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Can Remote Work Actually Work for IT in Higher Ed?

As the adaptive necessity of telework became a norm for major IT organizations, some found it actually helped productivity. Colleges and universities might take cues from the private sector in how to make the most of it.

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For many organizations navigating a post-pandemic work environment, one of the most common questions from employees is, “Can I work remotely?” The question for supervisors and administrators seems to be, “Can remote work actually work?” Certainly, many IT organizations have proven that remote work can function very effectively. In some ways, the pandemic was a renaissance in demonstrating how employees could acclimate to new and uncharted work environments while still providing good customer service, communications and support from a distance. IT departments had the opportunity to demonstrate what being agile and flexible really meant. Remote work may not be the best choice for all IT functions and operations, but there are important takeaways, strategies and best practices from which to learn.

When evaluating what IT functions are best suited for remote work, consider employees who work in enterprise functions and server administration. Many help desk functions can be partially remote, but there are times when staff must work directly with a client or on their computer equipment. Networking team members can manage the network remotely but need to be on campuses for on-premise installs and repairs. Classroom team members are likely in the same group.

The benefits of remote work are many. There is an obvious mental advantage of better life/work balance and more flexible scheduling. There are cost and time savings of not having to commute to an office, and the ability to work anywhere with reliable Internet. Being remote prevents colleague interruptions and helps IT employees focus on planning and issue resolution. Without the need for an office, there are natural cost savings.

Communication is key to a successful remote work arrangement. As soon as employees headed home when the pandemic hit, companies and universities saw an explosion of web conferencing through Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams, along with a shortage of headsets and webcams. Departments had to learn to make meetings more focused, engaging and effective. And we quickly learned the most frequent message was, “You’re muted!” More interestingly, IT departments found their communications actually improved during virtual meetings and were more effective than when staff worked just down the hallway. Virtual conversations began to crisscross units, departments, locations and even time zones. Collaboration and productivity appeared to improve, too.

What we found was video conferencing actually helped nurture client relationships, promoted collaboration, and if the cameras were on, helped us focus on the nonverbal reactions – something IT professionals routinely miss. In fact, the nonverbal reactions provided more insight from the individual images of people on screen rather than merely focusing on the employee who was continually speaking.

For telework to be successful, an organization needs a specific policy with clear work expectations. Unequal work policies can complicate the situation. A work environment that combines teleworkers with essential workers on-premises can cause disheartenment and resentment. Telework works when there are clear expectations, effective management and dedicated employees.

When the pandemic was at its height, initial surveys showed companies quickly embracing telework. In July 2020, the global research company Gartner reported that 82 percent of company leaders intended to permit some telework, 47 percent intended to allow full-time remote work. According to a 2020 survey of mostly large U.S. companies from the business research nonprofit The Conference Board, 36 percent of respondents were willing to hire workers who are 100 percent remote and live anywhere in the U.S. or internationally.

As many companies quickly went remote during the pandemic, corporate IT giants like Google continually modified their telework plans and policies. In December 2020, Google announced plans to allow workers to spend three days a week in the office, then in May 2021, further relaxed its telework plan to allow 20 percent of employees to telecommute.

In September 2021, Apple announced it was asking staff to return to the office three days a week and allowing them to work remotely for up to two weeks each year. What this illustrates is that corporations continually modified their telework plans as they recognized the importance of retaining and recruiting top talent, while also realizing the benefits of face-to-face work.

Clearly, higher education is not a corporate environment, but having flexible telework practices in place helps recruitment and retention of employees there too. Quoted in a May 2021 article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said, “Campuses that don’t embrace those policies may suffer, losing talent to other campuses and to the private sector.” This reality is hitting many campuses throughout the U.S. in the post-pandemic period. It has simply become an employee market. How can higher education still retain and recruit talent, while not being able to pay corporate wages? Here are some strategic suggestions.

1) Develop a precise and well-thought-out telework plan by having active and collaborative discussions with human resources, IT staff and institutional leadership. The outcomes of this policy need to be clearly communicated and adhered to.

2) Telework can only work with strong and fair management and clear job expectations.

3) Telework can only work with employees who demonstrate high performance in their jobs.

4) If a campus is extremely cautious of telework, develop a pilot or proof of concept to justify that the work arrangement can and does work.

5) If you cannot meet salary expectations, utilize the potential of telework as a benefit, which can be earned.

6) Consider a hybrid approach of virtual meetings, remote work and face to face.

7) Look for successful examples of telework in higher education IT and share them with management and administration.

8) Use telework or a hybrid policy in your recruitment and retention efforts, promoting successes both internally and externally.

9) Ensure your IT staff understand some jobs will still require on-site work, while others can function well in a remote environment.

10) Consistent, clear and constant communications are essential in a telework environment.

The concept of telework is here to stay, in large part because of a 100-year pandemic event that has shaped a new work environment for years to come. Higher education leaders can learn a great deal from telework in the corporate world, but they must synthesize and modify the mechanics and management of it for the educational space. Yes, remote work can actually work in an IT environment. The key is how you plan, deploy and implement it – as with any other typical IT project. Telework works if you work at it.
Jim Jorstad is an innovative global force on the effective use of technology in teaching, learning and research. Currently the interim CIO at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, he heads a team responsible for providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. He has extensive experience in learning space design, strategic social media and deploying major IT technologies. His film and journalist work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR and he is the recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is also an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow, one of 50 IT professionals chosen worldwide for the award.