New patterns of remote work are appearing, as different nations rethink their COVID plans. What might they mean for higher education?
To set the stage, let me share some data from Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom:
The shift to WFH is the largest shock to labor markets in decades. Pre-pandemic WFH was trending towards 5% of days by 2022. Now WFH is now stabilizing at 30%, a 6-fold jump.
In America alone this is saving about 200 million hours and 6 billion miles of commuting a week. pic.twitter.com/XK4WVWXq3f
— Nick Bloom (@I_Am_NickBloom) August 29, 2022
This is early data for a rapidly developing situation, but let’s start from it to get our thoughts and imaginations going. What happens to a society where about one third of its working hours are done remotely?
Since my focus is higher education’s future, let’s zero in on that point. What are the impacts on colleges and universities?
- How much academic work will we conduct remotely during the 2022-2023 academic year? Which units, which departments will be more work-from-home-oriented than others?
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- If the workforce outside of the academia experiences this large uptick in remote work, will that influence students to desire more online education?
- If this relatively high level of work from home persists, at least in the medium term, how should colleges and universities change how we prepare students for the workforce?
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I posed early versions of these questions on Twitter and received some fascinating responses.
Karen Belinier identified some academic work hesitation:
As someone who was on the job market for the past year or so. I have seen quite a bit of hesitation for remote for faculty development or online management level roles.
— Karen Bellnier (@kbmusings) September 2, 2022
Amanda Albright pointed out one reason for academics to welcome work from home options:
Housing shortage in some regions make recruiting difficult. Remote work options help.
— Amanda Albright (@alealbright) September 5, 2022
Drew Tatusko saw strategic reasons for a university to offer remote work:
We've had entire units move to fully remote. 1) Hard to attract a diverse staff to State College, 2) Flexibility = competitiveness, 3) staff retention, the genie is out of the bottle with the conveniences of WFH. Here's our new policy: https://t.co/0RcKGjnB19
— Drew Tatusko (@DrewTatusko) September 5, 2022
What are you seeing in your part(s) of the academic world? What do you anticipate we’ll see on this point for the next year?
Thought this article relating to staff was interesting. I think students’ feedback and input is where we should be listening and the focal point of where and how we adapt, change, and modify.
Students Vote for Remote (Employees)
That is *fascinating*, Melanie. It matches what I’ve heard from students for years.
I’ve seen a huge number of accomplished, highly skilled and valuable staff leave our academic program at our prestigious university because they were asked to come back to the office on an regular schedule even after the pandemic proved that their ability to complete their job functions remotely. I think while the importance of the “campus experience” for students is huge and we should support that, there are many staff roles that are easily completed from home, with only occassional on-site work as it is required for the programs to function smoothly. Particularly for universities wanting to reduce their energy expenditures (an carbon emissions, stress on their infrasructure, and more), it makes good financial sense to allow as much remote work as possible. However, the traditional culture of being “in person” and the lack of trust in staff to do their jobs seems to continue to get in the way, and we lose more and more good people to the forward-thinking (and higher paying) employers who offer fully remote options.
Excellent points, Cheryl.
Losing staff may cause some institutions to change direction. Not all.
I hope the CO2 emissions aspect will play a larger role than it does.
I think this trend represents a tremendous opportunity for education on both ends of the spectrum. Employee productivity can be coupled with a meaningful contribution to greenhouse gas reduction by reducing/eliminating commutes.
For those that have a choice about commuting, the students, there are real opportunities to rethink how we structure our institutions around meeting their needs AND reducing greenhouse AND reducing pressure on things like parking facilities.
Commuter institutions educate 85% of all students. While the National Student Clearinghouse data (https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CTEE_Report_Spring_2022.pdf) doesn’t break down data in terms of residential vs. commuter, the fact that community colleges (almost all of which are commuter) and 4-year public colleges (a large percentage of which are commuter) suffered the most enrollment losses over the last few years indicates to me that those institutions need to do a better job of meeting students where they are instead of expecting them to commute to a distant campus on regular schedule. (If someone has commuter vs. residential enrollment enrollment trends, please share.)
What this says to me is that everyone, from employers to educators, need to do a careful analysis of what kinds of learning tasks can be done just as effectively (or more effectively) remotely and what tasks/engagements need to be facilitated in situ.
I did this kind of analysis on my own classes when the pandemic hit. I’ve recently helped develop a campus model to support hybrid/blended learning more effectively. I blogged about this earlier this summer for ShapingEDU (https://shapingedu.asu.edu/blog/future-learning-spaces-classrooms-mind).
This shift marks a tremendous opportunity to better blend the technological affordances that higher education has been building for decades (and were accelerated during the pandemic) with its physical infrastructure. However, educational institutions need to adapt their systems (like getting rid of a distinction between “in-person” and “online” classes) to match. This would open the doors of education to a much wider audience and perhaps recapture some of those who left during the pandemic.
Excellent thoughts, Tom.
I like your “AND” sequence to help us think more effectively about the topic. And appreciate your conception of this as a way to rethink higher ed more broadly.
I would love to see more creativity, flexibility, and openness at my institution in this area, but it has felt to me like covid was such a shock to our system that few are willing to take the risk of even tinkering with, much less fully opening up, that system right now.
We are going to have to fall behind others schools with whom we compete for enrollments, and then recognize that part of being behind has been a lack of willingness to open the system,, for meaningful changes to start to happen.
I realize it’s been a month since this post appeared and my comment may not matter much at all. But I am surprised to see these comments focus mostly on the experience of the *employees* rather than the *students*. While there’s some contradictory evidence, it seems that learning outcomes are stronger when students are in-person, especially for students with lower academic preparation (which tracks with a lot of similar findings for MOOCs and similar learning modes). In addition, students seem to prefer in-person learning, especially for courses that are very important to them (e.g., a chemistry major is fine with a history distribution requirement offered virtually, but wants to be in the lab for organic chem).
I certainly sympathize with Bryan’s hope that universities will choose remote and hybrid for reasons of philosophy and virtue, and with others’ hopes that universities will choose those modes to improve employee working conditions, but it seems to me that the primary driver of change will be *student preferences.* If students want a hybrid or low-contact experience, then some institutions will pivot to provide it. But that hasn’t happened yet. (We do have a number of environmentally-friendly colleges, but they are friendly in the context of in-person education [e.g. Warren Wilson College], and they aren’t exactly many in number.) Moreover, in light of Ian Bogost’s argument in The Atlantic that Americans have a strong attachment to “collegiate life” (the residential experience of young adults, etc.), it seems to me to be more likely that students will continue to prefer a residential experience. And that means that they will prefer most student-facing functions (instruction, financial aid, athletics, wellness) to be located on campus, where the students are. (There are a number of back-office functions that could conceivably convert to work-from-home — accounting, institutional research, fundraising, alumni relations, to name a few.)