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Since March of 2020, I’ve returned to my campus office exactly once. That campus trip took place on a Sunday evening and involved a 30-minute effort to gather some books and equipment.

Six months. One campus visit.

The shocking thing about returning (if briefly) to my campus office was just how emotional the whole thing felt. I had not expected to feel so much so quickly when stepping foot in my campus office.

Part of those emotions was grief. We’ve lost so much in the past six months during this pandemic. The public health, economic, social and mental health costs are probably incalculable.

In higher ed, we have mostly tried to focus on the positive. COVID-19 has shown how resilient our colleges and universities are. We have persisted through the pandemic. When it became necessary to transition from residential to remote learning last spring instantly, every college and university made that happen. Classes have gone on. Schools located in areas of low community infection rates have been able to bring back some proportion of students to campus.

No industry has been more resilient during COVID-19 than higher education.

Despite higher ed’s perseverance and resilience, it is still horrible for all of us who have not been able to return to campus. When it will be safe for all of us across higher ed who are working remotely to return to campus is still unknown. The timing will depend on when a safe and effective vaccine has been widely distributed. For faculty and staff who are immunocompromised or who live with or in close contact with people who are, the return to campus may come much later.

Given that most of us who have been working remotely have been able to do so reasonably effectively, why is there such a strong desire to return to face-to-face campus-based work?

Here are three reasons that I miss going to campus every day:

1. Missing Students

Working in higher ed is not nearly as satisfying when you cannot hang out with students.

Some professors may be discovering that they are getting to know their students better through online teaching than face-to-face. Asynchronous learning can remove the time barrier for learner participation, as there is no limit on discussion board space. Synchronous online class meetings can be more effective for distributing class conversation if these sessions are facilitated effectively.

What we are missing by not being on campus with our students are all those random and unstructured interactions. I miss hearing student conversations in the library, in the hallways and on the green. Mixing with students is what brings the energy to working in higher ed.

2. Missing Colleagues

A campus-based higher ed job is, to some extent, a social experience. The energy and passion that we feel for our work in higher ed are driven, at least in part, by the collaborative nature of the work.

Pre-COVID-19, most of us took the social nature of academic work somewhat for granted. It was so normal to share space and time with colleagues that we didn’t think it could be any other way. Some of us had colleagues who worked remotely, but our campus interactions were face-to-face for the most part.

Post-COVID-19 academic life will be very different. One big change will be that many more of our colleagues will be working remotely. Our challenge will be to find ways to equalize the work experience for campus-based and remote roles.

Six months into the pandemic, I’m hugely missing everyone. Online meetings are more efficient, but this efficiency is gained by jettisoning many of the social behaviors humans practice when meeting face-to-face. Trying to be social with work colleagues while online doesn’t seem to work well. At least not for me. I miss physically spending time with the people I’ve worked with for years.

3. Missing Variation

Every day nowadays seems the same. We spend all our days staring at screens. Meetings are on screens. Communications are on screens. The farthest we go during the day is the kitchen.

Campus-based work is more variable. We walk across campus to classes or labs or meetings. We attend events. Sometimes we work from home, and sometimes we work from campus. Our days are marked by where we go, rather than only what we’ve done.

Some of my higher ed colleagues have tried to break up their days by working in alternative places. This is difficult during a pandemic. Working from a coffee shop is not a thing nowadays. We also all need to be in places with good Wi-Fi and where we can have Zoom meetings. Most of us, I think, are mostly staying put.

One thought I’ve had is to try to break up my days more. Perhaps take a couple of hours off in the middle of the day to exercise or run errands. So far, I’ve not tried to execute this plan -- mostly because nobody else seems to be doing this. Zoom meetings and emails are concentrated during “normal working hours.” The longer this goes on, I wonder how much the usual 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. working schedule will go out the window?

For those working remotely in your academic job before the pandemic hit, how has COVID-19 changed your working life?

What will happen to those in the higher ed workforce that will make the transition to full-time remote work once the pandemic is over?

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