College leaders are calling their employees back to campus. Human-resources offices are developing new telecommuting policies. And a consensus is emerging, among employees and their managers: Remote work — or at least more flexibility — is becoming a key tool for attracting and retaining staff.

It’s a major shift from pre-pandemic operations on college campuses, workplaces deeply rooted in a sense of place. But employees across the country are saying they are as productive — and sometimes more — without long commutes and inflexible hours. They don’t want to turn back the clock to 2019.

The stakes for recruitment and retention are high as colleges revise their policies for staff, particularly in competitive fields like technology and cybersecurity. Many higher-education staff members are considering leaving their positions as colleges are calling them back to the office. Some already have.

Jon-Stephen Stansel felt productive in the first months of remote work at the University of Central Arkansas. He had long hours as a digital-media specialist, especially after the campus initially shut down last year, but he felt that his performance was solid and that working remotely was a natural fit for his role. “My job’s online,” he said. “I’m used to that.”

He said he tried to be a team player when, in the fall of 2020, he was asked to return to the office, even though it felt “a little ridiculous” to take virtual meetings from closed-door private offices. But he drew a line when his team was moved to an open-office floor plan, he said, well before vaccines were available. (A university spokesperson, Fredricka Sharkey, told The Chronicle plexiglass divided workstations in Stansel’s office, and social distancing and masking were required.)

Stansel said he asked colleagues why this was necessary and “couldn’t get a direct answer.” It signaled to him that campus leaders “value me being in a chair for eight hours a day over the output of my work.” He took it as a sign to move on and put in his two-weeks notice in January. Now, he works freelance, including for Amazon Prime Video.

Stansel has long believed in academe’s mission. “I chugged the higher-ed Kool-Aid,” he said by phone recently. “I honestly believed that the more we educate people, the better our world becomes.”

But it wasn’t enough to keep him working in the field. “We’re going to see a migration of top talent out of higher ed if we’re not flexible,” he said. “It breaks my heart to leave, but I’ve got to look out for myself and my family.”

Sharkey, the spokesperson, declined to “speculate about the choices and preferences of current and former employees.”

Flexibility as a Priority

The current preoccupation with retention contrasts markedly with the staffing dynamics of the past year. At least 570,000 workers, or one out of nine workers in academe, lost or left their job since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to preliminary, seasonally adjusted figures from the U.S. Labor Department. Now employees have some leverage in a tightening labor market, and flexible work policies are one of many factors driving sky-high turnover levels. A survey by Microsoft found that more than 40 percent of employees are considering leaving their positions this year.

Eliminating flexibility could lead to a “turnover tsunami” on college campuses, Rob Shomaker, senior vice president for the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, or CUPA-HR, said at a recent event.

In recent communications, interviews, and released policies, colleges like Drexel University, Virginia Tech, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Illinois at Chicago have acknowledged that flexibility could attract job applicants, improve staff retention, and lift employee morale.

The University of South Florida even tied flexible work policies to the campus’s goals to advance in national rankings. “The global marketplace for talent is evolving toward flexible work, creating more competition for top performers who can help us reach our aspirations for Top 25 U.S. News & World Report rankings and AAU eligibility,” campus officials wrote in one message.

The rise of remote work across the country means that colleges will compete for applicants with businesses and organizations nationally, not just with local industry, meaning that this could be an area where colleges keep pace with other employers — or fall short.

Staff aren’t indentured servants. They’re professionals — constant free agents.

It’s already a key issue for job candidates, college leaders said at the CUPA-HR event on Wednesday. The large majority of recent potential applicants to Amherst College asked whether there were remote-work options, said Lisa Rutherford, chief policy officer and general counsel at the college. In the last three months, every recruitment effort that Bryan Garey, vice president for human resources at Virginia Tech, was involved in included a conversation about flexible work, he said.

Even before the pandemic, Boston University heard from applicants that flexible work was a priority. The inquiries since then have only increased, said Natalie McKnight, dean of the college of general studies. When the university’s website published an article about the future of remote work, the comments flooded in:

  • “BU has two options. Adapt and remain competitive in order to retain its top staff and attract the future workforce, or, don’t adapt, and witness a wave of staff leave and struggle to hire the next generation.”
  • “Increasing job flexibility, especially for those with children, is the only way to retain loyal employees.”
  • “If BU wishes to retain talented staff, an official flex work policy is essential. This should be a no-brainer decision that can easily improve morale, employee well being, and productivity. I foresee a mass exodus to other area institutions or sectors should a formal flex-work policy not be established come fall 2022.”

The high cost of living in cities and towns where many colleges are located marks another challenge. Erwin Hesse, executive director of enrollment management at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, leads a team of people, most of whom are in their 20s. He knows that when the pandemic hit, some entry-level staff members left Washington, D.C., and its high cost of living, to live with family.

The team has performed well, and applications for prospective students have gone up, he said. “We’re killing it right now,” he said. “We’re doing what we need to do. We’re connecting with prospects.”

Now the School of Continuing Studies is considering changing employees’ work modality to telework or remote, he said. If such a change does not proceed, Hesse said, his staff would need to move back to the Washington area — and he expects some would seek employment elsewhere.

“My biggest concern,” he said, “is losing people.”

A university spokeswoman, Ruth McBain, told The Chronicle that Georgetown intends “to provide as much flexibility as possible to balance operational needs with individual circumstances, while also ensuring we continue to achieve our educational and research missions.”

Back to ‘That Old World’?

When people leave higher education, said Justin Lind, who works in institutional research at Stanford University, it’s not because they stop appreciating the good things about the sector.

He himself values the missions of equity and knowledge-generation. But such missions may be “no longer enough to compensate for the downsides,” he said, like less-competitive pay and unaffordable housing in some college towns.

At Stanford, the “affordability crisis” in the Bay Area made staff members want remote work well before the pandemic, Lind said. Employees were commuting long hours from more-affordable areas, he said, and his colleagues could work one day a week remotely.

During the pandemic, employees showed they could function remotely five days each week. “People said, ‘We don’t want to just go back to four days in the office,’” Lind said. “Everyone knows we can do this work well. Let’s not go back to the status quo.”

“I suspect in my group, there will be enough flexibility that we won’t lose people because of rigid come-back-to-work policies,” he said. “But I’m sure across Stanford at large, lots and lots of people will suddenly say, ‘I don’t want to go back to that old world.’”

In a statement provided by a Stanford spokesman, the university’s vice president for human resources, Elizabeth Zacharias, wrote that the university will assess staff experiences and infrastructure needs and test in-person, hybrid, and remote flexible working arrangements.

There are benefits to these arrangements, including retention and work-life balance, she wrote. Still, remote work may not be effective “in certain settings when the university returns to full operations,” she wrote. “Our goal is to find the right balance of flexible work to meet our operational, unit, and individual staff needs.”

Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s admissions and enrollment office has lost four people over the last few months. Two moved for career growth, said Andrew Palumbo, dean of admissions and financial aid, and one went to graduate school. The fourth moved closer to family. Each of those transitions made sense, Palumbo said. “Staff aren’t indentured servants. They’re professionals — constant free agents.”

Still, he said, offering flexibility — in addition to mission-driven work — is a way that colleges can compete for talent. His office is allowing employees to work four days in the office and one day remotely, and while operating a hybrid office will be more challenging for supervisors, Palumbo said people will value the flexibility.

“As people look around,” he said, they’ll want to know “not just what are the hours I’m going to work” but also “what is the quality of time I’m spending at work.”

The University of West Florida told supervisors and department heads to return to their offices by July 6, with exceptions for “permanent remote workers” and those with Americans With Disabilities Act and Family Medical and Leave Act paperwork on file.

Jeffrey Djerlek, associate vice president for finance and university controller, is expecting his team to come back to the office fully. He asked his direct reports how teleworking and hybrid scheduling were working for them.

One thing surprised him: They said they would prefer to be either fully remote or fully in person rather than a hybrid mix. Such a mix felt “too complicated” to nearly everyone he talked to, he recalled. It would be difficult to remember to send and bring information and files back and forth between workplaces.

Djerlek knows of colleagues elsewhere in higher education who are seeking early retirement instead of coming back to campus. He said he can count 10 people in Florida’s university system who have left or plan to leave by the end of the year.

“They got a little taste” of not coming into the office, he said. “Now they understand the balance of life. It’s more important now.”

Greater Balance

Many staff jobs in higher education are student-facing, and the remote-work decision for such positions has a different calculation than for behind-the-scenes jobs like data analysis and technology.

Advisers in the honors college at the University of South Florida will begin rotating back into the office later in June before a full return in August, said Reginald Lucien, director of advising.

His team is “here to support the students where the students happen to be,” he said. “They want to be on campus, and they want to engage on campus.” Students will have the option to meet remotely, but advisers will take those meetings from campus, he said.

Lucien draws a distinction between that work and more-administrative tasks, which “could be accomplished via dual modality.”

He said he expects some flexibility to continue, however, after the pandemic. If employees need to take an hour to drop off a pet at the vet, or take care of a sick relative, “it’s going to be easier.”

Though people are “all over the spectrum,” many of Kevin Grubb’s colleagues in Villanova University’s career-services office hope for “some version of flexibility,” he said.

The priority is to make decisions focused on students’ best interest, said Grubb, associate vice provost for professional development and executive director of the career center.

Balancing personal lives and family obligations has been much easier with a more flexible approach, said Brandi Scott, director of the multicultural student center for equity and justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She said she hopes higher education — and employers more broadly — have learned that from this experience.

The center will pursue a hybrid schedule moving forward, primarily due to continued Covid-19 safety concerns, Scott said. One team will be on campus on Monday and Wednesday, and another team will be there on Tuesday and Thursday. There will be a rotating support staff on Friday.

The sensitive conversations that Scott’s center once led in intimate settings are taking place online. Students have attended virtual events in larger numbers than expected, Scott said. After the murder of George Floyd last year, hundreds of people participated in a community gathering on Zoom.

It demonstrated to students, faculty, and staff, she said, that this challenging work could be conducted virtually.

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