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COVID-19 and the (Possible) Convergence of (Some) Faculty/Staff Workplace Norms

Writing about the faculty/staff divide is always tricky. Neither faculty nor staff are one thing.

Faculty encompasses everything from tenure-track (and tenured) professors to contingent instructors. Staff is everyone else. (Administrators are maybe a separate category of faculty (or former faculty) occupying campus leadership roles.

We are all asking, how will COVID-19 change higher education once we are all vaccinated? Questions that I’ve been wondering about have to do with campus workplace culture. Specifically, is COVID-19 driving a convergence of faculty/staff workplace norms?

Here, I’m thinking of the academic staff whose jobs have been conducive to remote work during the pandemic. Those of us who, by the nature of our work, have been privileged enough to work at home since March. (Many, maybe most, staff have not had this option – and have been working on campus throughout the pandemic).

If you are an academic staff person working from home now, what will happen to your job in the post-COVID-19 period?

The convergence of faculty/staff workplace norms that I’m thinking about has to do with where and how academic work gets done. Pre-pandemic, academic workplace norms mostly dictated that faculty worked both on campus and at home, while staff work was mainly campus-based.

There are, of course, wide variations and exceptions to these norms, as some staff telecommuted and some faculty were on campus each weekday from 8 am to 5 pm. But as a general rule of thumb, faculty were not expected to be on campus for 40 hours per week, and staff were.

We’re now going on nine months of both (most) faculty and (most) professional staff working from the same place – from home. This shift in where the work happens for staff has also brought, I suspect, a change in when the work happens.

Faculty have always worked variable hours. The truth about being a professor is that you work all the time. Teaching, scholarship, and service is not an 8 to 5 job and takes much more than 40 hours a week. So professors work nights and weekends, as well as days.

The compensating benefit to faculty for working all the time has traditionally been autonomy. Faculty own their time. Professors must teach when their classes are scheduled and attend meetings and other campus events. But, for the most part, faculty are free to set their own schedules. Faculty could go grocery shopping in the middle of the day or attend a kids soccer game, and nobody would care. As long as the classes got taught and the office hours were held, a professor’s time was (and is) their own.

Professional academic staff, not so much.

In general (and again with exceptions), professional academic staff were expected to work a regular business hours schedule. These staff also worked at nights and on weekends – e-mail never sleeps – but these at-home hours were in addition to the full work week on campus.

During these past nine months, I’ve seen something of a change in academic staff work. Staff seem to be more likely nowadays to schedule their work around their life, rather than vice-versa. This has mostly been a product of necessity, with children being cared for and learning from home.

It is not only academic staff who are parents, however, who seem to be claiming some greater level of workplace autonomy during the pandemic. What I’ve witnessed is work migrating to nights and weekends, and perhaps more willingness (and acceptance of) accomplishing personal tasks during times we used to think of as “working hours.” The same work is getting done – maybe more work – if that work is less routinized to a traditional workday schedule.

Maybe.

We don’t have any real data to back up this observation. I’m just going on what I’m seeing.

If it is true that (some) staff work now more closely resembles (some) faculty work in terms of autonomy and flexibility (an open question) – then will this change persist post-COVID-19?

Will managers of academic units made up of academic staff care less where and when the work happens, as long as the work gets done?

Will academic staff feel less of a need to account for their time and feel more empowered to intermix professional and family obligations?

Will working from home for professional academic staff shift from unusual to normative?

When looked at academic jobs through the lens of autonomy and flexibility, will the work of (some) faculty and (some) staff end up looking more alike once the pandemic is done?

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Monday, December 7, 2020
Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Monday, December 7, 2020