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10 Inconsistent Ways That I Am Thinking About the Future of Academic Work

Exploring the gaps between what I think and what I feel about flexible, hybrid and remote academic work.

July 31, 2022

Ten inconsistent ways that I’m thinking about academic work:

  1. I want everyone to be around on campus for casual chats and unscheduled run-ins, yet I’m flexibly working from home sometimes with no set schedule.
  2. When colleagues are on campus, I want to be able to come to their offices for unscheduled conversations. At the same time, much of my on-campus time is spent with my door closed and on Zoom meetings.
  3. At the end of each day, I find myself exhausted from Zoom meetings and missing the energy you get from being with smart people in a room. And yet, most of the meetings that I schedule are on Zoom.
  4. I firmly believe that talent is widely geographically distributed and that we can get the best people to work at our institutions if we are pro remote work. At the same time, I’m not sure what a critical mass of remote colleagues does to the culture of our residential campuses, and I worry about fully integrating and retaining remote academic staff.
  5. If my life circumstances were to change and I needed to move away from daily commuting distance to my campus, I think I could continue contributing productively as a remote employee. At the same time that I want flexibility for myself, I continue to wonder about the costs to institutional culture and innovation of the growing proportion of crucial academic staff members who now primarily work remotely.
  6. I’m convinced that it is possible to create a high-quality relational education in fully online programs and that these online programs can co-exist (and even add value to) residential programs. At the same time, I’m confused about how campus culture can be optimized for a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote academic workers.
  7. The future of residential education seems to be very much hybrid, as norms are evolving toward enabling students to retain instructional resilience even when traveling for sports or if they get sick. And yet, I find the HyFlex model of academic staff meetings (xMeetings) in which some people are together and some on Zoom to be almost always unproductive.
  8. The new reality of work everywhere is hybrid, and higher education must compete for talent across industries. The best people will go elsewhere if we don’t offer employment flexibility. How might we square this new workplace reality with the feeling that part of what makes academic work so fulfilling is the density of face-to-face interactions?
  9. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink almost everything about the university as a place of work. We are finally free to figure out what will work best for the people that constitute our institutions of higher learning. We can create new ways of working based on what we know about productivity and inclusion, and community, all facilitated by ubiquitous communication and collaboration platforms. But despite this opportunity, a large part of me longs for things to return to the campus-centric before days.
  10. I’m convinced that the opportunity for flexible, hybrid and even remote work is optimal for individuals (including myself) who work in higher education. At the same time, I’m becoming less persuaded that flexible, hybrid and remote work is good for our colleges and universities.

Likely, the path forward is acknowledging the gap between beliefs and feelings about the new academic workplace. We need to create safe and inclusive places to talk to each other about what we think and feel about how academic work is changing.

Those conversations must include colleagues working remotely and hybrid, as well as those coming to campus most or all of the time. That discussion about the future of academic work needs to start from a place of trust and openness.

What are your thoughts and feelings about the future of academic work?

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Joshua Kim

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