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Stop Using the Language of ‘Normal’ for Face-to-Face Academic Work

When constant campus interactions are a tax on productivity and job satisfaction.

June 27, 2021
 
 

Much of the language we hear about the fall 2021 semester is about a call to “return to normal.”

For colleges and universities that offer a predominantly residential education, “normal” is assumed to mean (among other things) the return of students, faculty and staff to campus.

Could it be that our campus leaders who are most vocal about a desire to return to an “on-campus/face-to-face normal” are a bit different from some of the academic staff that they lead?

For someone with strong extrovert tendencies, the experience of face-to-face interactions can be highly energy-giving.

However, we should consider that many of our colleagues lean toward a more introverted, quiet and reflective way of working. For those colleagues, constant face-to-face interactions are not normal -- they are exhausting.

Can we consider the possibility that for some higher ed people, the privacy and reduced distraction of working from home are conducive to greater productivity and higher job satisfaction?

Our colleges and universities both mirror and reinforce the assumptions and inequalities built into our larger society. These biases play out in the organizational designs and cultural orientations of our institutions.

The bias toward intensive personal interactions is baked into the architecture and workplace rules and expectations governing academic employment.

For staff who find themselves exhausted by constant face-to-face contact, navigating the pre-pandemic academic bias toward in-person work was incredibly challenging.

This is why the past 18 months for some academic staff has been so eye-opening and why so many are wondering if they want to return full-time to campus.

The pandemic provided the first opportunity for many staff to do their work from home. For some higher ed people, the discovery was that working remotely felt “normal.” And that going into a campus office each day -- particularly if that office is an open office -- feels “abnormal.”

There are good reasons for academic leaders -- VPs and directors and deans -- to want their staff to return to campus. Some jobs need to be done face-to-face, even in higher ed.

What needs to change is the language around work.

Let us all try to remember that what feels “normal” to many (especially many leaders) is particularly challenging for some.

Let us not devalue the lived experience of our colleagues who are more productive and happier when working from home.

And in recognition that “normal” means different things for different people, let us strive to listen to what many of our colleagues are telling us about where and how they wish to work.

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