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The Clocktower at the University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin announced almost all staff must return in person before the start of the next academic year.

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This summer will mark the end of remote work for most staff at the University of Texas at Austin, president Jay Hartzell announced Wednesday. The mandate has left staff members reeling, faculty doubting the value of shared governance and human resource experts questioning the wisdom of the move.

“I’m concerned for people who have disabilities, who have erratic doctor’s appointments, who have infants at home, who have set up their lives with remote and hybrid work so that they’re in some way manageable,” said Anne Lewis, a UT Austin union representative. “And those are some of the best workers at the university—the people who are doing everything they can to be productive and to keep their jobs and to be respected.”

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college campuses across the country in March 2020, UT Austin—like many institutions—has allowed employees in many departments to work remotely at least some of the time. National research shows that the gesture has helped maintain employee satisfaction and retention during a difficult time in higher ed, and many staff have come to count on the flexibility. But at UT Austin at least, the perk is drawing to a close.

In his email announcement, Hartzell explained that the decision “reinforces the teaching and research mission of our University,” since ​​“staff members can most effectively serve our students, faculty, fellow staff members, and other stakeholders when working together in an environment that fosters collaboration, innovation, availability, and reliability.”

But Lewis and other critics of the change argue that it could actually drive staff to seek more flexible positions elsewhere. Human resource experts agree colleges and universities have tough choices to make about where staff members should report for work in the post-pandemic era, and warn that forcing them back to the office could impact the future of recruitment and retention in an industry that’s already struggling.

“We certainly have heard many institutions talk about the fact that their applicant pools have gotten smaller,” said Christopher Nickson, vice president of The Segal Group, a human resources and benefits consulting group. “Or in some instances they report to us that when someone applies for a position; they will often follow up and say, ‘I’m interested to know whether any component of this role can be done in a remote or hybrid fashion.’”

Not all UT Austin staff will be required to work in person; a “small number” of individuals who have demonstrated productivity and serve in roles characterized as transactional, internal or requiring high levels of independence will be eligible to remain hybrid or remote on a case-by-case basis, Hartzell’s letter said. But the guidelines for supervisors to make such decisions are vague, staff members say. Deans and department leaders must finalize plans for transitioning back to in-person work by “early July” and fully implement them by Aug. 19—the week before fall term begins, according to the letter.

A spokesperson for the university declined to provide Inside Higher Ed with further comment on the reasoning behind the policy change, writing, “what [President Hartzell] stated in the email is the reason why.”

‘Workers Deserve Dignity’

Texas governor Greg Abbott was quick to voice approval for the decision on X. “This is the way,” he wrote. “University of Texas to end remote work for almost all staff in August. It’s past time to get back to work.”

But Lewis, who serves as the central Texas executive board member for the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), called the governor’s response “horrible,” and suggested he shouldn’t treat staff as cogs in the higher ed machine.

“It’s like we’re the seven dwarves or something,” she said.

As a professor of practice in UT’s Moody College of Communications, Lewis qualifies as faculty and is not directly impacted by the policy change, but as a union representative she works daily with people who are. She said there had been rumors of some kind of change to work modality and that the Staff Council had been notified in advance. Still, notification is not the same as consultation, she said.

“I mean, people were thinking that it was a shift from three days a week virtual to two days a week virtual. They really didn’t know, and that includes people up the line on managerial staff,” she said. “Workers deserve dignity, and they deserve as much determination over the circumstances of their jobs as possible. This is taking something away.”

The timing of the announcement—over the summer, when many staff are on vacation and students are away from campus—was likely strategic, Lewis said. Breaking the news when the campus is vacant makes it harder for opponents to resist the change, she said.

Pauline Strong, president of the UT Austin chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the faculty plans to stand in solidarity with TSEU members and will advocate for the reinforcement of shared governance.

“We believe as faculty that staff are absolutely essential to our ability to serve students,” she said. “We want to express concern about policies that occur without consultation with the most relevant representative body, whether that be the Staff Council in this case, or the Faculty Council in cases that involve faculty, or student government in the cases that involve students.”

Strong also said one of the biggest concerns among faculty is the loss of staff support. As the city of Austin grows, the cost of living continues to rise, and staff members—many of whom earn as little as $15 per hour—are struggling to make ends meet. Add the cost of commuting and parking fees, and many employees may choose to look for a new job rather than return in person, she said.

“Hybrid and remote work is one of the options that make it possible to retain staff,” she said. “When I think about IT staff, for instance, we have a very robust [private] IT economy in Austin. Much of that work is done remotely, and so if we are not able to offer remote work to our staff, I think our ability to compete for them is going to be compromised.”

Finding a ‘Sweet Spot’

Research has shown that turnover among higher education professionals continues to climb, and a lack of remote work opportunities is one of the biggest reasons why.

According to a survey last September from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), the percentage of full-time staff members who left their jobs nearly doubled from 7.9 percent in 2020 to 14.3 percent in 2022. The findings also show that while two-thirds of staff believe most of their duties can be completed remotely and say they’d prefer to work that way, only one-third have been granted permission to do so. The report describes implementing more flexible work arrangements as a “low-hanging fruit that many higher ed leaders are ignoring.”

“Small changes can move the needle,” the CUPA-HR report read. “Allowing one day of working from home per week, implementing half-day Fridays, reducing summer hours, and allowing employees some say in their schedules are all examples of flexible work arrangements that will improve employee satisfaction.”

Nickson, from Segal, said in an effort to keep employees happy, an overwhelming majority of higher education institutions still allow some form of remote or hybrid work. Only a handful, including UT Austin, have transitioned to almost entirely in-person work, he said—and even fewer have done so in such a stark, high- profile way.

According to Inside Higher Ed’s 2024 Presidents Survey, about six in 10 presidents (61 percent) said up to a quarter of their nonfaculty staff worked in a hybrid or fully remote format this spring. About 12 percent said that was the case for a quarter to half of their staff, and another 11 percent said half to three-quarters of their staff worked that way.

“Most institutions are frankly still struggling with finding what that sweet spot is for them along the spectrum, if you will, from fully remote to fully in-person,” Nickson said. “They have to think long and hard about how they balance their guiding principles with the business case around remote hybrid and flexible work.”

A few institutions have taken approaches similar to UT Austin’s. For example, faculty and staff at Hagerstown Community College in Maryland, which went all remote in the early days of the pandemic, were ordered to report back to campus in fall 2020, despite ongoing pandemic safety concerns.

The college turned off access to its virtual private network (VPN), forcing employees to work in person in order to access institutional resources. President Jim Klauber said the decision was intended to protect the college’s technological security, but the move inflamed tensions between administrators and employees, who resented the push to return in person.

“We are a community college that serves the community,” Klauber wrote in his letter announcing the shift. “I can only assume that when I come upon a locked office or department, the occupants are on leave. At that point, I will ensure that Human Resources charges them with that leave appropriately."

Cornell University drew a hard line in fall 2021, a year after Hager, saying it would not consider any faculty requests to teach remotely—even from those seeking accommodations for chronic illness or disability. Administrators from the Ivy League institution in New York state cited the vitality of face-to-face interactions with students as the driver of their decision.

“What I’ve seen from some institutions in commentary about the reasons why they’re going in person, is that they’re trying to build this sense of community, and to meet the expectations of the student population that they serve,” Nickson said. “I will say though, one of the other things that we have witnessed is that in some instances, students actually seem to prefer to have some of their services provided to them in a virtual space.”

Other colleges and universities have taken the ongoing demand for remote options in stride. In some cases, particularly in large urban areas with premium real estate like Austin, universities have saved millions of dollars by shedding leases for newly vacant spaces.

When asked how UT Austin’s administrators should respond to the pushback from staff and faculty, Nickson said he’d encourage them—and other institutions facing similar dilemmas—to “consider the needs and expectations of their workforce.”

“That kind of a concerted effort usually requires a significant investment of time and energy among the senior leadership of the institution, hopefully, in a transparent way,” he said. “But rare is the case where a cookie-cutter approach to these kinds of decisions will work for all institutions. It should be a tailored approach that recognizes the unique nuances based on its geography, size, staff, faculty and student components.”

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