Title

Will COVID-19 Permanently Shift How Higher Ed Thinks About Remote Work?

The future new normal?

March 16, 2020
 
 

At some point, we all will be relieved to return to campus. When this COVID-19 crisis abates, and we are past the necessity of social distancing, it will feel fantastic to go back to our offices and classrooms.

Once normal campus life returns, the question will be, what are the long-term impacts that COVID-19 will exert on higher ed?

There are many potential ways that this pandemic will permanently alter our higher ed landscape. Will we think differently about online learning? Will investing in campus instructional design capabilities seem more like a business continuity necessity for institutional resilience and less like a tactic tied mostly to distance education?

The question I’m hoping that we can discuss is if COVID-19 will change attitudes and practices in higher ed around remote work.

Today, not everyone in higher ed is working remotely. Some campuses have not moved to require all but essential employees to work from home, although I suspect that is coming. Many of the people who make our schools run cannot do their work from home.

But many of us -- many of you -- are now working mostly remotely. Are you?

The imperative now is to slow the spread of the coronavirus by minimizing social contacts to slow down the rate that the virus spreads throughout the population, in the hope of protecting vulnerable subpopulations. The best way to do that is to practice social distancing.

We are now in the middle of a massive and unplanned social experiment in remote work.

I hypothesize that we will discover three things from this remote-working experiment:

  1. That the fear that people would work less hard when working remotely will prove to be unfounded, and in fact, it will be apparent that everyone works more. What drives work effort is internal motivation, not external oversight.
  2. That much, if not all, of the work that many people do in higher ed is well suited for remote work.
  3. That our mental image of remote work has not kept pace with the evolution of remote working tools, such as Zoom and Slack and Google Docs, tools that allow us to be both highly productive and socially connected.

It will also be true that those who usually don’t spend all their time working remotely will be very happy to see each other.

Our conception of in-person work will shift at some point from thinking of having campus offices and in-person meetings from a necessity to a luxury. All those offices and meeting rooms are expensive. Scarce institutional dollars may be better spent on providing adjuncts with private offices in which they can meet their students and grade papers and plan classes than on giving people like me an office.

COVID-19 may be a reset that will enable us to have a conversation about the value of putting staff in open offices (which the research shows is not conducive to productivity) versus giving those same staff members the option to work remotely. COVID-19 may open the door to previously difficult conversations about the financial and HR benefits of shifting some of the higher ed workforce to remote work.

Please do not mistake what I’m saying. We want to create conditions where the educators (faculty and nonfaculty) who interact with students can do so face-to-face. In a residential campus community, we want as many educators in residence as possible.

The question is, would moving to more remote work enable others to spend more time on campus? Can the resources that will be saved by having fewer campus offices be invested back into educators and students? (And how much money would be saved?).

I predict that higher ed norms around remote work will significantly shift post-COVID-19. That for some types of higher ed people (not all), working remotely will be more the expectation than the exception.

What do you think? How is your remote work going? Are you also missing seeing your colleagues each day on something besides Zoom? For those of you who already work remotely, how does it feel to have the rest of us join you?

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