The Future of Work Is Flexible. Will Higher Ed Stay Stuck in the Past?


The University of Iowa recently released the final report for its Future of Work@Iowa project. The project sought to “reimagine” how and where employees work after the pandemic, with a focus on “understanding the long-term potential for remote and hybrid work, flexible schedules, and other types of work arrangements”—arrangements it collectively calls “flexible work.”

And where did that reimagining take them? To the bold declaration that while “flexible work is not the new norm,” some employees could take advantage of “intermittent flexibility,” such as working remotely for a couple of days while caring for an elderly relative. In other words, the “future of work” at the University of Iowa doesn’t look too different from what prevailed on college campuses before the pandemic. It’s like whomever wrote the report jumped in the DeLorean and set the clock to 2012.

The University of Iowa’s blast-from-the-past solution caught my eye because I know other institutions are engaging in “future of work” conversations and initiatives. And I fear many leaders will fail to appreciate just how palpable the hunger for change is among faculty and staff in higher ed. People are burned out and demoralized. Vacancies and interim titles are in abundant supply. Search chairs are working overtime to yield applicants, and it’s not clear higher ed is the attractive workplace it once was.

I’ve been deeply involved in these conversations, writing and speaking on both the problems and potential paths forward. What I have often said is that the worst possible outcome I could imagine from all this “re-envisioning” is a reversion to business as usual—a reimagining that isn’t particularly imaginative. And yet I know that outcome, as Iowa’s report shows, is entirely within the realm of possibility. After all, institutions have short memories and shorter attention spans. It’s easy for today’s talking point to get swept under the rug of tomorrow’s crisis.

Before that happens, let me try—once again—to be frank. We are in a transformational moment in higher education. Business as usual wasn’t working well for a lot of faculty and staff in 2012, and it’s less likely to work in 2022. Institutions positioned for success in the next decade will seize this opportunity by prioritizing new approaches to working conditions and building better workplace cultures. “Intermittent flexibility” isn’t going to cut it.

Is the “Future” Working Remotely on a Snow Day?

In my presentations to campuses around issues of burnout and morale, I’ve shared several principles to guide the development of solutions. The Future of Work@Iowa report runs afoul of all of them.

A quick caveat before I jump in: I have no particular animus towards the University of Iowa. In fact, writing something even lightly critical of the Hawkeyes is sacrilegious in my family. My great-grandma, grandpa, mom, and dad are all alumni. And a committee report is often an imperfect expression of the whole committee’s views or what even becomes policy.

Nevertheless, I think walking through the report’s shortcomings is instructive. For one, it extolls the many virtues of flexible work while simultaneously limiting flexibility moving forward. It’s an example of enacted values not aligning with espoused values. The report is jam-packed with evidence that flexible work can be good for employees and good for the institution:

  • Remote/hybrid employees participating in the pilot reported more positive work experiences and preferred to keep these arrangements, viewing them as a retention factor
  • Supervisors of remote/hybrid teams participating in the pilot reported better measures of service excellence and communication
  • Many of peer institutions and local corporations with which the university competes for talent are expanding flexible work
  • Online focus groups identified “flexibility” as something that has reduced stress, increased satisfaction, improved physical health, and made it easier to perform parenting responsibilities

Despite these benefits, the report makes clear that most employees can expect to be working on campus. Flexible work may be accommodated on a short-term basis, such as in the event of bad weather, so long as there’s a “business rationale.”

That last bullet point, taken from an update to the committee’s work, is one of the only times in which there is explicit acknowledgement of how hard it’s been working through the pandemic. As we consider possible solutions, we need to bear witness to this moment. Nearly a million people have died in the United States alone. Millions more are grieving. And the effects of the pandemic have accumulated in different ways for people who are caregivers, immunocompromised, single, separated from a support network, or poorly served by our health care system because of racial disparities. The report doesn’t indicate how flexible work may be necessary for these workers to protect themselves, care for others, be in community, and work in an environment free of discrimination. Part of bearing witness to this moment is designing workplace policies that don’t conflate fairness and sameness. Options may need to be tailored—dare I say, even flexible—for everyone to belong and be engaged.

Another problem is that the report falls victim to what I call easy answers, including the idea that flexible work is incompatible with—and even subordinate to—“the residential campus experience students expect.” What’s implied is that the only way to provide a residential campus experience is having most employees on campus, as if students won’t have a good time and learn unless those fluorescent office lights are humming at 9 a.m. But we know reality is messier than this. Iowa certainly educates off-campus, adult and graduate students who appreciate virtual services or expanded office hours. And supporting employees’ wellbeing so they aren’t depleted is good for the student experience, too. Students are observant. They can tell when their advisers are stressed. They notice when their mentors leave for a job outside of higher ed.

I’ve been encouraging leaders to do their homework and collect data to inform decisions about the future academic workplace. I commend Iowa for running a pilot and evaluating it. Yet the report includes no data to support precisely how they determined “most faculty and staff roles require on-campus work.” Instead, what we get is a vague appeals to institutional identity and what students expect. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Iowa’s chief human resource officer, Cheryl Reardon, explained, “That’s just who we are as an institution.” I can tell you one thing that doesn’t sit well with faculty and staff is making big decisions simply because leaders can’t envision any other way of operating.

And here’s the thing about “the institution”—its past, present, and future hinge on the labor of faculty and staff. It is not possible to fully separate institutional needs from the needs of employees, and a big part of the transformational moment we are in is that faculty and staff will not surrender their wellbeing for platitudes about mission. What does it mean to launch a committee that finds clear evidence that a new approach to working conditions is good for employees, but then leaders say it’s not the new norm? It means that employee wellbeing isn’t being taken seriously.

Working Conditions Can’t Be Window Dressing

I wondered how other people in higher education felt about the idea that flexible work is incompatible with the residential student experience. So, I put the question to my Twitter followers in a very unscientific poll. Almost all (94 percent) of the 219 respondents felt that it’s possible to both offer employees flexible work arrangements and provide a residential experience that meets students’ expectations.

I also interviewed by email or Zoom two Iowa staff members, and another four staff members in student-facing roles whose offices are continuing to offer flexible work options. Consensus was that it’s not just staff who have appreciated flexible work. Today’s students want virtual options for many services and aren’t phased in the least by the idea of people working remotely or hybrid—some of them may even want it in their future workplace.

Thomas Dickson, the assistant vice provost for undergraduate education at the University of California, Riverside, captured the gist of these interviews when he said: “In the aggregate, I do not feel that remote or flexible work arrangements compromise the residential or commuter student experience at all. In most cases flexible hours and remote options only serve to expand access for many student services areas.” It doesn’t mean that every task can be done remotely, and sometimes smaller teams that need office coverage have fewer remote options. But they still have options. “Home-work days often provide much needed personal wellness time,” he explained. “When not commuting (which can be two or three hours a day in Southern California), you can sleep a little longer, enjoy a slower breakfast, or even fit in a workout before or after work.”

My point in all of this is not to push every institution to adopt remote/hybrid work arrangements as the only answer to the “future of work” question. There’s no doubt that the work of certain jobs in higher education will require more time in-person to build teams and serve students. I recently did my first in-person dissertation defense in two years, and it’s a much better experience with everyone in the room.

But we have a unique opportunity in higher ed to not chain ourselves to tradition. And leaders can’t afford to spend too much time fiddling around at the margins. As organizational psychologist Scott Sonenshein told Brene Brown on a recent episode of her Dare to Lead podcast: “If you’re going to come in and operate your business like it’s February 2020, you’re going to get crushed. I have no question about that in my mind. If you think that you’re going to be leading the same workforce that you were in February 2020 with the same mindset, the same mentality, the same desires and the same priorities, you’re nuts. You either have to change or get out of the way. There’s no turning back. This is the great reset. And that’s where hope and opportunity live.”

We know that institutions are capable of making big changes. We pivoted in March 2020, then again in fall 2020, then again in fall 2021. Institutions have achieved things in the last two years that some considered unimaginable. Faculty and staff want to see that type of willpower and creativity directed at working conditions and cultures. They want the type of “reimagining” the Future of Work@Iowa report promised but didn’t deliver.

And if leaders sit for too long, hoping this will all blow over? There’s a company down the road paying more and offering flexible work that would be glad to hire away your talent.


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Natasha M. McKnight

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