What must leaders consider as they develop permanent remote work policies?
Most agree that remote working is here to stay, so developing thoughtful and effective policy will be critical to ensure that students are served and institutions thrive
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In a recent study, community college presidents in the US were asked for their perceptions of the future of remote work and the development of remote work policies in higher education. The presidents in the study discussed how Covid-19 had provided an impetus for strengthening their online learning and remote work infrastructure. They shared how they saw increased capacity as a significant aspect of their institution’s future, with one president stating, “we need to be flexible” because “we’re having difficulty attracting instructional and employee talent”. As employees in diverse industries, higher education included, increasingly demand remote work options, intentional policies will be critical to ensure employee satisfaction and meaningful work. Utilising semi-structured interviews with community college presidents, we provide three considerations for institutional leaders as they develop remote work policies for their campuses.
Maintain your institutional mission
As institutions develop remote work policies for employees, they should be informed by the institution’s mission. Numerous presidents discussed how the mission of their colleges encapsulated how they engaged students, supported staff and developed programmes. For some presidents, the use of remote work and additional online resources led to better support for previously marginalised populations or students with childcare needs, transport issues and other conflicts. One example shared was: “We were actually able to address our single parent population much better during Covid through remote support, because many of them could not come from eight to five [during the day], but then after 8pm, when the little ones are in bed, they can engage.” This example and others highlight how remote work policies can be effective, but they should be centred on the mission of the institution.
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In the spirit of an unwavering commitment to excellence, higher education institutions can reinforce their institutional mission through their policies related to remote work even though the initial remote work situations at most institutions resulting from Covid-19 may have been problematic. As one president lamented, “If you’re stranded on a desert island and the only tool you have is a hammer, then you’re gonna learn how to use a hammer to do what you have to do.” College leaders now have many tools and the opportunity to intentionally develop policies that focus on long-term goals and current values.
Develop the policy as a tool for recruitment and retention of talent
In today’s competitive marketplace, employees have a variety of options, and many institutions will happily cater to the demand for workplace flexibility if it ensures that they can acquire the best talent. This should be seen as an opportunity by policymakers and leaders, because they no longer have to limit their talent searches by geography. Presidents in the study consistently saw increased remote options and workplace flexibility within their organisation as a new form of leverage that could be used to entice, recruit and retain the best employees.
The development of remote work policies should be framed as tools for retention and recruitment. While some institutional leaders may view remote work as temporary or ineffective, many of the presidents in this study shared how they had developed remote work policies prior to Covid-19, and the majority foresaw that remote work would be a fixture of the campus workforce. One president shared how they were once opposed to remote work, but “I’m not any longer. There is a lot of value, and I see it going into the future…Even when we are primarily all back on campus, I can see remote working for certain projects.”
Presidents discussed how many employees saw positive outcomes from their ability to work from home in terms of being able to perform even in the face of unforeseen challenges such as car trouble, sick children and bad weather. With the increase in remote work in many industries, higher education will need to be able to provide remote opportunities to recruit the best talent and retain current employees, especially at rural and under-resourced institutions.
Embed training and resources in connection with the policy
Research has repeatedly shown that the best institutional transitions couple policy change with comprehensive resources and support. While “digital natives” may feel more at home in an online environment, that does not inherently mean they are more skilled with all digital tools or more competent in navigating the digital classroom structure. This is also one of the reasons why it is important for institutions to have formalised remote work and learning policies. By creating a formal structure, day-one training and orientations can be created to set the standard for new hires, current employees will have an established support system and leadership will develop a well-honed and unified understanding of the legal and systemic impacts of working in a hybrid environment.
According to a recent student voice survey, a sample of students provided insight on whether various higher education jobs could be done remotely. Results indicated that the majority of students believed that most higher education employees could function in their roles remotely. In fact, the only roles where more than half (56 per cent) of students foresaw a need for consistent in-person services were financial aid and the counselling centre. While students may perceive that jobs could be completed remotely, remote work policies need to include provisions for training and ensure that employees have the resources necessary to be effective. Support for faculty needs to include resources and training that both raise their awareness of available tools and build their competence and confidence to apply said technological tools in ways that optimise the student learning experience. For faculty and staff who take advantage of remote work, policies should include provisions that they have adequate internet and technology to complete their work, and institutions should be prepared to invest in their employees.
The reflections of these presidents provide evidence that even in colleges’ highest offices there is a perception that remote work will be part of higher education moving forward. Developing thoughtful and effective policy will be critical to ensure that students are served and institutions thrive. College leaders must centre their remote working policy on the mission of their institution, craft the policy to ensure that they can recruit and retain top talent and include provisions for training and resources.
Jon McNaughtan is professor of higher education, Catherine Whaley is a doctoral student, Chelsea Wallace is a doctoral student, and Stephanie J. Jones is professor of higher education, all at Texas Tech University.
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