Turnover among higher education professionals keeps climbing, and a lack of remote work opportunities is one of the biggest reasons why.
The percentage of full-time exempt staff members who left their jobs nearly doubled over two years—from 7.9 percent during the 2020–21 academic year to 14.3 percent during the 2022–23 academic year, according to a new survey report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.
To better understand why this is happening, the organization surveyed 4,782 higher education professionals who are not faculty, including administrators, professionals and nonexempt staff.
The results showed that 86 percent of respondents ranked a pay increase in their top three reasons for seeking another job, with 53 percent identifying it as their No. 1 reason. The opportunity to work remotely was cited as the second-biggest motive for finding a new job, with 44 percent of respondents saying it ranked in their top three reasons. Of those, 11 percent said it was their No. 1 reason for finding a new job.
Other common reasons cited included seeking a promotion, better benefits and a more flexible work schedule.
Although the pandemic’s public health policies necessitated remote work at first, 68.3 percent of employees surveyed in 2023 said most of their job duties could be performed remotely.
“People figured out through the pandemic that they could do it—they could do their jobs, meet expectations, serve students well and do it from multiple locations,” said Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
What’s more, faculty members have long benefited from hybrid and flexible work arrangements, he added.
“The idea that this is without precedent is not accurate. We have been beneficiaries of a policy for some time that our staff colleagues have not,” McClure said, referring to faculty members. “That’s one of the contradictions of many of these policies. We very much operate bifurcated campuses when it comes to who gets to benefit from certain policies.”
But it would seem not all higher education institutions are convinced nonfaculty employees can or should be able to work in a remote or hybrid environment.
The report notes that “large disparities” remain “between employees’ preferences for remote/hybrid work and what their actual work arrangements are.” While fewer than one-third of employees surveyed said they prefer to work in extremes—either all remote or all on-site—40.5 percent said they prefer to work in a hybrid environment.
However, the report noted, “there is a persistent gap between current work arrangements and preferred work arrangements,” as 66 percent of employees work completely or mostly on-site, but only 31 percent said they prefer that setup.
“Particularly on the part of leaders, there’s a fear that making a policy that’s widely used will result in empty buildings and students will feel as if campus is not lively and won’t be able to access services,” McClure said. “For many institutions, it’s not necessarily that they’re resistant to the idea, it’s that they don’t have clear policies … What we see happening is a leader who says, ‘We’ve got hybrid work arrangements,’ but then you look and there’s significant variability in how that’s being implemented.”
According to the report, about three-fourths of employees who work in financial aid, external affairs/development, enrollment management and administration said that while they can do their jobs remotely, not many are actually working remotely. On the other hand, employees who work in institutional research and information technology departments are most likely to work remotely.
The report also found that preferences on work arrangements vary by race and gender. Forty-three percent of men prefer working mostly on-site compared to 27 percent of women. White employees, too, are more likely to prefer working on-site compared to employees of color.
For employees who are also caregivers, parents or guardians of young children, or are managing an illness, remote and hybrid work arrangements provide an opportunity to juggle the competing demands of work and personal matters.
But as the report indicates, the unavailability of those options is pushing more employees out of their current higher education institutions. The report showed that when employees look for other jobs, they are least likely to look for another one at their same institution, and many consider leaving the higher education sector altogether.
When those positions are vacated, 52 percent of supervisors said finding replacements is “challenging.” And for 35 percent of supervisors, maintaining staff morale for those employees who do remain is also difficult.
“That creates more work for the people who stay,” McClure said. “Turnover is a symptom of underlying workplace issues. If it’s increased, it means there are more issues that are not being addressed and in some cases worsening.”