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IOWA CITY — While eager to resurrect a more traditional college experience, the University of Iowa also is gleaning lessons from the pandemic and hopes to capitalize on them right away with a pilot project this fall allowing some staffers to have remote, hybrid and flexible schedules.
By keeping some of the pandemic-propelled practices, UI officials believe they can save money, space and time; accommodate needs of workers; make employees happy; and compete globally for top-tier job prospects.
“The Future of Work@Iowa project aimed to re-imagine how and where University of Iowa employees work after COVID-19,” according to the summary of a new report from a UI committee. “The project focused largely on understanding the long-term potential for remote and hybrid work, flexible schedules, and other types of work arrangements that have proved effective — but not without challenges — during the pandemic.”
The flexibility initiative is geared toward professional, scientific and merit employees — such as administrators, clerical staff and information technology workers. Professors will follow separate faculty guidelines for fall 2021 that have them returning to in-person teaching — except for some lectures of more than 150 students and courses that were already online before the pandemic.
While all UI colleges, divisions and units will resume normal in-person business hours and operations July 1, the Future of Work initiative makes space for flexibility based on lessons that were learned, according to UI officials.
“Strategic, mission-driven adoption of remote work is good for the state of Iowa,” according to the report. “Savings may be redirected to student-facing programs, competitiveness may attract more world-class teachers and researchers, and flexibility will help some university employees stay in their Iowa hometowns rather than moving for work.”
Acknowledging student expectations for in-person teaching and service — and that many jobs thus require on-campus work — all UI colleges, divisions and units are making work-arrangement pilot plans for fall, determining which jobs could work with hybrid and flexible schedules.
Those plans will map out how officials approve employee arrangements; document them; track productivity, engagement and costs; and review the trial period, spanning Aug. 2 to Dec. 31.
Among the reasons the UI is piloting more flexible work options is because employees want them.
Results from focus groups of nearly 1,400 UI staffers earlier this year found interest in hybrid work arrangements — aligning with national findings, like from Prudential, which found 87 percent of American workers want to continue working remotely at least one day a week, and 68 percent said hybrid arrangements represent “their workplace ideal.”
Additionally, a national study found 63 percent of “high-growth” companies have adopted “productivity anywhere” models, according to the UI report.
“The university competes with other employers locally, regionally, and nationally. More flexible work arrangements are becoming the norm in fields like IT, where recruitment and retention are already challenging,” according to the UI report. “We’ve adopted more aggressive recruitment strategies, streamlined hiring processes, and kept benefits competitive. Expanding our view of effective work arrangements is another effort to remain competitive.”
Letting employees work remotely also could help the UI budget and improve facility efficiency.
“Demand for on-campus space — particularly office space — could decline,” according to the UI report. “At the same time, the university may need new types of spaces and technologies to maintain a hybrid workforce.”
What did and didn’t work?
The UI work committee looked back over the last academic year to assess what went well and what didn’t.
Some things that worked during the hybrid year:
- Communication, connectivity and collaboration;
- Improved understanding of technology;
- Productivity and efficiency due to fewer “non-critical interruptions”;
- Going paperless, cutting costs and boosting efficiency;
- Increased flexibility, helping with stress and family needs;
- And personal cost savings, like parking, gas, business clothes and food.
Answering, “What would you leave behind or never want to do again?” UI employees said:
- Making face-to-face meetings the norm;
- Holding meetings without substance;
- Following traditional practices — like paper documents — because “that is how we’ve always done it”;
- Having “rigid work hours and wasted time commuting”;
- And technology challenges.
But the UI study also identified challenges with maintaining hybrid or remote work arrangements. They include:
- Unreliable internet connectivity and inconsistent equipment needs;
- Adapting to new best practices and an ever-changing business model;
- “Zoom” fatigue and general burnout;
- Maintaining employee buy-in and motivation;
- Making equitable and consistent decisions;
- Maintaining a sense of community;
- Avoiding feelings of isolation;
- Potential revenue loss from things like parking payments and fees;
- And student expectations for in-person teaching and services.
“The experience of the past year shows us that employees can effectively perform some — but certainly not all — jobs off campus,” according to the UI report.
The university plans to gauge the “long-term impacts on campus space utilization and management” following the fall 2021 pilot and produce recommendations mid-2022.
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