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3 Reasons Why I Should Stop Pining for the Pre-Pandemic/Pre–Hybrid Work Campus

Why we are never going back to pre-COVID ways of working in higher ed, and why we wouldn’t want to, anyway—even if we could.

December 4, 2022

I’m driving my colleagues crazy with my constant worrying about the new normal of higher ed work. To help convince myself to stop longing for a mostly in-person and campus-based academic work culture, here are three reasons why I should stop pining for that past.

Reason No. 1: The days of preflexible and prehybrid higher ed work were not all that great.

Academics love to look with nostalgia at imagined pasts. Nowadays, we remember with rose-colored glasses when almost everyone (well, at least staff) came to campus each workday.

We wax poetic about the collaboration, cohesion and creativity that resulted from hallway conversations. We share fond memories of the connections strengthened by meeting people from across the university at in-person campus events. And we seem to agree that while Zoom can be an efficient way to hold meetings, building genuine empathy and trust across colleagues is challenging to accomplish virtually.

These thoughts about the benefits of pre-pandemic academic work life may be true. And our worries about how we can build campus work cultures in a new hybrid working reality may be well founded. But we must remember that many of the norms that governed higher ed work pre-COVID were not all that great.

Nonhybrid working arrangements likely worked best for the most privileged of academic employees.

Pre-COVID, only the highest-status university employees could enjoy flexibility in how they worked. For most people working for a college or university, there was little choice but to attempt to mold one’s life around one’s job rather than vice versa.

For most higher ed employees, a lack of flexibility meant that work was highly stressful—and often not all that productive. A lack of flexibility means constantly figuring out how to juggle family and work responsibilities.

That juggle does not go away with the rise of a more flexible set of higher ed work expectations. However, the added flexibility available in a hybrid-friendly academic work culture certainly helps all of us navigate the inevitable work-life conflicts and strains.

Reason No. 2: Some form of flexible and hybrid work is the new higher ed reality, so we better accept that fact and spend our energy optimizing this new system.

For many colleges and universities, some degree of hybrid work arrangements is the new normal. We don’t know how common or uncommon this shift is across the 4,000 or so colleges and universities in the U.S. Partly we don’t know because this shift toward hybrid academic work is still shaking out. Partly we don’t know because we don’t have shared definitions of what constitutes hybrid higher ed work. And partly we don’t know because nobody is counting.

What seems safe to assume is that higher ed work is different now than it was pre-pandemic. And it also seems reasonable to hypothesize that the overall direction of travel is toward greater acceptance of hybrid work arrangements.

How many people who work for your college are university are on campus five days a week? What percentage of meetings that you attend are partially or entirely on Zoom? (Asked another way, what proportion of your meetings occur with everyone together in a physical room?)

During the pandemic, it seems as if a wider array of higher ed nonfaculty roles were filled by higher ed professionals who would have been unlikely to accept a position that required them to be on campus each day.

Again, we don’t have research on this—but I would hypothesize that the average distance to campus from where staff live has significantly increased since the beginning of 2020.

For many people engaged in higher ed work, the new reality is that that job falls on a spectrum of the percentage of working hours spent physically on campus. On one end of that spectrum are people who work primarily remotely, only coming to campus for in-person meetings a few times a year. On the other end of that spectrum are those who come every day to campus and spend all day on campus doing their work.

Most higher ed knowledge workers are in between these endpoints of the campus work spectrum, between fully remote and fully on campus.

The question is not how to dial things back to pre-pandemic days. But rather, how might colleges and universities build cohesive, inclusive and productive work cultures around the new reality of flexible academic work?

Reason No. 3: If colleges and universities want to recruit and retain the best people, some form of flexible work must be an option.

Pre-COVID, some colleges and universities had already realized that one way to attract and retain the best people was to allow them hybrid work. Nowadays, every school understands that reality.

This does not mean that every college or university should or will adopt remote work options. Again, remote work is just one end of the new spectrum of flexible academic employment.

Some schools may draw the line at fully remote employees but embrace hybrid work arrangements. Other schools may be OK with some proportion of remote employees in areas of high need and extreme demand/supply mismatches but may limit the number of these roles.

Other schools may support the continuation of existing remote roles but take steps to fully incorporate those employees into campus life by requiring/supporting more frequent on-campus stints.

What will be interesting to watch is if any college or university will attempt to rewind the clock on pre-pandemic working norms. Will we see any school attempt to enforce a standard of every-day/all-day on-campus work? Can you imagine a university turning off Zoom for staff?

This new, more flexible form of higher ed work—again, a system that high-status academics enjoyed pre-COVID—is a welcome change.

There are challenges in building a campus work culture when most people are not always physically together on campus. But rather than complain about the down sides of this new higher ed work reality, we would be better off building on the strengths of this new hybrid way of working.

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Joshua Kim

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