The response to COVID-19 has significantly changed the workplace: where and how we work, lead staff, and interact with colleagues. Are these temporary changes, or is this the start of something new?
A recent interactive session during the online Higher Education Accounting Forum (HEAF) featured four panelists sharing their adjustments to the sudden shift to a remote workforce in March 2020.
Terri Albertson, assistant vice president of finance and controller, Haverford College
Kelli Hudson Perry, assistant vice president for finance and controller, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Cheryl Soper, controller and director of financial operations, University of Michigan
Shannon Turner, associate vice chancellor and controller, University of California, San Francisco
Insights, Opportunities, and Challenges
Although the panelists represented very different institutions—independent, public, large, small, primarily undergraduate, or primarily graduate—all had fairly similar experiences with the sudden pivot to working remotely that provided some lessons learned. A couple of insights stood out: cloud- based systems and up-to-date business continuity plans eased the remote work transition, and flexibility and resiliency were vital to ensuring success. While the panelists considered the shutdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic a once-in-a-lifetime event, they maintained a general feeling that colleges and universities must continue to evaluate systems, policies, and culture going forward.
As one might expect, institutions had to navigate myriad challenges in the transition to remote work. Many new and different personal circumstances became apparent: parents having to support children with online learning, employees working in shifts to accommodate children and other familial obligations, or sharing workspace with family members to name a few. Work styles, stress, and personalities surfaced in new ways. There was also an increased risk of cyber-attacks on home networks and a need for communication and collaboration tools that went beyond email. These challenges can be reframed as opportunities. Already, these discoveries are informing future adaptive policies and initiatives such as alternate or hoteling workspaces, enhanced training on cyber-security risks and avoidance, stress management support, and stipulating institutional collaboration tools and related documentation policies.
Employing the familiar sentiment, “never waste a good crisis,” panelists and session participants indicated that campus closures accelerated—
- Converting to paperless workflows and approvals
- Transferring the last few “paper check” employees to electronic payments
- Adopting electronic vendor payments
- Applying underused resources to complete projects that had been on the “back burner”
- Improving the budget process with planning and scenario software
- Successfully transitioning to fully remote annual audits
- Implementing better time tracking for non-exempt employees
A related lesson learned is that sometimes “good enough” isn’t actually good enough. For example, allowing a small percentage of employees to insist on receiving a paper payroll check still means that someone has to print and distribute them. Or, converting “nearly all” vendors to electronic invoicing means that paper invoices mailed to campus still have to be retrieved and processed. Further, software that supports efforts such as scenario planning or employee time-tracking systems, which used to be regarded as “nice to have,” may now be considered essential for core institution functions.
The shift to a remote work environment also created professional development opportunities. Staff were required to learn new skills and stretch in ways that were tangential to their job responsibilities, including:
- Presenting during virtual meetings
- Cross-training to other responsibilities
- Setting up home workspaces, monitors, virtual private networks, wireless connections, and collaboration software
- Becoming familiar and comfortable with virtual meeting etiquette
- Using collaboration software as an alternative to printing and circulating documents
- Supervising employees working remotely
Interesting and Amusing Discoveries
The session also provided an opportunity for individuals to share funny, but revealing, anecdotes about the transition to a remote work environment. In order to print checks, Kelli Hudson Perry, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, brought the check printer to her home, and she was surprised when the printer started printing remittance advices for employees on direct deposit. Why are employees who converted to direct deposit still receiving paper remittances?
One of the attendees shared, “I have determined the piles of paper in my office, that I always considered important, are not necessary…I haven’t touched them in a year.”
Another participant relayed that “the COVID pandemic definitely helped us to push a review and re-look at our budget prep and planning. It also helped us to drive to implementing an online/automated budget and finance tool rather than trying to keep doing it via Excel spreadsheets and pulling info and data from three to four different sources.”
Cheryl Soper of the University of Michigan added that although the efficiencies of working remotely are beneficial, she misses the personal interaction with colleagues and the sense of community and energy that comes with being on campus.
Another session participant shared a comment that many others agreed with: “What was also amazing was going through the annual year-end audit remotely… [T]he auditors were also fully remote. Never did I imagine that would be done… and successfully!”
Reflecting on Change, Planning for the Future
Between March 2020 and April 2021 (the time of this session), every institution dramatically adapted. In reflecting on the changes at their institutions, some indicated that the new paperless and remote work environment would continue and evolve. Extensive discussion revealed that employee preferences for returning to the office vary significantly, and institutions’ decisions about new workplace requirements are complex. It’s probable that workplace policies will vary by institution type (public or private, two- or four-year), location (urban or rural), size, and mission. Decisions will have to balance the positive outcomes of a reduced onsite workforce—savings on leased space and campus maintenance expenses, freeing up campus space for other purposes—with the appeal of an active and vibrant campus and the needs of students, employees, and the community.
The benefits of pursuing a fully remote or hybrid workplace include—
- Productivity: less time devoted to commuting
- Efficiency: meetings stay on topic and begin and end on time
- Employee recruitment and retention: a wider recruitment net and the ability to retain good employees who must relocate for personal reasons
There was general agreement that typical workplace challenges are exacerbated with remote work. These challenges include—
- Communicating effectively and having everyone on the same page
- Monitoring productivity and performance issues
- Fostering connections and teamwork
- Ensuring equity and transparency in staff work locations, responsibilities, and promotions
- Onboarding and assimilating new employees
Participants expressed a common concern that eliminating hybrid or full remote work flexibility could lead to previously unimagined consequences. There might be fewer cost-saving opportunities, and good employees may leave to work for employers that allow flexible hybrid or full remote work.
Managing a Hybrid Workforce
Panelists and participants cited the following logistical considerations for successfully managing long-term remote or hybrid workforces—
- Formalizing onsite or remote work locations in job descriptions
- Ensuring suitable remote workplace ergonomics
- Providing remote workspaces when home spaces are not conducive for work
- Navigating the tax/nexus implications of employees working in other states or countries
- Establishing reimbursement policies for travel to onsite meetings
- Equipping both remote and campus workspaces and paying for remote office equipment
- Encouraging healthy practices (e.g., decompressing between meetings, replacing the physical activity in the office with physical activity at home)
For many employees, teamwork and camaraderie are missed most while working remotely. However, panelists and participants shared many creative ideas for fostering these positive dynamics:
- Have everyone use the same tools when meetings are a mix of in-person and remote attendees.
- Organize workgroups and arrange onsite days for optimal team performance.
- Discourage exclusively remote or exclusively onsite schedules; all positions likely include tasks that require collaborating with others in person and other tasks that can be performed independently in a remote location.
- Encourage collaboration tools for quick questions and casual interactions.
- Be creative—organize virtual parties, meals, happy hours, or other events where people share interests and get to know each other.
Higher education successfully responded to the coronavirus pandemic and pivoted to effectively deliver services with a remote workforce. The shift led to significant boosts in productivity, innovation, and employee development. As leaders weigh the pros and cons of remote work, only time will tell if this becomes the new normal. Permanent change is hard, but it would be a shame to lose realized improvements. A hybrid model that allows employees to work remotely may deliver other benefits, resulting in a win-win for everyone.
The following resources address a broad range of topics from online learning specialists to tax issues and from flexibility to working in a climate that may continue to evolve over the near- and longer-term future. The environment is changing rapidly with additional resources available each day.
At Some Colleges Remote Work Could be Here to Stay
Lindsay Ellis, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 5, 2021
Considering Work from Anywhere Policies for College Employees: Answer These 5 Questions First
Lindsay Ellis, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 19, 2021
As university campuses reopen, remote work could take many forms
Emily Bamforth, EDSCOOP, May 11, 2021
Pandemic-To-Permanent: 11 Lasting Changes to Higher Education
Brandon Busteed, Forbes, May 2, 2021, 04:15pm EDT
Managing out-of-State Employees: The Payroll Tax Conundrum
David Rodeck, December 18, 2020
Moss Adams 5 Tax Considerations for International Remote Working
Roy Deaver, Partner, Brittain Cunningham, Senior Manager, International Tax Services
February 2, 2021
Opinion: A seismic standoff over remote work is building
Tracy Moore, The Washington Post, May 21, 2021
Out of State Workers Create Tax Headaches for Employers
Stephen Miller, for Society for HR Management, June 16, 2020
Tax Considerations for Remote Work
NACUBO Accounting & Tax Quarterly, April 6, 2021
Nine Reasons Why Campus On-line Learning Teams Should be Permanently Remote
Joshua Kim, Inside Higher Ed, April 11, 2021