The University of Iowa recently released the final report for its Future of Work@Iowa project. The project sought to “rethink” how and where workers work after the pandemic, focusing on “understanding the long-term potential for remote and hybrid work, flexible schedules, and other types of work arrangements” — arrangements it collectively calls “flexible.” work.”
And where did that new imagination take them? On the bold statement that “flexible work isn’t the new norm,” some workers might take advantage of “intermittent flexibility,” such as working remotely for a few days while caring for an elderly relative. In other words, the “future of work” at the University of Iowa doesn’t look much different from what was prevalent on college campuses before the pandemic. It’s like whoever wrote the report jumped into the DeLorean and set the clock to 2012.
The great past solution from the University of Iowa caught my attention because I know that other institutions are engaged in “future of work” conversations and initiatives. And I fear that many leaders will not realize how palpable the appetite for change is among teachers and staff in higher education. People are burned out and demoralized. Vacancies and interim titles abound. Search seats are working overtime to bring in applicants, and it’s not clear how taller the attractive workplace it once was.
I have been deeply involved in these conversations and have written and spoken about both the problems and possible paths forward. What I’ve often said is that the worst possible outcome I can imagine from all this “revision” is a return to normalcy – a new imagination that isn’t particularly imaginative. And yet I know that, as the Iowa report shows, that outcome is entirely possible. After all, institutions have a short memory and a shorter attention span. It’s easy to sweep today’s topic under the rug from tomorrow’s crisis.
Before that happens, I want to try again to be honest. We are in a moment of transformation in higher education. Business as usual did not work well for many teachers and staff in 2012, and they are less likely to work in 2022. Institutions that are successful in the next decade will seize this opportunity by prioritizing new approaches to working conditions and building better workplace cultures. “Intermittent flexibility” won’t make it.
Does the “future” work remotely on a snowy day?
In my campus presentations on burnout and morale, I have shared several principles to guide solution development. The Future of Work@Iowa report conflicts on all these counts.
A quick caveat before jumping in: I have no particular animosity towards the University of Iowa. In fact, it is sacrilegious in my family to write anything even mildly critical of the Hawkeyes. My great-grandmother, grandfather, mother and father are all alumni. And a committee report is often an imperfect expression of the views of the entire committee or even what becomes policy.
However, I think it is instructive to review the report’s shortcomings. First, it praises the many benefits of flexible working, while at the same time limiting flexibility in the future. It is an example of established values that do not correspond to assumed values. The report is packed with evidence that flexible working can be good for employees and good for the institution:
- External/hybrid employees who participated in the pilot reported more positive work experiences and preferred to keep these agreements as they saw them as a retention factor
- Supervisors from remote/hybrid teams participating in the pilot reported improved measures of service excellence and communication
- Many peer institutions and local businesses with which the university competes for talent are expanding flexible work
- Online focus groups identified “flexibility” as something that has reduced stress, increased satisfaction, improved physical health and made it easier to perform parental responsibilities
Despite these benefits, the report makes it clear that most employees can work on campus. Flexible work can be accommodated at short notice, for example in bad weather, provided there is a ‘business reason’.
That last point, taken from an update on the commission’s work, is one of the few times that it has been explicitly acknowledged how hard it’s worked through the pandemic. As we consider possible solutions, we must bear witness to this moment. Nearly one million people have died in the United States alone. Millions more mourn. And the effects of the pandemic have accumulated in different ways for people who are caregivers, immunocompromised, single, separated from a support network, or poorly served by our health care system because of racial inequalities. The report does not indicate how flexible work may be needed for these workers to protect themselves, care for others, be in the community and work in an environment free of discrimination. Part of witnessing this moment is designing workplace policies that don’t confuse fairness and equality. Options may need to be tailored – dare I say, even flexible – so that everyone belongs and is involved.
Another problem is that the report falls victim to what I call easy answers, including the idea that flexible work is incompatible with – and even subordinate to – “the campus experience students expect.” What is implied is that the only way to provide a residential campus experience is to have most employees on campus, as if students aren’t going to have fun and learn unless those fluorescent office lights are buzzing at 9 a.m. But we know the reality is messier than this. Iowa certainly educates off-campus, adult and graduate students who appreciate virtual services or extended office hours. And supporting the wellbeing of employees so they don’t become exhausted is good for the student experience, too. Students are observant. They can tell when their advisors are stressed. They notice when their mentors leave for a job outside of higher education.
I’ve encouraged leaders to do their homework and collect data to make decisions about the future academic workplace. I commend Iowa for running a pilot and evaluating it. Still, the report lacks data to support exactly how they determined that “most faculty and staff positions should work on campus.” Instead, we get a vague appeal to institutional identity and what students expect. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Iowa’s chief human resource officer, Cheryl Reardon, explained, “That’s exactly who we are as an institution.” I can tell you one thing that doesn’t sit well with the faculty and staff: making big decisions simply because leaders can’t imagine any other way of working.
And here’s the thing about “the institution” – the past, present and future depend on the work of teachers and staff. It is not possible to completely separate institutional needs from the needs of employees, and a big part of the transformative moment we are in is that teachers and staff will not give up their well-being for platitudes about mission. What does it mean to create a committee that finds clear evidence that a new approach to working conditions is good for workers, but then leaders say it’s not the new normal? It means that the well-being of employees is not taken seriously.
Working conditions cannot be window decoration
I was wondering what other people in higher education thought about the idea that flexible working is incompatible with the residential student experience. So I put the question to my Twitter followers in a very unscientific poll† Nearly all (94 percent) of the 219 respondents believed it is possible to offer employees both flexible work arrangements and a living experience that meets student expectations.
I also interviewed two Iowa employees via email or Zoom, and another four employees in student-centered roles whose offices continue to offer flexible work options. The consensus was that not only employees value flexible working. Today’s students want virtual options for many services and are not in the least phased by the idea of people working remotely or hybrid – some of them may even want it in their future workplaces.
Thomas Dickson, the assistant vice-provost for undergraduate education at the University of California, Riverside, summed up the gist of these interviews when he said, “In general, I don’t feel that remote working arrangements or flexible work arrangements are don’t jeopardize students’ commuting experience at all. In most cases, flexible hours and remote capabilities only serve to increase access for many student service areas.” It doesn’t mean every task can be done remotely, and sometimes smaller teams that need office coverage have fewer remote options, but they still have options.” Home work days often provide much-needed personal wellness time,” he explained. you’re not commuting (which can be two or three hours a day in Southern California), you can sleep a little longer, enjoy a slower breakfast, or even get a workout before or after work.”
My point in all of this is not to urge every institution to use remote/hybrid arrangements as the only answer to the “future of work” question. There is no doubt that the work of certain higher education jobs takes longer to personally build teams and serve students. I recently did my first personal dissertation defense in two years and it’s a much better experience with everyone in the room.
But we have a unique opportunity in higher education not to get too tied down to tradition. And leaders can’t afford to spend too much time messing around in the margins. As organizational psychologist Scott Sonenshein told Brene Brown in a recent episode of her Dare to Lead podcast, “When you walk in and run your business like it’s February 2020, you’re crushed. I don’t have a single question about that in my head. If you think you are going to run the same workforce as in february 2020 with the same mindset, the same mindset, the same desires and the same priorities then you are crazy you have to change or you go out of the way there is no going back this is the great reset. And that’s where hope and opportunity live.”
We know that institutions are capable of major changes. We ran in March 2020, then again in the fall of 2020, then again in the fall of 2021. Institutions have achieved things in the past two years that some considered unimaginable. Teachers and employees want to see that kind of willpower and creativity focused on working conditions and cultures. They want the kind of “reinvention” of the Future of Work@Iowa report that promised but failed to deliver.
What if leaders sit around too long, hoping this will all blow over? There is a company out there that pays more and offers flexible work that will happily take your talent away.