- 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