Hybrid and remote work among staff and administration during the pandemic may have first looked like a temporary contingency plan. However, three years removed from the pandemic, employees still prefer the option to work from home. The demand for it is so high that it’s the second-most cited reason they said they were seeking another job in a CUPA-HR report last month.
While NASPA has found that most colleges and universities have yet to adopt transparent policies on hybrid and remote work among its employees, two universities that have embraced it in some of their departments have experienced early signs of better staff recruitment, performance, work morale and performance.
Kim Asch, director of strategic communications and marketing at St. Lawrence University (N.Y.), is seeking a sixth team member. Since advertising the position as fully remote, she isn’t stressing over any potential skill gaps.
“We know we’ve attracted an especially strong candidate pool,” she says.
Asch believes the strategy to advertise a remote position worked so well because it helps compensate for the current trends in higher education working against its staff. Inflation has outpaced employees’ salaries for the last three years, which in turn has thinned the workforce and placed more pressure on those remaining to pick up the pieces.
“The mission-driven work of higher education is really rewarding, but the pay scale tends to be lower than the corporate world,” she says. “This kind of flexibility gives us an advantage with recruitment and retention.”
Asch can speak on behalf of her remote employee candidates because she lives across the state line in Vermont, three hours away from campus in the sleepy town of Georgia, where she’s been raising her family for the past 20 years. As a fully remote employee, she only needs to come to campus for significant events and attend division retreats. Two of the five members of her team currently work remotely as well.
St. Lawrence has made a strong commitment to curate a flexible work environment. The university has upgraded its technology to cater to hybrid meetings by implementing large screens, speakers, microphones and cameras in workrooms. This allows for integrated team meetings between on-campus staff and those remote. The university employs 28 remote workers, 20 within New York state, across different departments, such as advancement, admissions, IT, finance and more.
Some employers may argue that the remote work model may decrease work morale and productivity and create a “soft” work environment. Early results from Lincoln University’s (Mo.) admissions department may prove otherwise. In the second year that Lincoln has employed a remote work model, the HBCU has seen a record number of applicants, admits and enrollees at the university, says Danisha Williams, director of admissions. She credits university president John Moseley for normalizing remote work to create more effective student recruiting strategies. With leadership buy-in, Williams has helped employ remote recruiters across the five regions with the highest pool of Lincoln applicants, such as St. Louis, Chicago (Ill.) and the Bootheel of Missouri, located at its southernmost point.
“If you look at our data, you can justify having remote or hybrid workers,” Williams says.
However, Williams believes it will take another two or three years to truly understand the impact of remote workers on the admissions department. Additionally, both universities that deployed this remote work model have done so in small teams. While Williams finds it relatively easy to connect with her remote team via virtual calls, she can see how staying in touch with a larger unit might be more difficult.
Similarly, Asch and Williams supervise teams that are a mix of remote and on-campus employees. St. Lawrence’s media relations position requires a university ambassador readily available to the media. As for Lincoln, remote work only became feasible once the admissions office adopted automation software that eased the burden of reviewing student applications.
“I would encourage [leaders] to look at where it makes sense to adopt remote workers and where it doesn’t or where they don’t have the resources,” Williams says.
Asch allows her primarily on-campus employees to field calls from home in the morning if her schedule allows it. “It’s really important to have that workplace flexibility for them as well, so there’s some level of parity,” she says.
Asch celebrated her one-year anniversary at St. Lawrence this past July, exemplifying the early success of the remote-work initiative. This is her second stint working a full-time remote position; her first was at McDaniel College (Md.) for four years. She knows that she wouldn’t have been interested if her current position weren’t described to her as remote-eligible.
“For me, it’s really about having my cake and eating it too,” Asch says. “I get to work for a phenomenal institution with a great culture and that does really fantastic work that I can be proud of. And I can do it while maintaining my roots in my own community, so I get to have two communities this way.”