University of Iowa maps out ‘Future of Work’ with some flexibility

The University of Iowa residence building Burge Hall is shown in Iowa City. Although the UI has moved classes online till the end of the semester on Dec. 18, thousands of students remain in residence halls. The UI on Monday reported 2,053 students have said they ‘plan to remain in university housing during the virtual instruction period.’ (File photo/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Working at off-hours and from off-campus locations is “not the new norm,” according to a final University of Iowa “Future of Work” report summarizing pros and cons of changes made during the pandemic.

But while the shift to remote learning and working proved only temporary, some features of pandemic-era academia should not disappear entirely, according to recommendations in the report — which the campus released this month after two years of varying degrees of flexible or hybrid work and learning experiences.

“Most faculty and staff roles require on-campus work that provides the residential campus experience students expect,” according to the report, which concedes some benefit of staying flexible into the future.

Departments could, for example, develop “on-campus priority days” where most employees must work from campus, even those allowed to work remotely on other days. Or units could continue to tap flex-work tools and technology for emergencies or rare occasions — like snow or sick days.

“Flexible work can expand services, save space and money, support employee well-being, and help the university compete for talent,” according to the report.

Employee and student well-being and mental health has been at the heart of the Future of Work project UI initiated in November 2020 as COVID raged and campuses everywhere re-imagined how and where employees and students could safely and effectively work and study during and after COVID.

Guided by principles of inclusivity, engagement, excellence, and enhanced services to students and employees, the university in its Future of Work pilot aspired to create a residential campus experience that attracted top faculty, staff, and students and enabled them to thrive.

“Core to the Future of Work@Iowa initiative is balancing the implementation of flexibility with a robust student experience,” according to the report. “Through the initiative’s pilot phase, we have demonstrated that achieving this balance is possible. Flexible work — wisely implemented and evaluated — can provide an experience that complements campus aspirations and goals.”

Mental health implications

UI colleges and units established about 1,800 remote or hybrid work arrangements via the Future of Work pilot. Of the arrangements, about 95 percent worked from within Iowa and about 5 percent located “mostly within Midwestern states surrounding Iowa.”

The report detailed ways flexible work benefited UI during the pandemic and as restrictions lifted:

  • Students were more likely to show up for online academic advising meetings;
  • Most student legal service clients rated online and in-person appointments of similar quality, and 48 percent preferred online appointments, compared with 13 percent who wanted in-person;
  • Overall satisfaction with help desk services rose during the flexible-work pilot;
  • Online Student Health visit options reduced no-show rates from 5.1 percent to 3.2 percent;
  • Students preferred online or phone meetings for basic Student Wellness information and stress management tools, while still wanting in-person meetings for fitness and nutrition information;
  • And University Counseling Service clients generally preferred in-person counseling but reported 99 percent satisfaction with both face-to-face and online services.

A growing number of faculty, staff, and students have been grappling with mental health issues that are, in many cases, influenced by the modality of their work and learning experience, according to Barry Schreier, who for years directed the University Counseling Service.

“I was talking to a faculty person the other day who has a 150-person lecture, and she said, ’15 people show up in person and 40 people show up online and that’s about all I got this semester’,” Schreier said. “She’s kind of discouraged by this and feels bad about it and finds her own motivation for teaching waning.”

Schreier in February began work with the UI-based Iowa Center for School Mental Health, launched last year with a $20 million pandemic-related grant aimed at offering teacher training and needs assessments at — at least initially — K-12 schools.

In his job with the center, Schreier is to lead a new higher-education branch aimed at addressing mounting mental health needs among UI faculty and staff — with the eventual goal of disseminating information, tools, and techniques statewide.

“It’s a stressful year,” he said to the question of how faculty and staff are doing.

“The way that the university is operating has changed greatly,” he said, referencing the Future of Work report and its potential implications for faculty and staff. “Folks are now combing through that to see what the implications are, what that will mean for remote teaching versus in-person teaching.”

Faculty feelings about flexible work — including remote instruction — run the gamut, according to Schreier. Some still worry about being in class due to the potential spread of COVID, while others feel uninspired and drained by the yearslong effort of trying to connect with students over zoom.

Many also feel the pressure of growing mental health needs among students.

A 2021 study out of Boston University found 87 percent of college and university faculty and staff surveyed nationally believed student mental health had worsened or significantly worsened during COVID. Nearly 80 percent had engaged in one-on-one conversations with students about mental health, and 73 percent said they’d welcome professional development on handling student mental health.

About 21 percent said engaging with student distress had taken a toll on their own mental health, and Schreier said that rings true for the UI campus.

“It’s just dealing with everything that’s in front of us,” he said. “Two years of pandemic and now there’s a war … Everyone’s aware of all these things and they’re feeling all these things and it just continues to layer on distress.”

Students, faculty, and staff have and continue to show a lot of resilience, Schreier said.

“But resilience is not a bottomless resource,” he said.

Recommendations

Considering faculty, staff, and student wellness — alongside the campus’ mission to provide an excellent residential-campus experience — members of a UI Future of Work implementation team made the following flexible-work recommendations for UI going forward:

  • The UI residential-campus experience should shape all future remote, hybrid, or flexible work arrangements;
  • Most UI jobs require on-campus work, and flexible arrangements should align with job duties;
  • Colleges and departments must give “business rationales that show how flexible work supports the university’s core missions”;
  • Workplace culture — with a focus on engagement, inclusivity, and well-being — must support both the individual and the unit;
  • Colleges and administrative units should make flexible-work decisions according to UI policy and should apply flexible work practices consistently;
  • Although long-term remote work suits only specific jobs, UI should “embrace intermittent flexibility that helps employees meet day-to-day needs and supports flexibility for all”;
  • One flex-work tactic could involve designating “on-campus priority days” where most employees are expected to work from campus;
  • Out-of-state remote work should involve “expanded review and approval”;
  • Flexible work arrangements should be evaluated annually;
  • And flexible work opportunities should improve space utilization on campus — as employees in remote or hybrid arrangements shouldn’t be assigned dedicated personal workstations on campus;

“If the university were to repurpose campus space for employees in hybrid work who shifted to half-time on campus during the pilot … it would gain significant square footage,” according to the report.

Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.

Feedback: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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