HR Interview on Work in Fall 2021
In an interview with Senior AVP for HR Sarah Refaat, we learn the policy and plans for how to help staff transition back to work on campus in the fall.
What will be different for staff starting in September?
SR: Our staff are critical to all aspects of the University’s operation. Throughout the pandemic, they have shown flexibility and adaptability — often with challenging circumstances at home — while continuing to serve our academic mission. We also have to remember that our staff are a diverse group that span many different types of jobs. There are, for example, large numbers of our staff who have continued to work on campus daily because of the nature of their jobs. Others work a combination of on campus and remote, while some are currently still working fully remotely. As the University moves to full face-to-face instruction in September, our expectation is that all staff will also return to campus to support this important transition for our students.
Will the remote work policy change?
SR: AUC has had a Remote Work Policy in place for many years, well before the pandemic. Because the concept of remote work was not as widely practiced, the policy was rarely used and lacked well-developed procedures and details on eligibility and approvals. Now that we have all experienced remote work, there is greater interest in exploring this option among staff and supervisors. After spending the spring and summer looking at policy options, analyzing work patterns during the pandemic and consulting with members of the community, we realized that the old policy of allowing staff up to two days per week of remote work and three days of physical presence may serve us well at this point. What we needed were more details on what types of jobs would be eligible for remote work, the process to apply, who should approve remote work requests and how it would be evaluated. In other words, our policy is not changing, but we have developed greater clarity on how it is implemented.
Is this only for the pandemic or permanent?
SR: As part of enhancing our work environment for staff and staying updated on evolving trends around how people work, especially in higher education, we may keep the option of remote work into the foreseeable future. One of the lessons of the pandemic has been about the need for flexibility. We all learned both how much can be done remotely and how essential face-to-face is for many types of interactions. There is no replacement for face-to-face interaction for team building, creating a common culture, establishing trust and so much else we need at work. We’ve seen in the past two years tremendous variation in work places and a huge evolution in how people think. At the opposite ends of the spectrum, we’ve seen work places going back 100 percent in either direction. To further complicate things, there is also significant individual variance. Some people love remote work and some people hate it and most are somewhere in between. Our challenge is to find a system that accommodates individuals where possible so that they can be productive and engaged in their work, while at the same time finding a mode of operation that allows the University to fulfill its academic and operational needs.
According to the old (now revived) policy you mentioned, staff may be able to apply to work up to two days remotely. How can they do that and who decides if it’s possible?
SR: Staff members who are interested in that option, should read the Remote Work Policy as a first step and speak with their supervisors. Naturally, there are certain types of jobs, for example those that are forward-facing or require in person interactions with students, members of the AUC community or visitors that may not be eligible for remote work. Staff in jobs that have some aspects that are appropriate to be completed from home are eligible to apply by filling in an online application form. The process will require approval from the director supervisor and area head, as well as review by HR. Some of the aspects we look for in setting up a job for remote work are the ability to track deliverables, the access to remote work setting that is properly equipped, the ability of the staff member to be fully available during working hours and agreed upon evaluation criteria. There should be regular check-ins between the supervisor and the staff member to see if remote work continues to be effective. As part of the annual performance review, jobs with remote work will be examined to ensure the model is working well for everyone. The approval for remote work could be for a short period of time or could be changed as required by the supervisor. HR will hold information sessions later this month to address any staff questions or concerns about the policy. Meanwhile, staff members can contact HR anytime with specific questions.
What about staff who continue to face challenges with childcare or simply prefer to work remotely 100 percent of the time?
SR: For any system we design, there will always be cases where some individuals have different preferences. We’ve seen trends all over the world of both employees and employers rethinking the nature of work. At this juncture, we feel that a two-day per week remote work policy for eligible staff who apply provides some flexibility and at the same time maintains the face-to-face campus experience we are all looking forward to having in the fall. Staff members with unique, individual, temporary circumstances should speak with their supervisors about whether accommodations are possible.
What if circumstances change and the COVID cases rise? Will we go back to remote work?
SR: The University has always put the health and safety of the AUC community as a priority. That will not change. The Back to Campus working group and the health and safety team continue to monitor the situation. Should circumstances require it, the University will announce any needed adjustments for all members of the University community, including staff.
What about health and safety in our offices and workplaces? What is the University doing to make sure we don’t get sick when we return to campus?
SR: The University’s Back to Campus guidelines outline a number of measures we will be taking in the fall. Of course, the single most important part we can all play this summer is getting vaccinated. I know many of our staff have already been vaccinated or are registered. This is a critical component of keeping our community safe. In addition, we can expect to continue face mask and social distancing requirements as we return to campus. All staff members should take the time to carefully read the guidelines and make sure they understand expectations for the fall.
What advice would you give staff who are currently working remotely?
SR: Just as working remotely was a huge adjustment for all of us at the beginning of the pandemic — learning Zoom meeting protocols, finding ways to stay connected and managing the intersection between work and home — the return to campus will be another big adjustment. I think the first step is recognizing that we will be going through another big change and that it’s perfectly normal to be nervous or apprehensive about it. The good news is that we will all be going through this together in September and will be rediscovering again working together on campus. The Counseling Center is providing support to help all of us deal with anxiety and stress associated with the pandemic and all of the life changes we experienced. One tip I have found useful is to start more gradually and build up. If you haven’t been to your office in several weeks, start with a short day or even a few hours and build from there. The AUC community really came together in dealing with the pandemic and its disruption at the start and we will continue to draw on that same community spirit as we find our way back to campus this fall.