by Karen M. Whitney, Ph.D.
Today higher education is at an inflection point as an employer. While colleges and universities have earnestly worked to serve the public good through teaching, research, and service, it has often failed as an employer to its employees. It is clear now that there is a tension between what job seekers want out of a job/career in higher education and how most universities/colleges have organized themselves as an employer.
To be clear as a former college president and chancellor I hold harsh criticisms for colleges and universities as employers. I would offer that every workplace is comprised of the following: 1) compensation; 2) working conditions and 3) relevance. My criticism is around the malfeasance and nonfeasance of care for employees regarding these 3 key elements that comprise the workplace. Those responsible for a lack of duty are many. For public higher education state governors, legislators various state and federal regulatory agencies figure prominently in harming the workplace. For all of higher education, boards, system heads, and college leadership who are often disconnected from the reality of the workplace for everyone else yet are the ones that set policies and approve practices that construct the workplace.
The workplace is also informed by the employees themselves. It always amazed me when many who work in higher education knowing that they accept lousy compensation, overwhelming working conditions all in the name of some misplaced sense of purpose or being. By staying in these “lousy jobs,” these employees give lousy employers the space to be lousy. The best thing is for each of us to stand up for ourselves and when it’s not right, pick yourself up and move on to a better employer. Otherwise, the institution is rewarded for being lousy. When possible, and in an appropriate way, I encourage every exiting employee to express the motive for your leaving. Giving this feedback is not to be negative or spiteful but to be instructive. To be sure, if a number of good people leave for the same reason, it will often move the institution to improve.
This mix of people, their personalities and politics has overtime, and unsurprisingly, resulted in what we have today — a big hairy mess of pervasive employee turnover, reduced numbers of candidates in searches coupled with increasing employee indifference about their work. At the same time employers are uncertain about how to respond. To reduce the mess this article will specifically look at the second component of the workplace: working conditions. We will talk about how a university can embrace a more flexible approach to work through adopting and implementing a remote/ hybrid approach to work that would be available to all employees.
Challenges To Remote/Hybrid Approach to Work
Trust. One of the first challenges to this type of shift in work culture is the extent the employer trusts their employees. Given that universities are typically a campus culture that is the sum of many different sub-cultures, as such trust will be the first challenge to creating, launching, and enabling a remote/hybrid work policy. Trust will need to be present for this policy to succeed.
Accountability. The extent to which a university does a good job of employee accountability will help or hinder the successful implementation of a policy. A supervisor will have to be top of game in working with their team to ensure that there is clarity around what each employee has been hired to accomplish.
Front-facing. Thoughtfully considering the extent to which a person in a particular position must be on ground or that working on ground better ensures achieving desired results. Hard work must occur to confirm for both the employee and the supervisor the extent to which the results required of the employee must occur working on-ground and/or could be achieved remotely or hybrid (a mix of both on-ground and remotely). There will be positions that the work must occur completely work on-ground. There are however positions that upon thoughtful reflection have (during the pandemic) and could achieve desired results remotely/hybrid.
Collegiality. Given the importance of collegiality in higher education, I am pulling this item out for greater attention. Collegiality is often a make-or-break aspect of the higher ed workplace. The growing question is, to what extent do employees need to see each other in person to achieved desired outcomes.
Preliminary responses reported in higher education outlets such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside HigherEd, etc. indicate that the benefits of increasing flexible working conditions can lead to increased employee recruitment, increased employee retention and, Increased employee productively.
An Opportunity to Do the Right Thing
While having the privilege of serving as the Interim Chancellor for the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) from 2020-2022 the “hot mess” hit UIS on many levels. We were losing employees (faculty and staff), there were increasing reports of declining morale, and recruiting to fill existing positions was becoming increasingly difficult. During this period, hard looks and difficult truths emerged for UIS as an employer regarding the workplace compensation, working conditions, and relevance. To be sure over this two-year period, UIS bravely worked on all three fronts. Below, I will talk about how UIS quickly and thoughtfully developed, approved and launched a university remote work policy.
As with many universities in 2020, UIS hurriedly implemented an emergency remote work policy to guide the rush to move employees off campus in the early wake of the COVID19 pandemic. With the success of the emergency response and the clear evidence that employees had proven to be trustworthy and hardworking in a variety of venues, there was great confidence that the university could engage the shared governance process to institutionalize this policy into our work culture. Championed by the Interim Chancellor (that would be me), as well as the entire Cabinet and lead by Human Resources the emergency policy was further developed and refined into an on-going policy through our established governance process. This process included the unions, a university senate, and many other contingent groups. The result was the final policy. What makes this policy a best practice is that every employee has a pathway to make the case for a remote/hybrid approach to work. Also, it is important to note that this policy does not replace many other good policies that employees should rightfully use when needed such as FMLA, etc.
This policy is really about employees and their supervisors talking with each other to mutually arrive at the optimal mix of how the employee approaches the job they have been hired to do. It provides the way for the employee and the supervisor to engage each other in this review. The conversation occurs at least annually given the changing nature of work. Interestingly at UIS, the conversation between supervisors and employees led many employees who at first thought they might want to work remote/hybrid realize that the best approach to their work was in-person. At the end of the day, it’s about employees being able to work in ways that supports their achievement of results.
Best Practice Take Aways
Leadership. The workplace culture is significantly influenced by the leadership and as such the leadership must take the lead in talking about these issues and their commitment to employee success. For example, as Chancellor at UIS, I made it clear to the Provost, Vice Chancellors, and other leaders in meetings that we must be an employer of first choice to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff. I talked about these efforts in meetings with the union leadership and with the campus senate. I also explained that quality employer included all three elements: compensation, working conditions, and purpose. Historically there had only been an emphasis on compensation and emphasized that working conditions and a clarity of purpose/relevance were also important. Further I commissioned the Vice Chancellor for Finance & Administration and Human Resources to prepare a proposed policy and implementation plan.
Policy. A Remote Work Policy is required. The policy provides guidance to all involved. For example, the UIS Remote Work Policy first emerged as an emergency policy created at the beginning of the pandemic and then evolved over time to the current standalone policy. The process of refining the policy and of engaging various governance stakeholders was helpful in moving the work culture to accept and see the benefit greater flexibility in the workplace.
Management. It must be made clear that all managers must understand and support the policy. At UIS, the roll out of this policy to manager and employees was successful because it was supported by the Chancellor, the Provost and Vice Chancellors, human resources, unions, and campus senate. To be sure there were some managers who had a harder time with this policy because it challenged the historical way, they managed their employees. Human Resources was tasked to work with all managers to help them understand and support the policy.
Training & Professional Development. Supervisors must be trained and well prepared to talk with their employees. This policy and any policy that changes the historical patterns of employee work will challenge many and will need to be work through as a transformative process. As such issues of what constitutions employee accountability, productivity and its impact on students and colleagues must be reviewed and engaged developmentally through training and professional development. At UIS we offered many formal and important training sessions organized by Human Resources.
Results. As the policy is created, launched and underway it is suggested that Human Resources consider how to track results in order to make continuing improvements. At UIS Human Resources keeps track of the numbers of employees who inquired about remote/hybrid work, engaged their supervisors, and submitted the appropriate request for remote/hybrid work. In addition, the policy requires periodic review and request to continue.
Celebrating & Communicate the Win. Feature employees who are succeeding in remote work/hybrid approaches as well employees who succeed best by working on ground. At UIS, to be honest the policy was so recently implemented we had not implemented this practice. I wanted to include this practice in this article as a suggestion for the future.
For those college and university leaders who can find the good middle ground of supporting employee success will succeed and those who cannot or will not and they will lose out on talented employees. Successful leaders recognize that supportive and flexible working conditions are as important as competitive wages and a strong sense of purpose. Evolving the university workplace is really one of those things a university must do, or they risk not being able to recruit and retain the best employees. It is one of those evolve or die moments. We are in the people business and the business of higher education is only as good as our people. If we all say we want the best and the brightest, then universities and colleges must evolve and actively embrace competitive compensation packages, enriching working conditions with a clear understanding of how each position is important to the institution’s success and relevance. Failing to evolve will result in a failure to recruit the best and the brightest. As a result, it will be harder if not impossible to successfully achieve the institution’s mission and vision.