than one in a standard environment, for example, in a normal environment, you probably want everybody to be in the office at least one time a week all together, so that you can have group meetings, culture building activities, trying to encourage people to have collaborations, but that’s a terrible idea with a pandemic, ’cause you’re gonna have a lot of interaction, a lot intermingling of people working in the same space. So knowing that at first you may wanna stagger when people come into the office, but later on, you may wanna readjust schedules and try to encourage a cohesion of people at the same time, it’s it showcases just how important it is to think about this as a transitional iterative learning process.

0:29:29.7 MV: And it’s a challenge, right? Because you have university leaders who are trying to rebuild this campus culture faced with challenges of, what do students want? What do employees want? So it’ll really be interesting to see how it plays out.

0:29:43.9 MF: Mike, I know we only have a little bit of time left, so let’s wrap up by discussing what we see moving forward, what are the open research questions that we’re trying to address here at EAB and where we might have some more information as the months go forward? One that I know is on the forefront of my mind is what are the consequences of remote work when it comes to space design? Obviously very early on, when it came to remote work, there’s lots of questions about, we’re gonna save so much money reclaiming all this lease space, by having people remote, we don’t need the same amount of a campus footprint, but really that hasn’t panned out in the way that people thought, and I think that there’s a lot more open questions around not shedding space, but instead re-imagining how we use our physical footprint in a way that’s more conducive to this more hybrid environment, is more informed and more forward-thinking, leverages more digital technologies, and so we have teams right now, I know, asking questions about what will the classroom, what will the office, what will the student collaborative space look like now that people are so much more comfortable and effective at leveraging those remote work tools.

0:30:56.1 MV: Yeah. So this is something that’s happening really right before our eyes right now, Michael, and there really aren’t a whole lot of early movers in this space just yet, but the things that we have been hearing are thinking about space utilization and not who owns the space. So if the Biology Department has a massive lecture hall, not limiting that just to the Intro to Bio courses for the first year students and second year students, thinking about faculty town halls, can we use it for that? Thinking about siloh-ing out sort of advising spaces, in that hall, there are just so many different ways that people are going to start thinking about space, and one quick anecdote, we heard that one institution is looking forward to expanding programs that don’t need physical space, that was fascinating thinking about university growth and how institutions are going to come out of this pandemic and expanding places that may not need a physical space on campus.

0:32:04.1 MF: I’m sure colleagues who are looking at sustainability measures and goals trying to reduce the carbon footprint are gonna love hearing proposals for programs that drive revenue, but don’t drive physical space. So many questions left to answer, this is an ongoing place for us here at EAB that we’re doing research on, so over the months to come, I expect we’ll have even more and more to share. Mike, thank you so much for being here and for sharing the results of our surveying and our conversations with leaders.

0:32:36.3 MV: Thanks for having me, Michael, it was a lot of fun.

0:32:38.8 MF: And thanks to all of you for listening, hope you’ll join us on the next episode of Office Hours with EAB.


0:32:51.6 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we examine a topic that hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves, namely student success at the graduate level, we’ll talk about ways to adapt student success best practices, now common in the undergraduate space to help graduate students stay on path and achieve their goals more efficiently and cost-effectively. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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