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A recent New York Times article titled “Return to Office Enters the Desperation Phase” received almost 1,600 comments.

Everyone has an opinion about hybrid work. For most of us, our conclusions about the pros and cons of face-to-face versus hybrid work come down to our employment circumstances. Those working remotely are certain that remote work benefits employers and employees. If we follow a hybrid schedule, we extol the productivity benefits of flexibility. And if working for us means going to and staying at the office, we are certain that the benefits of in-person work outweigh the costs.

University leaders seem more reluctant to join the conversation about the future of work than their corporate counterparts. At a time of growing public skepticism about the value of higher education, the last thing university leaders want to do is call attention to the evolving work arrangements of university employees.

Unlike their corporate counterparts, university leaders are highly constrained in mandating where and how university employees work. At most institutions, a president can’t simply tell all faculty that they must be on campus and in their offices five days a week. Universities are decentralized by design, limiting the ability of a single academic leader to enforce uniform staff policies.

That university leaders may not be out front in pushing campus conversations about hybrid work does not mean that these discussions shouldn’t be happening. Academic culture was built on decades and decades of face-to-face interactions. We often use the words “university” and “campus” interchangeably when discussing our higher education institutions.

The post-pandemic reality is that the higher education workforce is now hybrid for many (if not most) universities. A minority of professional academic staffers are now in their campus offices five days a week, nine hours a day. Today, professional academic staff (those working on computers all day long) work flexibly.

Most every meeting has a Zoom option, as seldom is every meeting participant face-to-face. Less of the work of higher education is accomplished through unstructured in-person conversations, as communication has shifted to digital platforms such as Slack, Zoom, Google Docs and email.

This post-pandemic evolution to more flexible work among university employees has many benefits. Greater flexibility of work can lead to higher workplace productivity. University employees are also parents and caregivers and adults with complicated lives. For internally motivated higher education employees, the normalization of hybrid (and remote) work is likely a positive development for our colleges and universities.

Our task is to recognize and preserve the benefits of flexible work while acknowledging the challenges that hybrid and remote work introduce to our academic workplace cultures.

There are certainly other ways to build trust, knowledge and empathy among university employees beyond face-to-face meetings and informal campus hallway conversations. Building (or perhaps rebuilding) our campus academic workplace communities (as universities are places of work in addition to locations of education and research) will require intentionality and time.

We must be honest with ourselves about what is lost and what is gained with normative hybrid university work. We need to publicly celebrate our remote colleagues and recognize that everyone benefits from greater work flexibility.

At the same time, we should think about the sort of close and connected academic workplace culture for staff and faculty that we wish to achieve and then be willing to make the institutional investments necessary to achieve those goals.

These investments might involve setting aside funds to pay for remote colleagues to visit campus regularly. Or perhaps deciding on specific days when everyone who works at the university does so in person.

Shared days spent on campus could be rearranged to privilege more social and informal gatherings, with regularly scheduled meetings discouraged during those windows. The money saved from shared offices and hot desking might need to be spent on communal team (or even campuswide) meals.

We may never return to the pre-pandemic academic workplace culture. And perhaps that is a good thing. However, we can’t assume that the academic workplace culture we want will automatically appear.

With hybrid (and remote) work the new academic reality, the time is now for higher education to build our new university workplace cultures.

How has your higher ed work and workplace changed since the pandemic?

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