“We know more than we can tell.”
The flexible post-pandemic professional academic workplace is a blessing. We wouldn’t want to go back.
Nowadays, few postsecondary professional staff are physically on campus all day, every day, five days a week. Most staff (but not all) work on a continuum of hybridity, with some spending most of their time on campus, some primarily working remotely, and others somewhere in between.
Whatever level your staff role is at the university, professional staff benefit from this flexibility.
While acknowledging the benefits of flexible academic staff work, I’ve been wrestling with two questions:
- How might we celebrate the new flexibility for professional academic staff while also owning up to the challenges of this new way of working?
- Can we support all of our colleagues working at every place of the workplace flexibility continuum (from fully remote to entirely in-person) while also having an honest conversation about benefits and costs?
I began this piece by stipulating that the new flexibility enjoyed by most (although not all) professional academic staff is a good thing. But what are the costs? And if we can describe and discuss the downsides of hybrid academic staff work, can we overcome those challenges?
As I observe the post-pandemic evolution of hybrid academic work at our institutions and among our university peers and colleagues, my main concerns around this trend center on tacit knowledge. When staff are physically together less often, how will nontask- and nonproject-related knowledge be created, shared and internalized?
Position descriptions used for recruiting professional academic staff tend to break the role into a series of responsibilities, accountabilities and tasks. A professional academic staff role becomes legible around what the person occupying that role is expected to do. Similarly, annual performance reviews tend to focus on how well the staff member met specific goals and accomplished a set of discrete tasks.
The problem with both position descriptions and performance reviews is that they mischaracterize the actual work of professional academic staff. A professional staff job at a university does not consist of a series of discrete tasks accomplished individually, but rather a portfolio of collaborative relationships and shared activities. Professional academic work is creative. Most often, there is no roadmap to follow in the projects, initiatives and services that academic staff participate in, manage and lead.
Success in a professional academic staff role may require specialized skills and knowledge. But success also demands intuition, insight and wisdom. Knowing how to get things done within the specific university culture where professional staff operate is at least as important as the technical and domain knowledge associated with the work.
Understanding how the university works and how to operate successfully within that context is rarely documented or explicitly conveyed. Instead, professional staff must learn how to “read the room”— an endlessly challenging task in the university context.
Today, many professional academic staff will not have that immersive on-campus experience. Early career professional academic staff may never have the opportunity to marinate in unstructured and unscheduled campus conversations. Even experienced mid-career professionals who take staff jobs at a new university find it challenging to gain fluency in navigating campus structures and culture.
The importance of tacit knowledge for professional academic staff work will not disappear. We need to discover methods in which all professional staff, regardless of where their work falls on the hybrid continuum, can learn how to decode their institutions.
At the same time, we may want to acknowledge that digital collaboration and communication platforms may never offer the same thickness of communication as analog conversations. Suppose the hypothesis about the importance of tacit knowledge in professional staff effectiveness is correct. In that case, career progression may be more difficult for those with limited on-campus and in-person work experience.
We do our colleagues a disservice by pretending that it is possible to have both high levels of work flexibility and a clear path to promotion into university leadership roles.
Many professional academic staff will be good with this tradeoff, as there are many good reasons to prioritize flexibility of where one works over ascending into campus leadership roles. Those professional staff working at the far edge of the hybrid work continuum deserve to be fully informed about the career tradeoffs that that decision may entail.
What is clear to us is that in the world of professional academic staff, flexible and hybrid work is here to stay. What is lagging at our universities is a cultural adjustment that recognizes and adjusts to this new reality.
Too often, those professional staff who spend the least time on campus pay the price for our universities’ failure to create opportunities to openly and honestly discuss the benefits and challenges of hybrid work.
We are not returning to the days of professional staff being together on campus all day, every day, five days a week. It is time for us to acknowledge that professional academic staff work has forever changed, and it is up to all of us to make this new reality work for everyone.