The past year has been unlike any other and for obvious reasons. Not only has the scope of roles in supporting the online teaching and learning enterprise radically changed, but so also the environment and mode in which we’ve been working. Prior to the pandemic, much of higher ed required in-person work, my institution being no exception.
In March 2020 we were thrust not only into needing to support our faculty and students in an emergency shift to remote instruction but to do so from our own remote work locations. Across higher education, our teaching and learning as well as online and distance learning centers rose to the challenge and moved operations to work from home. Each of our units has a story to tell in how we were able to make the shift to remote work over the last year and how we’ve made operational changes that will permanently impact, and I contend vastly improve, the service and support we provide.
But where do we go from here? As COVID-19 vaccinations become widely available and we see an end to the pandemic on the horizon, our institutions are making plans to resume “new normal” operations for fall. Many questions remain as to what that “new normal” will look like as we move forward, among those being what our work environment will be on our campuses.
Many institutions are forming task forces to look at the future of flexible/remote work on our campuses. At my institution prior to the pandemic, remote work was frowned upon and only permitted on rare occasions under special circumstances and for a limited amount of time. I’ve personally been a proponent of flexible working arrangements long before the events of this past year and done everything I possibly can to promote a flexible and accommodating work environment for my team. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the technology tools available today can allow us to dynamically communicate and connect in new ways, ultimately enhancing our productivity. Among the lasting impacts of the pandemic upon higher education will be an even more flexible and accommodating work environment.
As you ponder the future of flexible/remote work within your unit and/or institution, here are some suggested steps and associated questions to address in proactively paving a path forward:
- Reflect on how you’ve altered your operations while working remotely. Be honest and thorough in assessing both the benefits and drawbacks of the remote work that you’ve experienced. What has worked well and what hasn’t? How has your work changed/evolved? What metrics do you have available that you could share? What testimonials or other feedback have you received on the service your unit has provided?
- Tell your story of how you’ve continued serving the campus and meeting your mission and goals. What has been the ultimate impact of your efforts and how have you risen to the challenges of the past year? How has the added flexibility aided in your efforts and have you demonstrated an improvement in service as a result?
- Seek input from your team and constituents. Find out what their thoughts are on flexible/remote working. What changes, workflows, etc. might be needed to make things work even better moving forward? What expectations do your faculty, staff, and/or students that you serve have for your service offerings moving forward?
- Don’t sacrifice quality. As a community of online teaching and learning professionals, we hold dear and advocate for quality in the online learning experience. Let’s make sure we likewise don’t sacrifice the quality of service that our constituents have come to expect of us. If you need to provide in-person support and service, find a way to do that in a creative and flexible way.
- Equip, empower, and expect great things from your team. Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel in their book, The Long-Distance Leader introduce a “Three-O” model, suggesting that leaders think about outcomes, others, and ourselves in managing team members no matter where they are located. From those three perspectives, what steps are we taking to equip and empower our team members and support our colleagues remotely. How do we communicate our expectations and provide accountability for our team members while also maintaining the culture of our organization?
- Consider adopting a “remote-first” approach. What are the elements of your operations that you can default to offering “remote-first” and “in-person second” to provide added flexibility for your team and constituents? I personally am sticking with virtual meetings moving forward to provide maximum flexibility and accessibility for my team and our team will be continuing to rely on our virtual collaboration platform (Microsoft Teams) for all our cross-team discussions and collaborations.
- Set the example of what’s possible. Embrace change and don’t revert back to prior operations simply because “that’s how things were done before.” Rather, be intentional and not afraid to continue pushing beyond the status quo.
The bottom line is…our lives and the world around us have been significantly altered by the events of the pandemic. The ways in which we work are among these changes we’ve experienced. What steps can you take to help pave the path forward for remote/flexible work on your campus? As a faculty member for the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) 2021, I hope you’ll consider joining this leadership development opportunity to further hone your leadership skills as well as take an active role in helping guide the future of our field.
Jason Rhode currently serves as Executive Director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL) at Northern Illinois University (NIU). In his role he serves all members of the NIU community who have a teaching role as well as functions as chief online officer.