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Do you work for your university from a distance?

Do you have colleagues who are either mostly or partially telecommuting?

How’s that working out?

Remote workers are like politicians. Most folks don’t think so highly of politicians in general, but they seem to like their local representatives. Many higher ed people will have critical (even negative) views about remote work, but they will then tell you that they have remote colleagues in their group and that things are going wonderfully.

Ask academic people about what they think about the idea of having some people work remotely, and you will hear all sorts of concerns.  You might hear: "Campus academic cultures are built on face-to-face interactions.”  "Informal knowledge sharing in spontaneous campus conversations is as productive as formal work meetings.”  "Professors will only meet face-to-face.”

Brave higher ed people.  It is time to challenge our assumptions about distributed employees. Remote work is the future of higher ed employment.  Here are 5 reasons:

#1 - Rebranding:

We need to rebrand from the language of “remote employment” or “telecommuting” to a lexicon that aligns with our higher ed practices.  I recommend that we think of remote work in the same way that we think of online education, and use the terminology of “low-residency employees.”

This naming matches and aligns with low-residency learning.  It is accurate, as every remote academic person that I know spends some time on campus.  Like a low-residency education program, the days spent on campus for remote workers are different than the days spent working away from campus.  These days are packed with interactions that are best suited for face-to-face work.

#2 - Online Learning:

Online learning is our new normal.  The majority of masters programs are now delivered fully or partially online.  All of the growth in higher education is in online learning.  The debate about the quality of online vs. residential education (at least at the masters level) is over.  Online education, when done correctly, can be every bit as intimate and immersive and transformative as face-to-face.  Even at the most traditional colleges and universities, places built around 18-22 year residential students, courses are moving towards a blended educational structure.   

If teaching and learning is moving to online/low-residency/blended, doesn’t it make sense that our universities also make this transition? Why retain a traditional place-based mode of employment when our students are learning from across the globe?  If we can teach courses online, shouldn’t we be able to also create and support and market these courses and programs through the same online tools and platforms?

We want the people who work on teaching and learning to be using the same tools as our professors and our students.  The more comfortable we are working remotely, the better we will get at teaching at a distance.  The more we can put ourselves in the place of our remote learners, the better we will be at supporting their learning experience.

#3 - Diversity and Retention:

Diverse teams are productive teams. It is critical for our higher education workforce to resemble our student population.  We need to have varied perspectives, experiences, ideas, and backgrounds if we are going to create educational programs that are attractive and successful.  Moving towards a low-residency employment model will allow us to deepen our recruiting pool.  Decoupling employment from residence will make our jobs more attractive to more qualified applicants.

A low-residency academic employment model will also do wonders for retention.  How many great people do we lose because of partner job relocations?  How often do our best higher ed people need to leave the institution for reasons outside of their effectiveness and passion for their work?

#4 - Platforms and Tools:

The quality of online collaboration and productivity platforms and tools has dramatically improved over the past few years.  This improvement has maybe been too gradual for us to take much notice.  But the cumulative effect of these advances is astounding.

We can now seamlessly meet online using Zoom (on any device).  Video is immersive.  Audio is clear.  Platforms like Slack allow fast and simple communication and collaboration.  Google Drive is terrific for group writing.

#5 - Speed:

I want to argue for one additional reason that colleges and universities should take the lead in pushing for new models of low-residency employment.  That reason is speed.

Higher education needs to figure out how to change.  We need to be better.  We need to figure out how to make our institutions economically robust.  We need to lower student costs and improve access.  We need to improve quality.  And we need to do all these things while retaining our core values and aligning to our missions.  What we can’t do is wait.

There is something about remote (low-residency) work arrangements that encourage speed.  Perhaps it is easier to think new thoughts when you are figuring out how to work in new ways.  Or possibly remote work breaks down the barriers of culture and caste that seem to hold so many colleges and universities back.  I’m not sure.  But I’ve seen it in action.  Teams with a mix of local and distant members work creatively and productively.

What might it take for higher ed to lead a renaissance in low-residency work?

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