This year has been a herculean, COVID-19-driven effort for the higher education sector to shift radically from a predominantly in-person model to one that was almost exclusively remote – overnight. Student affairs staff must have felt as if they had worked a whole decade in less than a year. Finance departments had redone annual budgets innumerable times. More than one CIO divulged that they had accomplished their three- or five-year plan in the space of nine months. Everyone was exhausted.

And yet, the vaccine was on the horizon, with the hope that the 2021/22 school year will start with something resembling herd immunity. January was to be a time for planning to get back to normal.

Or was it?

It turns out that a rebound to the way things were before COVID-19 isn’t in the cards. Cross-functional “future of work” or “workforce planning” committees have sprung up across institutions of all types, and these bodies are quickly discovering that designing the post-vaccine workforce strategy is not quite so simple. Expectations and needs have changed permanently.

Accenture’s recent survey of public sector employees demonstrated that around three quarters of higher ed employees want to work more remotely and are noticing institutional investments in and planning for increased remote work. The number one thing that can be done to improve the attractiveness of a career in higher education is to improve flexible/part time work options. While staff still crave in person connections, they do not want to work from the office as much as before. They also increasingly rely on their institutions to make them “Net Better Off” and consider their holistic well-being. Faculty needs have also changed. Most want to return to in-person learning, but 90 percent want to incorporate more technology into their teaching methods. Students are excited about in-person classes and co-curricular learning, but many don’t relish a return to paper-based or in-person administrative or student support activities. These changing expectations have important implications for skills, work location, facilities, and the technology required to support them.

Overall numbers mask the variation—not every individual or every team prefers working remotely or is able to navigate the technology or adopt the culture to do it well. Some jobs—especially essential jobs—simply cannot be done remotely. Staff/faculty preference for remote work could be disconnected from student expectations. Himanshu Tambe, Talent and Organisation Lead for Accenture in Southeast Asia writes about some of these challenges. Higher ed future of work committees need to navigate these questions, and many more.

Internal committee conversations are excited to implement changes while navigating the ambiguity of this new territory. Going back to the way things were is off the table, but remaining remote is equally so.  The chaos of uncoordinated autonomy is confusing and unproductive. The right answer drives value for the institution by accounting for changing needs while simultaneously establishing clear working norms and expectations.

Institutions can outline a new future of work framework by starting with a structured conversation to answer three questions:

  • What jobs can be done remotely, for what percentage of the time (and how might this increase with additional technology enablement)?
  • What are the relationship networks in the institution, and what is their impact on in-office time?
  • What do our employees prefer?

There are robust analytics tools that can help institutions quickly and objectively answer these questions. These tools provide ideal in-office work schedules based on three key parameters:

  • The need for the person to conduct certain tasks in the office.
  • The need for them collaborate with specific individuals in person.
  • Their own preference.

Once it’s clear who is in the office and when, the institution can answer questions about how (e.g. what technology or facilities are required to support this new strategy?) and why (e.g. what value will a more distributed workforce have for my institution?)

One thing is certain: Now is the time for higher ed to establish a new norms for the workforce in a post-vaccine world one step at a time. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Find out more on our Higher Education page or reach out to me via LinkedIn to continue the conversation.

​Natalie Sisto Means

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, North America

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