Last October, the Employee Forum of the University of New Carolina at Chapel Hill published a report about the effects of COVID-19 on university employees. It highlighted two overriding concerns: staff felt ignored, unheard and left out of communications, and they reported a culture of mistrust and fear. Nine months later, on the official return-to-campus date for employees, the forum released a second report summarizing employee perceptions about the return and lessons learned from the continuing pandemic’s impact. The second report’s findings were disappointingly similar to the first: continued opacity and a community wrestling with division.
I was one of the authors of those reports, which represent an important effort to elevate staff voices on the campus. It should remind senior administrators to ask, is my institution actively listening to staff? No person, or university, is an island. The reports’ synthesis of staff member concerns and recommendations present lessons that not only UNC but other higher education institutions should consider — especially as they grapple with the challenges and uncertainties of reopening this fall.
Compared to faculty and students, staff members often find themselves unprivileged and invisible. Such positional inequity is at the core of many employees’ frustrations and is an urgent issue with which campus leaders must contend. Addressing positional inequity in higher education is not a substitute for racial equity, although the intersection of those issues is most obvious in many nonadministrative essential workers. Being heard and having one’s safety assured are among the lowest forms of privilege, yet some campuses are returning to the norms of the past without meaningfully engaging staff or ensuring their safety through much-needed vaccine mandates. Despite such institutions’ attempts to create a near-normal fall semester, one thing is glaringly obvious: the world has changed.
A Changing Workforce
Last spring’s pivot to a largely remote world provided employees with the opportunity to reset their priorities. Work-life balance took on new meaning as homes became office spaces, parents became their K-12 children’s co-instructors and everyone coped with the physical and psychological effects of a global pandemic. Despite the urgent and involuntary transition to remote work, many university employees discovered that they were equally or more productive at home, enjoyed the benefits of flexibility and were thrilled to be rid of long commutes and tenuous parking. Higher education institutions are now learning that many employees are reluctant to give up the balance they achieved with remote or hybrid work schedules.
Universities now find themselves at a Darwinian inflection point: adapt or die. Flexibility, particularly in work hours and location, is an important strategy in staff retention. “We will have institutions that embrace the need to change and be flexible to attract and retain talent,” says Andy Brantley, president and CEO of CUPA-HR, an association for higher education human resources professionals. “There will be others that choose not to do so. Some of them might be successful, but I think a lot of them will suffer because they did not adapt.”
Rebuilding In-Person Communities More Equitably
University leaders across the country must now rebuild their in-person communities. In some cases, staff members are returning to campus in advance of students and faculty members to lay the groundwork for a successful semester. As institutions consider how to bring them back to campus equitably, they should ground their plans in a procedural justice framework.
Procedural justice focuses on transparent processes and the ways in which people perceive fairness through their experiences. Although often used in the context of policing, procedural justice applies directly to higher education classrooms and codes of conduct. Any return-to-campus plan must be fair, in reality and perception, to the employees who have been thriving with remote work for more than a year. By incorporating the following four pillars of procedural justice, administrators can build trust with employees and increase the legitimacy of the plan.
Voice. Key to fairness in any process is giving people an opportunity to speak — and then listening to what those voices say. Some campuses have been proactive in planning the future of their workforces. During the pandemic, both Duke University and Boston University created committees tasked with reimagining the workplace. Both institutions sent surveys to their broader staff community, and Duke found that 74 percent of responding employees wanted to continue some kind of remote or hybrid work. In the same survey, employees ranked the top benefits of remote working, which included not commuting, greater productivity and more flexibility during the day — responses mirrored in the UNC Chapel Hill report.
Among other recommendations, both UNC Chapel Hill reports called on senior leaders to commit to transparency. The second report encouraged senior leaders to practice reflective listening by communicating what they’ve learned from employees back to employees. And in a brief but pointed recommendation, the report challenged senior leaders to listen to and trust employees. Consulting employees can help an institution to break the cycle of leadership echo chambers, enhance employee morale and avoid strategic mistakes.
Respect. Many universities are assigning responsibility to determine flexible working arrangements to the school or department level — an approach rooted in respect for the experience and knowledge of employees. A decentralized decision-making structure allows managers to do what is best both for their employees and their unit’s business needs. Such an approach requires hands-on support and coordination from human resources. Both supervisors and employees need guidance for handling return-to-work conversations. Guidance for managers is particularly important to avoid capricious, biased and ultimately inequitable decisions. Campus leaders should encourage managers to be innovative and make flexible work schedule decisions with both logistics and equity in mind.
Neutrality. Unbiased decisions with clear, consistent and transparent rationales are the core of neutrality. Return-to-campus plans should ensure the fairest distribution of burdens and benefits across the staff. One-size-fits-all approaches are, by their very nature, unfair because they do not account for differences in individual needs, effort, contribution or merit.
Fair policies are not necessarily equal. To reference an well-known baseball graphic, if everyone stands on a box of the same height, some people can’t see over the fence. Staffers understand that differences in positions and responsibilities necessitate differences in work schedules. Many people see workplace flexibility as a benefit but recognize that not all employees can access that benefit due to the nature of their roles. Administrators should consider how best to compensate those employees through larger salaries, bonuses, on-campus perks, flexible work weeks or flexibility during the workday.
Embedding fairness in fall semester planning means addressing the persistent positional inequities that exist in higher education. The most recent UNC Chapel Hill report draws attention to divisions on campus and the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing tensions among groups.
For example, the Carolina Together website explains that the university is mandating masks indoors but allowing several exceptions that raise equity concerns: faculty members who maintain social distancing when teaching and individuals working in private offices are free to unmask. The allocation of private workspaces is often stratified by position and income, with faculty, administrators and high-earning staff benefiting from the privilege. Tensions exist between staff who wish to continue working remotely and individuals who have been coming to campus throughout the entire pandemic. Those who have worked on campus for the past 17 months are exasperated at the fuss generated by the return to campus. As one survey respondent stated, “We are Carolina Together in words only.”
Trustworthiness. In the context of procedural justice, trustworthiness is essentially caring for the people affected by your decisions and conveying moral intentions. Despite the availability of vaccines, we are still in the midst of a pandemic, with new and highly transmissible variants. The No. 1 concern voiced by those surveyed is the transmission of COVID-19 and the rise of the Delta variant. Specific examples from the report include concerns about crowded public transportation, which many employees who live in neighboring counties use for their daily commutes. In light of a statewide vaccination rate for individuals ages 12 and older in North Carolina approximating 55 percent, these employees worry about riding a public bus for an extended period of time each day in close contact with individuals who may or may not be vaccinated. Employees who work in labs or small offices also have concerns about close-quarter viral transmission. Campus leaders have an obligation to the welfare of their employees and to communicate their planned strategies to keep their people safe.
The Bottom Line
Colleges and universities are complex places with competing priorities. Campus leaders must balance the needs of their employees with those of the institution.
As the Delta variant surges, bringing the very real possibility of rapid pivots back to remote learning and working across the country, acting within a procedural justice framework is more important than ever. Decisions about how campuses react to rising numbers of positive cases must include staff voices, be made with respect for campus stakeholders, reflect neutrality and demonstrate trustworthy motives. Both UNC Chapel Hill reports highlighted a disturbing lack of trust in the relationship between employees and administrators that will deteriorate further if campus leaders continue making opaque decisions inside the administrative bubble.
The stratification of privilege in many of our institutions leads to questions like, “Who has the privilege to make choices?” Too often, the answer does not include staff. The UNC Chapel Hill staff has spoken, and their lessons learned are generalizable to all institutions: prioritize equity, commit to transparency, embrace flexibility and listen to your staff.