CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa reimagines employee experience in the wake of COVID-19 remote working

'The pandemic has transformed and will continue to transform our university'

People social distance while wearing masks and holding signs during an Aug. 10 protest against in-person classes amid th
People social distance while wearing masks and holding signs during an Aug. 10 protest against in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)

IOWA CITY — When COVID-19 crippled campus operations in March, a vast majority of University of Iowa employees made a rushed shift to remote work, and now UI administrators are asking whether a more thorough reimagination of the workplace is in order.

Via a new 25-member Employee Experience Committee, the campus aims to “re-imagine the employee experience to align with emerging talent needs and trends.”

The group of faculty, staff and student representatives will consider how and where employees work — and how to foster innovation.

Specifically, the group will discuss flexibility for employees who are balancing children at home, along with virtual schooling; those living in different locations but bringing certain expertise to the UI workforce; and a growing need to be more open about how work can be productively performed.

The committee, which held its first meeting Tuesday and will continue meeting biweekly, will make final recommendations to UI administrators before the start of the fall 2021 semester on the following questions:

• How is the COVID-19 disruption impacting UI and its strategic path “toward being a destination university?”

• How can the campus re-imagine work post COVID-19?

• How can it re-envision high-impact practices “to create a highly engaged and inclusive workforce?”

• What do future human resources policies, services and strategies look like?

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“The pandemic has transformed and will continue to transform our university.” Cheryl Reardon, chief human resources officer and associate vice president who is co-chairing the committee, said in a statement.

“But it also has created a huge opportunity to shape our future,” she said. “As leaders, we need to come together to review and potentially modify our approach to the employee experience.”

Lois Geist, associate provost for faculty and internal medicine professor, is co-chairing the group with Reardon. Other members include representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student body, general counsel’s office, Information Technology Services, UI Health Care, the Office of the Vice President for Research and its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion interim leader Liz Tovar.

The group will be divided into five subcommittees charged with examining faculty and instructors, staff, health care, physical space, and technology.

“We understand that COVID-19 has forever changed how we operate,” Geist said in a statement. “Now we must do the work to identify what we want the future to look like and how we can continue to deliver the university’s core mission in a new way.”

UI Employee survey

UI administrators in April surveyed employees about the move to remote work, and 3,821 employees responded — for a 52 percent response rate. About 93 percent of those who responded said they were working remotely, and 84 percent said they had not been working remotely before COVID-19.

About a quarter said they now were responsible for children under 12 while working, and 54 percent said they found the transition “a little challenging,” while 14 percent said it was “very challenging.”

But the majority — about 88 percent — said they felt positive about work, and a vast majority said they felt supported by their supervisor and the university during the transition and remote-work period.

Most said they had a clear understanding of their work and the resources to do it.

When asked whether working remotely has positively impacted their performance, 60 percent either somewhat or strongly agreed, and 40 percent either somewhat or strongly disagreed. To the question of whether the change had positively impacted their unit’s productivity, 54 percent agreed and 46 percent did not.

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But 85 percent agreed that after COVID restrictions are lifted they’d be open to “a remote work arrangement one or more days a week.”

Isu changes

Iowa State University also recently announced employee-related changes aimed at addressing a new COVID-compelled normal for employees — primarily related to those facing child care challenges.

In an October message, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen approved movement on a list of recommendations from its Child Care Task Force, including:

• Repurposing a “comfort zone” space for an infant-toddler program.

• Outlining a “flexible work program for staff.

• Raising awareness of flexible policies and programs for faculty.

• Fundraising for student-parent scholarships and upping student government subsidies for student child care.

• Advocating for more child care options in the surrounding community.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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