By SUSAN JONES
When Rochelle Woods hears other administrators say they can’t keep staff and they don’t know why, she’s pretty sure she can pinpoint the answer.
“I’m with people from all over campus quite frequently. And some of the things that I’ve heard people say about how they’re managing their staff working remotely are disturbing,” said Woods, senior assistant dean for administration, operations and academic programs in the School of Education. These include watching to make sure employees’ green lights are on all day in Microsoft Teams or calling them repeatedly or requiring meetings at 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. every day. “It just becomes overbearing, and nobody wants to work like that.”
As remote or hybrid work for staff moves through its third year, the nature of that work is changing.
“The way we work is changing and that will change the way we hire and structure our workplace and think about work hours and think about supervision,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in an interview last month.
Gallagher noted that flexible work arrangements were a necessity and a compromise when the pandemic started. In some cases, it didn’t work, and people had to show up to campus. And it may not have seemed fair.
“What it did do is it broke a myth, and the myth was that the only way to support the University was to be physically present from eight to five,” he said. “The question now is what is the smart way to use that flexibility and how do you adjust the use of that flexibility, so that it really fits the job. That it’s fair, and that it leads to a productive and enjoyable career.
“I think the next stage of this is not just leaving the thing we did on an emergency basis in place, but it’s adapting to the fact that this is now a new tool,” Gallagher said. “It’ll be interesting because it just will produce much more flexibility across the board, whether it’s flexibility in hours, or flexibility in place, or even flexibility in the relationship with supervision. Because remote work, you’re managing work, you’re not managing presence — and that’s a positive thing.”
Pitt first released an interim policy on flexible work arrangements in July 2021, as staff were preparing to return to campus after most had spent more than a year working remotely because of the pandemic. At that time, staff who wished to work partially or fully remote had to sign a flex-work agreement stating their reasons and planned schedule. Those agreements had to be renewed this summer, as a committee continues to work on a permanent policy.
The University Times reached out to several units at Pitt to see what the impact has been from the flexible work arrangements, both for the units and the employees. Of those that responded, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. For instance, an employee engagement survey in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, conducted during the first quarter of 2022, found that 95 percent of staff were satisfied with the hybrid work arrangement, said Cyndee Pelt, the CFO’s chief of staff.
Notably the schools of Health Sciences did not respond individually, but a spokesperson for the Health Sciences said that while remote options are limited for some faculty and staff due to the nature of their work, each academic and administrative unit has been allowed flexibility in determining its remote work arrangements.
Comments from Susan Isola, director of media relations for Pitt–Greensburg, best summed up what many of the departments responding said: “We continue to aim for a good work/life balance for our staff, and department directors work with their staff to determine the best work arrangements to meet the needs of our campus community.”
“We expect people to get their jobs done and people have gotten their jobs done,” Woods from the School of Education said. “And as a leader, I’m focusing on your performance and if you’re completing your job, and I’m … not a clock watcher. … Regardless if you’re in the office, or whether you’re not in the office, if your job isn’t getting done, then we have to have some conversations about performance.
How widespread is remote work?
While some units said 75 to 80 percent of their staff worked remotely part of the time, others — such as the School of Social Work and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs — said it was nearly 100 percent.
“Nearly all Swanson School staff work remotely under flexible work agreements,” said Sanjeev Shroff, interim dean of engineering. “That being said, there are many examples of staff who maintain in-person hours, especially those with student-facing roles.”
In Pitt IT, nearly all staff work remotely except for those who need to perform services on campus. “Out of more than 300 full-time employees, on a typical day, we have about 12 folks on campus for network/operations support and 20 from our Client Services group, which includes Drop-In Support locations and IT Business Partners who work with other University departments,” said Brady Lutsko, Pitt IT spokesman.
In University Communications and Marketing, most staff have a flexible work arrangement, but a recent survey found, “staff understood the importance of developing relationships across the University, which is often enhanced by coming to campus,” a spokesperson said. “We have a variety of positions across our staff and are working on the best flexible arrangement for each position.”
In the School of Education, “we believe in flexibility, but that goes both ways,” Woods said, “which means even if you’re working remotely and you’re needed in the office for something, you have to come in the office. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re scheduled to be in the office that day or not.”
How often are staff on campus?
“There is a strong preference not to exceed two or three days on-site,” said Megan Soltesz, School of Social Work director of administration.
Several units said that during the summer the average was two days in the office and three days remote, but as students returned this fall, those numbers switched.
“I’d say staff are requesting additional flexibility over the summer and will be in-person more in the fall and spring,” said Jillian Rodgers, GSPIA’s director of human resources and operations. “We have communicated an expectation that we need to be present for students and visitors, especially during the busy fall and spring terms.”
Rodgers said she expects there will be more in-person events and required meetings this fall.
The School of Education also ramped up from two to three days in the office this fall, Woods said. “We haven’t converted any jobs to being 100 percent remote. I’ve only had a couple of requests for that, but I’ve been hesitant because I don’t want to give anyone a false impression that they’re going to just permanently be able to work remotely full time.”
Bruce Childers, dean of the School of Computing and Information (where nearly all staff are on hybrid schedules), said as part of their guiding principles for flex work, “We wanted when we were together to try to be days where we are all together, so that we are getting the benefit of of community building but at the same time recognizing there is also benefit working from home. So many staff have mentioned how that’s improved their productivity.”
The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences has offered flexible work options to staff since 2014 (find current guidelines here). Michele Montag, executive director of administration, said about 75 percent work remotely part of the time. “Since many of our staff are student- or faculty-facing, remote work increases during the summer and generally decreases during the academic year in order to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our students and faculty,” she said.
In the Office of Human Resources — with 75 percent working a hybrid schedule — all teams are expected to have at least one monthly meeting in-person on campus, according to Nichole Dwyer, HR’s director of communications. Employees also are expected to attend the office’s staff town hall in person every other month.
Engineering’s Shroff praised staff’s dedication and passion, and said, “There will continue to be the need to find the right balance for each individual – we can’t use a one-size-fits-all solution for maintaining a productive and vibrant work environment.”
What changes were needed?
Communication and technology were the two items mentioned over and over again as ways units have adapted to hybrid work.
“We have equipped everybody at home,” said SCI Dean Childers. “We’ve tried to create an environment where when you go from home, and you come to Pitt, it’s the same environment. Maybe you bring in your laptop, you just plug it from your docking station at home where you have your dual monitors to the same thing here where you have your dual monitors, so that transition is seamless.”
The CFO’s office has more than 200 staff members with telework agreements, which allowed the office to assess on-campus space requirements. Pelt said IT equipment was purchased and set-up for standard workstations and files were digitized.
“When CFO staff choose to come to campus, instead of having a dedicated workspace, they check out an office, similar to reserving a conference room,” she said. “As a result of the shift to hybrid work, the CFO’s office was able to return over half of its office space back to the University, allowing other offices with a space shortage the opportunity for on-campus work.”
The flexible work arrangements also have proven to be a good recruitment and retention tool, Pelt said.
Similarly, University Communications & Marketing uses a “hoteling” system for staff to reserve offices, most of which have monitors that laptops can be plugged into. This allowed the office to give up space in Forbes Pavilion and consolidate in Craig Hall.
The engineering school also is re-evaluating space usage, which, Shroff says, is at a premium in Benedum Hall.
Pitt IT has flex office space available when staff “have a need to work on campus — for in-person meetings with other departments or if they have work being done to their home, for example,” Lutsko said. Pitt IT uses a Workspace Reservation System that allows staff to select from available work and meeting spaces. The system is available for use by other departments.
He said many in Pitt IT also use the Microsoft Teams chat function “as a virtual substitute for drop-in conversations that were had in the office.” There are monthly “Chats with Mark” sessions, which are open meetings between staff and Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson and other senior leadership, as well as quarterly all-staff meetings — all of which take place online.
The Dietrich School also has invested in new computer options, mostly in laptop setups with external keyboards, mice and monitors as the base computing option rather than desktop computers.
Montag said they’ve worked with IT to manage processes electronically, eliminating the need to pass paper among offices. They’ve also trained staff on different aspects of Teams, such as developing call centers where multiple department phone lines can ring to a single staff group, allowing them to share responsibility for managing phone calls whether they are in the office or not.
The School of Education also has equipped everyone with laptops, although it was difficult at first because they were in such demand, and “the people who need printers at home, have printers at home,” Woods said.
She said one of the main messages they’ve communicated to staff is, “You have to be available. You have to be available by phone. You have to be available by email. … I think some units on campus … seem to have taken the idea that if you’re working from home, you don’t have to answer the phone. So it’s very hard to get some people on the phone now about very basic tasks.”
Challenges still ahead
SCI’s Childers said he believes hybrid work is the new norm, “but figuring out the community aspect of it remains challenging. That’s the thing I don’t think we’ve quite figured out. Those that come in Tuesday and Thursday, don’t have the community with those that come in Monday and Wednesday. And how do we overcome that?”
There are “select circumstances when there is a concern that a staff person is not as responsive or truly working when off-campus,” said Social Work’s Soltesz.
Sometimes staff may disagree with the final decision on whether they can work remotely or not. In the Dietrich School, anyone who believes that a decision about a flexible work arrangement was made unfairly may speak to the relevant senior staff member overseeing their unit or with the executive director for administration, Montag said. Staff in all Pitt units also may discuss concerns with Employee and Labor Relations or through the Pitt Concern Connection.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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