Survey on the Post-Pandemic Future of Staff Work at BU Opens Tuesday
Survey on the Post-Pandemic Future of Staff Work at BU Opens Tuesday
All staff and those faculty who supervise staff will be asked about benefits and drawbacks
- Monday email will announce an anonymous online survey available Tuesday
- Benefits, problems of remote work are the main topics
- Administration will make final decision on committee recommendations
Work from home? Spend a full week at the office? Or split the difference?
The Committee on the Future of Staff Work is trying to determine what role remote work can or should play for more than 5,000 of Boston University’s nonfaculty employees, as a well-vaccinated BU returns to a more normal life this fall after more than a year of historic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.
All staff will receive an email from the Office of the Provost today, Monday, May 3, announcing a brief online survey that will be available starting tomorrow, Tuesday, May 4. Faculty who supervise or engage frequently with staff will also be notified about the survey by leadership at their schools and colleges. The survey will be open for two weeks. The questions ask about the impacts of working remotely on productivity and communication during the pandemic. While some demographic questions are included, individual respondents will remain anonymous.
It’s a pivotal moment, and the University must answer one core question: how do you maintain a vibrant residential campus, with classrooms, laboratories, and dining halls buzzing with activity, yet at the same time potentially allow groups of employees to have flexibility around working remotely? Can staff retain some of the flexibility they’ve grown accustomed to over the last year without the campus losing the energy that defines it?
“It’s extremely important to us to hear the voice of the community,” says Natalie McKnight, dean of the College of General Studies, who leads the 12-member committee with Ken Freeman, interim vice president for human resources and BU Questrom School of Business dean emeritus. “We are trying to define what work will be like for staff moving forward.”
“We’re hoping for as broad a participation as possible,” Freeman says.
Survey results will help shape the committee’s recommendations to the three people—Robert A. Brown, BU president, Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer, and Gary Nicksa, senior vice president of operations—who will make the final decision.
“It’s extremely important to us to get the voice of the community.”
The committee hopes to make recommendations in June. “We know there is very strong interest in this topic,” Freeman says. But beyond that, there is no announced time line for the process, and the administration is not bound to accept the recommendations.
McKnight says it’s important to note that this is not the back-to-work plan of BU recovering from the pandemic, which is already gearing up. “This is post-pandemic: how much remote work should be possible, and can we come up with parameters for the entire University?”
It’s not easy or simple, says Freeman: “How do we thread that needle while maintaining the energy of a residential campus, which is so vital in the teaching and research environments and student experience, while also maintaining a collaborative culture of individuals that connect with each other beyond the video screen and know each other at the human level, which helps to inspire more energy, more excellence, more innovation?”
Back into traffic?
For many people at BU and around the world, there has been one common, oft-discussed silver lining to this terrible pandemic: no commute. Many workers have saved time, money, and sanity, as well as benefiting the environment, by staying out of Boston traffic and off the MBTA for more than a year. Boston ranked as the worst commuting city in America in 2019, and the fourth worst in 2020, according to the annual INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard. Flexibility, more family time, and a relaxed wardrobe are among the other benefits.
The pandemic has speeded up a trend toward working remotely part of the time. “A soon-to-be-released survey of about 50 large corporate members of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, conducted by McKinsey & Co., confirms that the typical routine has been turned on its head,” the Boston Globe reported April 28. “Pre-pandemic, 90 percent of members expected employees to show up in person five days a week, while 10 percent had some form of a ‘hybrid’ model. Post-pandemic? Those numbers will flip. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they will embrace the hybrid approach.”
But working from home has its downsides too, including extra struggles for working parents or those caring for an elderly parent, strained eyes and attention spans from countless Zoom meetings, and the simple loss of in-person collaboration and camaraderie. (Everybody who’s missing those slices from T Anthony’s, raise your hand.)
“The number-one thing is, we have to have a robust residential experience, and we have to have the support staff in place to make that a reality and keep it a reality,” McKnight says. “But during the pandemic, we have proven that a good amount of work can be done remotely.”
The typical staff member will answer about 20 questions on the survey, among them:
From a job perspective, what has been most difficult for you when working from home (select all that apply):
1. More distractions/less ability to focus
2. technical issues
3. amount of screen time required
4. lack of equipment or other work necessities
5. ability to connect informally with colleagues
From a job perspective, what has been better when working from home (select all that apply):
1. Work life balance/flexibility
2. more time to dedicate to work
3. less distractions/ability to focus
4. emphasis on more purposeful interaction
5. better commute
Some faculty will be included in the survey, McKnight and Freeman say, because they supervise or engage frequently with staffers. “The real emphasis is staff. We are not seeking input about faculty working on campus; that is not part of the survey or the charge to the committee in any way,” Freeman says.
Of course many “essential” workers have to be on campus, and who can take advantage of any new policy will be one of the thorniest questions the committee must resolve.
Some fraction of employees already had flexibility to work from home or alter their hours, formally or informally, Freeman and McKnight say, and the committee is trying to get a sense of how much remote work was already going on before the pandemic. Members are also analyzing published research about the future of work, and benchmarking Association of American Universities and regional universities’ emerging policies.
Really understanding productivity during the pandemic is going to be important, Freeman says. “Are we more productive or not? Research outside of BU suggests frankly that we can be more productive, because we’re chained to our chairs—we can’t grab a cup of coffee and talk about the weekend with anybody.”
Departments have been varied in how they’ve handled work from home during the pandemic. “IS&T has done a really good study of their unit during the pandemic, and it’s very persuasive,” McKnight says. “It shows that they’ve been considerably more productive. But not all units have done that kind of survey.”
“A stress point is going to be student-facing jobs,” Freeman says. For example, advising, where some will say they did a better job advising over Zoom—“It’s easier, I can do it 24 hours a day instead of 9 to 5”—but is that a job that requires an on-campus presence if possible?
“In the end,” Freeman says, “managers in their own areas are going to be engaging with employees on an individual-to-individual basis, on the work arrangement that makes the most sense for the individual, for the University, and for the job, the specific role that individual plays.”
One of the criticisms that arose when the committee was announced was the lack of “rank-and-file” employees on board (a list of members is at the end of this story). McKnight says the committee represents many different units all over campus and that members have been speaking to rank-and-file employees across the University.
“We are sensitive to the perception,” Freeman says. “Be assured this committee is an independent body, we know what our charge is, and we intend to provide recommendations that represent the voice of the community and the best practices being adopted by peer institutions outside the University.”
“That’s what this survey is about, and why it’s so important to get the word out,” McKnight says.
And the plain fact is, with the vast variety of jobs at the University, many people will need to return to campus full-time, McKnight and Freeman say, even if they were not deemed essential during the pandemic. But the committee will offer a framework for making all those decisions.
“This won’t solve everything,” says Freeman. “We don’t envision a one-size-fits-all recommendation.”
Committee on the Future of Staff Work members:
- Kenneth Freeman, cochair, vice president ad interim for human resources, Questrom School of Business dean emeritus and professor of the practice
- Natalie McKnight, cochair, dean, College of General Studies
- Diane Baldwin, associate vice president, Sponsored Programs
- Jorge Delva, dean, School of Social Work, Paul Farmer Professor
- Mariette DiChristina (COM’86), dean, College of Communication
- Ira Lazic, associate dean for administration and finance, School of Public Health
- Elise Morgan, Maysarah K. Sukkar Professor of Engineering, director, Center for Multiscale and Translational Mechanobiology, associate dean for research and faculty development, College of Engineering
- Janet O’Brien, senior associate vice president, IS&T
- Patricia O’Brien, associate provost for budget and planning
- Hee-Young Park, associate dean, faculty affairs, professor and chair, department of medical sciences and education, School of Medicine, Faculty Council representative
- Silifa Wallace, associate vice president, internal audit
- Juliana Walsh Kaiser, senior associate dean for finance and administration, College of Arts & Sciences
It has been a good decision to have those who can work remotely stay home and operate from there. I am what is considered an essential employee, meaning I have to be here in person to do my job. It has been a challenging year to say the least but we have been here since the pandemic started early in 2020 and we have been submitting the daily attestation and getting tested once a week since last year, it has helped to give us a partial peace of mind. Anyways, one day last month I completely forgot to have my test the day I was scheduled but I went early the next morning to comply with the requirement. guess what? I got a written warning. I accepted my responsibility but wondered: Can I get one break after working in person for a whole year under pandemic conditions? I guess not!
You got a break…a written documented notice to not do it again. This is standard practice across the University.
I do hope that the President takes the committee’s findings and recommendations seriously and realizes that work from home is a thing. But, with recent developments of recalling non-essential workers back 2m earlier than originally told (surprise!) this only makes the committee’s job coming up with a solution even harder as, for me, this now feels hollow…though I’m sure I am not the only one that feels that way. Right now my feeling is pretty standard: employees will participate in the survey and voice their opinions, observations and concerns, a lot of work/effort from the committee will go into plowing through results and coming up with recommendations and I’m not confident that’ll lead to anything new once it gets to “decision makers.” And for a University that claims to be advanced/cutting edge, its a sad thought to have.
I don’t understand the President/University’s non-understanding that not every staff member needs to be on campus to do their work every single day of their workweek. I myself work in HR Systems, the vast majority of my job can be done from anywhere and has been done so over the past year. The University has probably received from me and my collogues 100’s of extra hours of work (per person) due to not having to trudge into Comm Ave…and guess what, I didn’t mind providing those extra hours of work while avoiding a commute. Are there positions that need to be on campus all the time YES, think about our colleagues in operational type groups like B&G, Security/the Police, IS&T Desktop. And then we have student facing, most would probably need to be on campus a majority of their schedule but I’m willing to bet that even student facing employees can cycle home to do admin work on certain days. There’s an entire rainbow of positions that can work from home or cant, hopefully the President realizes this post survey.
Wouldn’t it be great if a result of this were more flex schedules and happier employees? Imagine too that with flex schedules we could could have flex office spaces and we could convert office space to student spaces. The University is at a turning point, work from home is out of the bottle and it could be transformative for this institution. The University also has to realize that if we don’t adapt we are going to bleed talent, and its going to bleed quickly.
I think we have all seen what happens when both faculty and staff are working remotely, students also join remotely behind the black zoom boxes. we already have the results from that experiment.
we need to consider the long term effect of being disengaged from our workplace community. Having a good relationship between colleagues and managers promotes a healthy workplace environment and happier employees. the longer we don’t see our co-workers the more distant that relationship becomes, we are less likely to ask for help or opinion.
Imagine a new employee starting in an office where they never have a face to face meeting, and never go to lunch with their colleagues or their manager. what kind of connection would this employee have with their workplace?
Many folks aren’t asking for or expecting 100% remote work. We are simply looking for a healthy balance between flex/remote work and the office. Even working from home just twice a week has the potential to eliminate a significant amount of long-term stress that results from commuting into Boston on a regular basis.
Imagine the effects of being disengaged from our families due to spending 15-20 or more hours commuting per week. Imagine a kid who doesn’t get to see his dad at his t-ball game – what kind of connection would this father/son have? Yeah but no keep glorifying work as the reason we’re all alive.
This sounds like what a middle manager would say after a year of staff successfully working autonomously without meetings to count bodies in seats. Perhaps the university could save money by flattening the organization a bit. Less Assistant Directors, Associate Directors, Directors, Executive Directors, and more people doing work will boost productivity.
I work to produce a benefit to an organization, not to “build relationships”, which usually just means nepotism and favoritism. Some of the most productive organizations on earth have had remote work for years. Standard non-student-facing administrative/IT/finance jobs simply do not need to be in person with today’s technology.
I agree with Rob, I’d rather have relationships with my family, and not spend 20+ hours a week on Route 2, I-90, I-93, etc.
Eddie there is little to know doubt this committee/survey is 99% for optics. The 1% I left out is for them to hunt for opinions contrary to the majority to highlight that not EVERYONE agrees that remote work options are beneficial. I mean do we really think staff is going to collectively “vote” for a non-flexible work environment? Of course not. So they’ll take the 1% (who are also probably plants) and use that to keep the status quo under the guise that “well not everyone agrees”. “Fairness” will be the next obstacle as if somehow we were all treated the same before the pandemic. Did your office have half-day Fridays in the summer like the Athletics department? Yeah mine didn’t either.
I hope I look back on this post in a year and am dead wrong, but we all know the BU administration will give just enough to attempt to claim the high ground – and not an ounce more.
McKnight says it’s important to note that this is not the back-to-work plan of BU recovering from the pandemic, which is already gearing up. “
What is the back-to-work plan? With a push for staff to be back in person this fall or sooner, can we expect there to be at least an interim policy for that time period if a formal one hasn’t been approved? Also if a unit/department had a working from home policy pre-pandemic, can they revert back to that policy until a formal university policy has been approved/announced?
Still troubled by composition of committee; the lowest ranking person is associate dean. Fine to gather input from others via survey, but still no substitute for a seat at the table and a voice not filtered by high ranking administrators. Also, no student voices represented in the process; presumably the people we are repopulating the campus for. Are we to simply presume students feel the need for a particular level of in person staff on campus without hearing them say so? So many middle managers and entry-level staff (not to mention ‘essential workers’ have been working so far above and beyond to ensure BU’s success. I realize the issues are complex, but it just feels lousy to be denied a seat at the table.
Right? Like what a pleasant surprise it would be if the third name on the committee was “Denise – entry level data input at Parking Services” or the 5th name was “Kim – random assistant to the assistant at Accounts Payable”.
Alas however, they can’t risk dissent from the pre-determined recommendations which are: “While nearly every respondent agreed that more flexible work-from-home options would be beneficial, 3 people wrote what Bob Brown asked them to and said that although this would enhance quality of life by 80%, it may detract .06% from the mission of our residential campus experience.”
This! If you don’t include staff as part of the decision-making process, you’re just reinforcing power dynamics that perpetuate the problems that staff members face. Also let’s note how uncomfortable staff feel even attaching their name to a comment on an article about them.
Endorse this 100%. Especially after the outcry to the previous article on this committee, it’s pretty disappointing that no staff who are not in senior management roles have been added.
I’m grateful to be working at BU alongside such wonderful people. During the pandemic, I’ve felt supported and been impressed with all that the University has done. From my perspective, Faculty, Staff and Students have all adapted very well and their collective cooperation is what made it work. Now there’s a real cultural shift happening and I believe there’s enough talented minds here to create meaningful flexibility while still maintaining a strong residential campus experience. It may take a lot of work but it’s going to be so critical in the long run. If it’s rushed or done with a lack of creativity, talent will be lost. I hope that’s realized. So far, I’m sensing rushed already…
Another problem is that the future of remote work falls into the hands of President Brown, Provost Morrison and Gary Nicksa. I don’t think that staff feels particularly valued from the top right now and there’s a real trust gap. The decisions (or lack thereof) that come out of the committee are going to either further this gap or lead to some sort of redemption. Let’s hope the President values his Staff and takes a more authentic approach.
Just thought I’d point out that commuting from/to Quincy 5days/wk works out to ~$70 in gas every month for my hatchback, or something like 25 gallons of fossil fuel.
The agony that is sitting on 93 for 10hrs/wk aside, I’d like to think they’re taking into consideration the environmental impact of forcing people to drive in if they really don’t need to for the simple sake of a “vibrant community.”