Work Around Lives vs. Lives Around Work

The possibility of a positive academic workplace post-pandemic future—for some.

November 16, 2021

At this point in the pandemic, I’m struggling to find those silver linings. These in-between COVID times are proving endlessly exhausting.

One positive pandemic outcome that I’ve been thinking about is how academic work might be permanently changed.

For some people who work in higher ed—and I’ll say up front that there is a fair amount of privilege attached to what I’m about to claim—the future of academia is likely to be characterized by greater flexibility.

Post-pandemic, we are likely to see a portion of the academic workforce working differently than before. There will be a shift in which work is molded more around lives, rather than lives being shaped around work.

Who are these fortunate higher ed employees that are likely to enjoy greater autonomy and flexibility post-COVID?

The colleagues that I’m thinking of are primarily the professional staff. Salaried, as opposed to hourly, academic employees. Those who worked near exclusively from home during those months before widespread vaccine availability.

If your higher ed job takes place mainly through a computer—and your meetings can now be virtual—then I think that your post-COVID academic work life is likely to be more manageable and flexible than pre-COVID.

Pre-pandemic, the cultural norm for most higher education staff at most institutions was that everything else in life had to bend to accommodate work. This is not to say that people did not make workplace compromises as family responsibilities arose. Canceling meetings or scheduling workplace tasks around family responsibilities—especially during “normal” business hours—was the exception.

If possible, doing non-work-related activities from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. was something that most staff tried to avoid.

I think the culture has shifted. Or will shift. Or maybe it will only change if we decide that it should and work toward that goal. But I see hope.

The example of work-life conflict that always comes to my mind is kids’ soccer games.

My oldest daughter played varsity soccer all four years of high school. Games were usually scheduled after school hours, at 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. In my small college town, professors’ kids could reliably count on having a parent attend the game. For kids of staff, attendance was more hit or miss.

Faculty own their time. Staff, historically, less so.

In the years to come, I think that the staff who could work throughout the depths of the pandemic from their homes will also be more likely to go to those soccer games. And they will do so unapologetically, with less worry that they are somehow violating the cultural norms of academic staff work.

Greater flexibility for more higher ed employees will be a good change. People’s lives are complicated.

Kids get sick. Pets need caring for. Parents and other relatives need assistance. The water heater breaks, and the furnace stops working. Teacher in-service days are scheduled. Childcare centers send kids home. Partners need our attention. There are no summer camps in those two weeks before school begins.

An academic workplace culture where at least some staff can gain some autonomy and flexibility will be a good thing.

How those advantages are spread to all staff is an excellent question.

How do you think academic workplace culture will change post-pandemic?


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