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How the Remote Work Trend Will Transform College Campuses

Episode 50

March 24, 2021 31 minutes


EAB’s Kaitlyn Maloney and Ron Yanosky discuss what we’ve learned over the past year through our collective experiment in mass remote work. They then dig into some of the unique challenges colleges and universities face as they explore more flexible approaches to space utilization, hiring, and HR policies.

While a few best practices emerging from the private sector can easily be replicated across higher education, universities will need to get creative in order to adapt without losing the sense of place that makes campus life truly special.



0:00:12.6 Speaker 1: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we’ll hear from Kaitlyn Maloney and Ron Yanosky as they explore the future of teleworking at colleges and universities. They acknowledge the obvious fact that those who have become accustomed to remote work over the past year won’t be eager to return to a daily commute, and institutions understand that. The challenge lies in developing more flexible HR policies that work for employees and the institution, and in re-examining how office space will be allocated and used going forward. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy.


0:00:54.3 Kaitlyn Maloney: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Office Hours at EAB. This is Kaitlyn Maloney, senior director in research joining you today. Today, I’m joined by my colleague Ron Yanosky, a director in our research advisory services practice, to discuss the future of remote work in higher education. Hi, Ron, great to have you with us.

0:01:13.4 Ron Yanosky: Hi, Kaitlyn, glad to be here.

0:01:15.8 KM: And Ron, in addition to being our leading research expert on remote work in higher education, you’re also a bit of a professional in the remote work realm yourself. You’ve been working remotely for EAB long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Is that right?

0:01:29.4 RY: I’m one of the few people that’s not based in DC, I’m based in Colorado, I’ve worked remotely in a couple of jobs before this one as well.

0:01:38.5 KM: Great, well, looking forward to getting your perspectives. We’re recording today in March 2021, as all of us at EAB and many of us in higher education are marking our one-year anniversaries of working remote, this new remote work experiment. And while vaccines and other public health interventions may make it safe to return to our campus workspaces soon, some of our higher education leaders and workers and managers are asking should we? Balancing work and family obligations has been challenging for many, but there’s also been some benefits in this remote work period, shorter commutes or no commutes at all, time savings, productivity gains.

0:02:16.3 KM: So, people are considering what remote work arrangements might look like on a more permanent basis, maybe not 100% work from home, but a few days a week. Ron, as you’re working with higher education leaders as they’re beginning to encounter these questions about the new remote workplace, give me a summary of what you’ve been talking about. What does shifting to remote work in higher ed mean in practical terms?

0:02:43.7 RY: In practical terms, once we’re outside of the artificial circumstances of the pandemic, it’ll probably mean, as you mentioned, a hybrid experience. A large body of our administrative staff in particular will probably prefer to work a few days at home and a few days a week at the office or on campus. So, we will be managing a kind of dual structure of work. That’s a big contrast both to our history of fully on-campus work and the last year. II higher education staff respond in the same way that people surveyed during the pandemic respond, about 70% will prefer to work about two or three days a week at home, the other days in the office.

0:03:33.0 KM: Wow, that’s a big shift. I’m hard-pressed to think of an industry as place-bound as higher education is. You know that the invocation of the campus and all that that represents is so critical to the core and the mission of higher education.

0:03:49.3 RY: Absolutely. The experience being on a campus is one of the attractions of working in higher education. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if we wind up a little more place-based going forward than other industries might be, but still, this is a pretty compelling benefit that people really do like the option to work at home.

0:04:07.7 KM: Yeah. I know that you’ve looked at both some of the shifts happening in corporate workspaces as well as what higher education leaders are considering. Across the board, what are some of the benefits of shifting staff to more permanent or semi-permanent remote work arrangements?

0:04:24.0 RY: Well, I should mention that there’s a pretty deep body of research on this subject, and there have been people working on remote work as a work option for decades. And the benefits are pretty well established. I think for higher education, the thing I’d really spotlight is the ability to offer people a benefit that they value a lot, which could help you become a preferred employer. People that are looking for work do express a strong preference for the option to be able to work remotely.

0:04:53.5 RY: In higher education, we have historically made up for the fact that we can’t offer competitive salaries compared to the private sector by offering work-life balance and quality of life benefits. And if we miss the boat on this one, that’s going to degrade our ability to continue to do that. And with lots of other companies and whole sectors in the economy moving in this direction, it’s really important that we do that. But there are more fundamental benefits that have been pretty well established: Lower absenteeism, people tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, therefore there’s less turnover and longer retention of employees. Turnover is very expensive to an employer.

0:05:38.0 RY: And there’s significant evidence of productivity gains, at least in certain kinds of work. People actually produce more when they have the option to work at home. Finally, what will be on a lot of people’s minds is the ability to shift space around and perhaps reallocate space that’s now used for offices for academic or other purposes.

0:05:54.3 KM: That’s interesting. It all sounds great. I know you’ve been talking to some higher ed leaders with some real concerns, though. What are those risks inherent in making this sort of move?

0:06:05.7 RY: Well, the one that rises to the top with just about everybody I talk about it is that everybody understands that there’s a sort of organic set of relationships that flow from being co-located, both learning about your job and the organization you work for, and the personal relationships that you develop. People enjoy being with each other, they socialize, and you learn a lot of things just by observation. You see that somebody across the office is doing a little fist pump, something good happened, or you bump into people in the hallway and you chat about something, you learn something about them. It’s much harder to do that in the very time-bound, structured, calendarized modes of interaction that we have in online work.

0:06:52.4 RY: There’s a lot that flows from that, but that’s probably the number one concern that people have. I don’t think it’s impossible to overcome these things, but we do need to be conscious of them and to use a phrase that we use in our research that we borrowed from a company, GitLab, that is something of a thought leader in remote work, you need to make the informal intentional in remote work environments. You need to think through those things that aren’t happening automatically through personal interaction and find substitutes for them or at least be conscious that they’re not happening.

0:07:26.6 KM: That’s interesting. Can you give us some examples from GitLab about how they make that intentional?

0:07:34.8 RY: Sure, and other companies as well. I should mention the GitLab is 100% remote, they have no physical office space at all, they’re a very successful company. They have 1500 employees that are distributed literally around the globe, so it’s a pretty radical version of remote work, not one that higher ed is going to probably embrace. But at the same time, they have really thought things through that I think we could benefit from. Number one, they make a big point of documenting work processes, so you can look up how to do something. You don’t have to look over the cubicle wall and ask your colleague, you can find out how things work by resorting to a Wiki or something that the whole employee staff, or the company, are responsible for keeping current.

0:08:22.8 RY: Another thing is that all of their meetings obviously are electronically mediated, their Zoom meetings or Teams meetings, whatever the tool might be. They record all of those meetings and they try to organize meetings in such a way that people who aren’t able to attend can still find out what happened. Again, they’re documenting and recording. Finally, they really have become masters of asynchronous communication. They have a bias for that, as they put it in their work. They’ve really learned to master tools like the instant messaging tools like Teams or Slack that so many institutions are using now, and even email threads, but they try to create processes that are self-documenting, again, so that people don’t have to be coordinated in time and space in order to maintain an understanding of the workflow or see what things are happening.

0:09:15.1 KM: Speaking of GitLab, I know reading the news, everything from the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal to the podcasts I listen to, everyone’s talking about the big announcements from Facebook, from Spotify, these really big name companies that are shifting to more permanent work from anywhere policies. But of course, their customers, their staff, are all distributed already, they’re not so tethered to place like higher ed is, compared to higher ed, where we have a subset of students that do continue to want the residential experience and everything that that entails from a personal growth and exploration standpoint. And so when you’re talking to higher ed leaders, what do you think they can learn from their corporate counterparts, and what makes them different?

0:10:01.6 RY: Well, we certainly should keep an eye on what’s happening in the corporate sector. They are very good at being decisive and moving fast, and they’re probably going to be a few steps ahead of us throughout this process. And there are some things, I already mentioned GitLab’s processes and the way that they’ve developed a culture around remoteness. I think that we’ll see more innovations and probably some innovations that make up for some of the lack of informal interactions through technology-mediated connections. I think we will see a more subtle ability to monitor people’s presence and get an understanding of when we can talk to them, tap them on the shoulder, so to speak, and I think those things will emerge first in the cooperate work spaces.

0:10:48.0 RY: There are things that are very different, and probably the first one that comes to mind is that those companies tend to treat space as a commodity, and they have lots of it, but they can release, or add, for that matter, space pretty readily. If they don’t need to have a floor in a building, they get rid of it. We don’t do that in higher ed. The way that we treat space is bound up in our campus culture, we have historic and legacy buildings that aren’t really all that efficient, but they’re beloved and we wouldn’t think of getting rid of them.

0:11:25.9 RY: And our space is often broken up until we distribute units into small little nooks and crannies around campus that are hard to consolidate. I think that for us, the space benefits of remote work, the ability to release space or repurpose it, I think it’s there, but it’s probably going to be more of a downstream benefit for higher education, because it’s going to take some time for us to figure out at what level we can release space and then to make the investments necessary to re-purpose it.

0:11:58.0 KM: Yeah, I’m reminded, just yesterday, my undergraduate alma mater announced that they were taking a residence hall offline, and I’ve been out of college for over 10 years now, and my text threads, all my girlfriends from college were talking about, “Wow, can you believe that this is happening,” like just bringing back these strong emotional memories, we have such an attachment to these places. Yeah, yeah, compared to the corporate office parks. I know that some institutions also have buildings that are historically landmark designations, so they don’t have the flexibility to take them offline even if they wanted to or needed to.

0:12:36.4 RY: That said, Kaitlyn, we are seeing some of our institutional partners releasing leased space, space that’s maybe at the periphery, or they are putting construction projects that are underway on pause while they have the opportunity to re-think how they might use that space, their assumptions have changed from a few years ago when that stuff would have been planned. So there are some shorter term opportunities for hiring, but I think that when we start talking about the core central office space, it’s going to be a slower process.

0:13:10.6 KM: Ron, I know we’ve been talking at a hypothetical level, but you’ve been doing virtual meetings with cabinets, with leadership teams to help them think through some of these implications and develop new remote policies. Can you give us a bit of the lay of the land? What are these conversations looking like? What sorts of questions are people asking at this point in time?

0:13:33.4 RY: Sure. We are starting to see institutions form task forces around this issue. It’s interesting that it’s now March. We’re at the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. Three or four months ago when we were doing our research, we found very few institutions actively planning their new remote work policies ’cause they were still managing the pandemic. Now the light is at the end of the tunnel, we’re thinking about fall and a substantial return to normal, and so we are seeing task forces. If you’re not doing this, this is the time to be creating a task force. It should have representation from your major leadership units, certainly HR, but all of the major units that would be supporting a new work environment, particularly facilities, IT, and all the units that have a substantial number of employees that might be affected by this policy.

0:14:26.1 RY: The big change that you have to effect on campus is a change in work culture. You have to get the message out that remote work is no longer something that is either mandatory because of the pandemic, but it’s also not the exceptional, highly restricted thing that it was before the pandemic. So when you look at your existing remote work policies, I’m going to bet at most institutions, we know this based on a review that we did of existing telework policies, that they are very restricted, and they really were constructed in the pre-pandemic era with the idea of mitigating risk to the institution, that people would goof off, that they wouldn’t work productively if they weren’t being observed. We have disproved that. That’s just not a substantial concern going forward.

0:15:18.2 RY: Much more important is to consider how you can create a policy that will reap the benefits of remote work. Make yourself a preferred employer. Allow people to work from places that they couldn’t have worked in the past and ensure that your policies don’t turn people away with excessive restrictions on permission to do remote work. So establishing remote work as a norm is a big issue. Now, I said that, but there’s an asterisk on that. Right now, the big question for institutions that are developing these policies is how to balance the idea of promoting remote work as a norm and as something that we want as many people as possible to have the option to enjoy, but we also have to consider that many jobs simply do not lend themselves to remote work, or they lend themselves at different levels of remoteness.

0:16:19.8 RY: So you have to be very clear what the principles are for establishing whether a job is or is not eligible for remote work. Basically, that means service quality, to put customers first, students first, and we have to make it clear to our workforce that not everybody’s going to have the same opportunity. So think through how you’re going to perhaps compensate for that, maybe with more flexible work hours as opposed to work location for people in jobs like food service or maintenance and repair, and other jobs where people just aren’t going to be able to work from home.

0:16:58.2 KM: And in a lot of places…

0:17:01.5 RY: One last point on that, Kaitlyn, we don’t know the answer to some important questions. What percentage of our employees will choose to work at home, and to what extent? These are empirical questions. Before we start giving away space and redesigning the campus, we need to know, at least within a ballpark, what those numbers are. So I would suggest creating a pilot program with a designated body of employees to see how it goes and to adopt as you roll that out and implement that, I’m going to borrow a phrase from IT, from applications development in IT, take an agile approach. Try some things. Don’t try to master plan the whole thing from beginning to end. Try out some policies, see how they work and be prepared to change course if they’re not working out, and do that iteratively until you find out what the fit is, the best fit is for your institution.

0:18:03.6 KM: And many leaders or listeners might think, well, this is the pilot program, this experiment of the past year with everyone working from home, but there’s so many nuances and complexities that enter the conversation when you have some people physically congregating in the office, some people working remotely, you’re introducing concepts like hot desks and hoteling, so piloting both the space configurations and are those working. But then also, I’m sure there’s, it’s just a different experience when you have one person Zooming into a meeting with 15 people sitting around a table together versus the reality that many of us are in right now, where everyone is a screen or a square in this Brady Bunch frame and so it signals something, or it looks a little bit more equitable in practice right now.

0:18:51.4 RY: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if we actually find ourselves using these network tools, the Zoom meeting, as the default going forward. Remote first is a good principle to apply even to campus meetings. One of the things I’ve been struck by is, as we’ve talked to our partners through this research, many of them were quite surprised to find out that they liked some of these tools that have actually been available for years on campus but had not gotten a lot of adoption. Now we’ve become used to this mode of interaction and we’ll probably carry it forward even to some places that we don’t need to absolutely in the future.

0:19:36.5 RY: But we do need to solve for this problem of there being a physical campus workforce and a remote workforce, and we need to make that as permeable a barrier as possible and create processes where people don’t have to put a huge amount of effort into coordinate those two things all the time.

0:20:02.1 KM: And I’m sure for many campuses, this does feel somewhat like building the plane while flying it, because remote work is just one part of this re-envisioning of what the hybrid campus will look like, post-pandemic. We’ve looked at a lot of survey data from different organizations in the US, Canada and the UK where uniformly students all want to return to campus in some fashion, they want some in-person coursework, they want to live in the residence halls, but they’re actually quite happy to continue doing things like academic advising or career counseling appointments virtually, because it’s more convenient for their schedules.

0:20:40.2 KM: So as leaders are having this conversation, it’s also a broader part of what services, how do we best serve our students in the post-pandemic world, which of those services are we offering virtually or offering in combination, and then figuring out what staffing arrangements best support the overall mission and the student experience. It can’t just be about cost savings or what employees want.

0:21:03.1 RY: Absolutely, that’s a great point, but we’re in the middle of a major cultural change, and I mentioned earlier that there are some jobs that can’t be done remotely, there are others that can, but there’s a lot of gray zone in there, and there’s a lot of question, a lot of judgments are going to have to be made as to whether something is appropriately remote or has to be in-person or face-to-face. And your example of academic advising is a really good indicator. This is one of those things that I think most people assumed when we went into the pandemic, this was the almost archetypal face-to-face interaction, you really wanted to have a personal direct contact with your student. In fact, students have responded very well to academic advising, and there are probably other services that are like that.

0:21:55.0 RY: I’m hearing from some partners who have invested in what was pre-pandemic a pretty leading-edge practice, creating one-stop student service centers, where you could walk in and be a few steps away from any number of different services simultaneously. Now, many of those services could go virtual, and so there could be a virtual one-stop, or the way that one-stop works after we virtualize to some degree, it could look very different. So I think that this is another reason why we need to be agile about this, we need to be open and we need to get some just experience and empirical experience about how these different modes work, how many people need to be physically present versus remote, and what the preferences are of our students and our other constituents.

0:22:53.0 KM: Absolutely. I recognize that all campuses are different, there are different admissions, their staff compositions. Are there any commonalities, any places that across leadership teams, they’re saying, you know, this service, this type of job is suited, better suited to remote work versus ones that folks are drawing a hard line and saying, this is always going to be in-person?

0:23:17.9 RY: This is another area where there’s a fair amount of research. We cite in research on this a paper by two University of Chicago economists, who took a look at a variety of data sets. These are cross-sector, not higher ed, but cross-industry data sets, looking at different categories of employment and applying certain criteria then to figure out basically what percentage of people in a given category of employment would be able to effectively work at home. Their highest level of remoteness categories map pretty well to a higher education administration staff, so the top categories are things like IT, business and finance, office administration.

0:24:09.6 RY: As you start looking at other areas like sales and we, of course, we don’t call it sales, but we have people who are marketing and trying to bring students to our campus, that’s still a fairly high proportion of hybridity or remoteness, but it’s not as high as those others. And then there are those areas where people need to be face-to-face or hands-on with some kind of resource, like maintenance work or something like that. So I think that we will find that areas like IT and finance and budget and HR, pretty big administrative units will be capable of a high level of remoteness.

0:24:54.1 RY: Once you get beyond that, of course, there is a cultural question as to, do you want people to come on campus more frequently just for cultural benefits, or because you want the vibe of people being present, and those are decisions that will be made, it will probably play out a bit differently from one campus to another.

0:25:11.5 KM: Yeah, but I’m struck by if functions like IT, like finance, we don’t often think about higher ed universities as competing with the outside market, but we really are for job candidates in those fields, so the same IT and finance staff could be working at companies in any number of industries. So these are also the places that we’d probably benefit most from an expanded recruiting pool, from being able to just recruit in our backyard, but think at a more regional or national level.

0:25:40.5 RY: And that leads to an important point. I mentioned at the very beginning today that probably the dominant mode of remote work for most employees following their preferences will be a hybrid, a couple of days a week in, a couple of days a week at home. However, there are some critical areas where higher ed has historically had difficulty recruiting, particularly rural campuses or campuses in remote locations, where we may see people recruited who are never expected to come to campus, or very rarely, they may make an exceptional occasional visit.

0:26:20.9 RY: So we are going to probably in areas like cybersecurity or some of the more arcane areas of finance or regulatory law, there may be areas where we, the best solution for us is to have people that are purely remote. I don’t think that work anywhere or total remote will be a huge percentage of our workforce, but it will be substantially larger, probably, than it has been in the past. And that does introduce a few extra complications. Institutions then have to start managing things like tax and work regulations across state lines, and we’re already seeing some of our partners outsourcing some of those kinds of administrative functions that they didn’t really have to face very much in the past to outsourcing companies, PEOs and HR companies. So there’s a little bit of administrative complexity that goes with that, I’d say the larger concern is how do you incorporate people into your work culture that literally never set foot on campus?

0:27:34.7 KM: Ron, this has been such a fascinating conversation. I’m struck by what a fast-evolving topic this has been, both in higher education, but in our society at large. I know from talking to you, you started researching this topic around August, September, and you said that those conversations have evolved so much in just the past six or seven months, so certainly a place we want to continue the conversation and we’ll stay tuned. But before we end today, I would love to hear what advice you’ve been giving leaders as they’ve been either beginning these conversations or continuing group discussion on what the future of remote work on their campus will look like.

0:28:13.0 RY: If you’re not doing this, you need to be doing this. This is not really much of an option. The workforce, the workplace is changing at a macro level. Second, you need to establish a trust-based policy towards remote work, not the fear or risk-based policy that we’ve had in the past. Develop a task force that has broad representation across campus, and the key question for you to work out is how to balance institutional guidance that establishes remote work as a norm with the discretion that will be necessary by managers and directors to be able to make the decisions on a job-by-job basis as to what can actually be done remotely.

0:29:04.2 RY: And that is really the central question. We do think that you still need to continue to provide a wide range of discretion to managers going forward, but you need to get the message to them that this is not a thing to be feared. It’s not a thing that is going to break the institution if we permit people to work remotely.

0:29:26.4 KM: Such good perspective. Thank you so much, Ron. I know your team has been hard at work developing tools and resources to help our partners implement and improve their policies, including a remote work policy audit and a remote employee onboarding tool kit as we’re starting to onboard new employees in the remote environment. So we’ll make sure to post information on those…

0:29:47.0 Speaker 1: On…

0:29:47.9 KM: Yep, to Thank you so much for being with us today, Ron. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

0:29:54.4 RY: Thanks, Kaitlyn. It’s been a pleasure.


0:30:00.2 S1: Thank you for listening. Join us next week when EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer talks to journalist Jon Marcus. You’ve probably read John’s work in The Washington Post, USA Today, Time Magazine, or more recently in the Hechinger Report. The two will talk about a subject near and dear to all of us: How to reverse enrollment declines. Until next week, thank you for joining us on Office Hours with EAB.

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