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For professional academic staff, digital collaboration has mostly replaced face-to-face meetings. Across higher education, we don’t yet understand the magnitude or the permanence of new post-pandemic ways of working.

Some questions we might ask include:

  • How have faculty and staff office utilization rates changed?
  • What proportion of meetings are on Zoom?
  • To what extent has informal communication shifted from unscheduled face-to-face chats to Slack and email?
  • Regarding academic professional staff norms, have we entered the age of The Low-Density University?

In every good online course, the design is backward. The instructional designer and the professor will sit down and talk about the learning objectives of the course and then how those objectives will be assessed. Only then are the assignments designed, the assessments developed and the content chosen.

Viewing questions of campus workplace culture through the lens of online learning, we might ask,

  • How do we backward design for the academic work culture we want in an environment of diminished staff (and maybe faculty) on-campus density?
  • What intentional changes can we make to strengthen the social fabric that binds university employees (faculty and staff) when so many meetings have migrated to Zoom?
  • Within organizations that are explicitly focused on the student experience (as they should be) and on knowledge production (at research-intensive institutions), how do we make room to think about the university as a workplace?

Perhaps the next crop of university leaders will mandate that everyone return to campus five days a week and nine hours a day. I sort of doubt it.

Too many professional staff in academia now work either remotely or hybrid. Academic staff have discovered the productivity benefits of more flexible work, learning what highly productive tenure-track professors have always known.

Today’s academic work patterns for professional staff seem better for the individual and perhaps worse for the campus work culture. None of us wants to give up the advantages of flexibility, but we all wish for more informal conversations, unscheduled meet-ups and random interactions.

Getting rid of Zoom as a tool for professional academic staff seems as unlikely as banning email and burying our phones beneath the campus green.

University leaders should approach the development of the campus workplace culture with the same thought and care as we manage our online education initiatives.

We need the campus equivalent of an instructional designer to help us think through our new hybrid academic workplaces.

How has working in higher education changed for you since the pandemic?

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