I don’t know yet how serious the Omicron variant will be — to my ears, it sounds like a Transformer cartoon from the 80’s — but the simple existence of yet another variant adds urgency to the questions around working from home.
Full-time faculty have always had the option to work from home. Lessons can be prepared and papers can be graded just about anywhere. (I always found the white noise from the row of dryers in the laundromat particularly useful for grading papers.) While full-time faculty certainly work full time, they aren’t necessarily on campus 40 hours per week. That was true long before the pandemic, and it became even more true as classes moved to virtual delivery.
The same wasn’t usually true of full-time staff and administrators. They typically had a “whichever is longer” arrangement: either stay for the traditional 8 hours or stay until the work is done, whichever is longer. Over time, that often led to some friction between staff and faculty, as staff mumbled comments along the lines of “must be nice…” when commenting on faculty schedules.
The pandemic introduced a robust work-from-home arrangement for staff and administration, simply by necessity. Across the industry, this semester brought a wide range of work arrangements, ranging from full-time to largely remote. My own campus adopted an expectation of a minimum of 60 percent of the workweek onsite, as long as a given office or work area was fully covered. That works pretty well when folks stagger their schedules.
We went to the hybrid model for a few reasons. The major one was to help with social distancing. If offices are only partially staffed on any given day, then the impact from someone coming to work contagious on a given day is somewhat contained. We also found during the pandemic that earlier fears that “working from home” was largely a euphemism for “taking the day off” proved unfounded. Work got done. Certain tasks, especially those involving a lot of reading and/or writing, were actually easier when done from home, given fewer interruptions.
I’ll admit also fearing a sort of institutional memory loss if we went all the way back to ‘normal’ too quickly. During the pandemic we found other ways of doing many things, and it seemed like a waste to just wipe all of those innovations away. Building an expectation of a hybrid structure into routines was a guard against amnesia.
The other benefit, though, has been on the morale side. As Kevin McClure noted last week in the Chronicle, years of austerity and understaffing at colleges across the country have done a number on the morale of many employees who remain. The post-pandemic surge in retirements that many colleges have faced has been a double-edged sword. It provides substantial savings when positions are left vacant, and sometimes substantial savings when a very senior employee is replaced with a rookie. (The term of art for that kind of savings is “breakage.” Replace a full professor who makes $130k with a newbie who makes $65k, and you recoup $65k in breakage.) But it also dumps more work on those who remain.
In this context, flexibility on days and hours is more than just a “nice to have.” It’s a way to retain employees who might otherwise walk.
On a practical level, there’s a real value to having control over one’s own time. A few weeks ago we had to have a plumber come to the house. As is usual, the plumber specified “sometime between 9 and 3.” Having the option of working remotely that day allowed me to be here to let the plumber in without sacrificing the entire day. My work got done, the sink got fixed, and the sky didn’t fall.
Although a few colleagues at other schools have mentioned hybrid schedules, they seem to be more the exception than the rule. That’s good and bad. In terms of competing for employees, it’s helpful; we provide a more appealing work environment than many other places, and we do it without breaking the budget. In human terms, though, I’d love to see the idea spread.
McClure is right about the demoralizing effects of chronic understaffing. All the more reason to give some thought to sustainable ways to treat employees better. The pandemic proved that working from home is not an oxymoron; in fact, sometimes it even works better. Faculty have known that for decades. The pandemic has been terrible, but that’s no reason to reject a silver lining. Flexibility is both desirable and affordable, if structured thoughtfully and with reasonable parameters. It’s something we can afford to give. I hope more places figure that out.
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