Preparing Higher Ed for the Turnover Tsunami:

7 Key Decisions University Leaders Must Make Post-Pandemic

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Preparing Higher Ed for the Turnover Tsunami


Higher education isn’t immune from the anticipated post-pandemic Turnover Tsunami. College and university leaders must prepare and plan for the way the pandemic changed the way of work—and now the labor force is rapidly making its feedback known about what will be required for them to remain at work. Will higher education leaders listen? Or will colleges and universities return to pre-pandemic work expectations?

The Changing Work Environment

The pandemic revamped the world of work – and the employment numbers are sobering. Approximately 570,000 higher education jobs were lost due to the pandemic.  Forty percent of all workers globally considered changing jobs this year which should be a warning siren of the coming Turnover Tsunami for employers.

The pandemic’s resulting turbulence caused many people to reevaluate their priorities. Having to work 60-hour weeks while also schooling and supervising children, cleaning the house (while never leaving the house), and limiting contact with others took a toll.

Many people have seen the upsides of remote work – no commutes, fewer interruptions, and fewer trivial meetings. Additionally, many employees found that they can be more productive by working a flexible schedule. This has made more people a fan of working from home or another quiet space at least part of the workweek. This is magnified by the fact that Millennials and Gen Z want more flexibility in their work lives, and that work-life balance is important. Their working remotely gives them just that.

There have been multiple anecdotal reports that productivity increases when working remotely, but still, the “traditionalists” are generally against employees working remotely.

Diverse Employee Viewpoints

Despite the evidence, many colleges and universities are considering requiring all employees to return to campus full-time. This will be a tough sell – and in fact, may lead to rapid turnover. Bloomberg News reported that 39% of higher education employees plan to quit their job if they are not able to have a flexible schedule that allows them to work remotely.

This viewpoint is especially prevalent among the younger – and more tech-savvy generations. Almost half of the Millennial and Gen Z generations are especially vocal about their plans to resign if they don’t have flexibility in their work schedule. And given that younger generations are far more likely to change jobs, especially when there are issues of values at question, these “threats” may not be empty.

Not everyone shares this viewpoint. Interestingly, Harvard Business Review predicts that the future of work will involve a hybrid model because of the great variation of viewpoints. In fact, 32% of workers never want to go back into an office; these are employees with young kids, long commutes, and suburban residents. However, 21% want to be back in the office (especially singles and empty-nesters who miss the personal contact of being in an office with coworkers).

Moving forward, higher education leaders should prepare for numerous “arguments” related to faculty and staff returning to the office. Here are some of the key decision points that may soon emerge.

1. The Cost of a Turnover Tsunami

If Bloomberg News is right, this level of employee turnover will have devastating effects. Let’s start with the financial implications. People costs are the biggest expenditure of any organization. If higher education institutions decide to require employees to be on campus, those employees may resign. There’s a good chance that institutions will be forced to raise salaries and/or offer signing bonuses to recruit the caliber of employees needed who will commit to working in the office environment every day.

And who is to say that the quality of workers who commit to being in the office will be better or equal to the ones who are leaving? They certainly will not know your institution as well as those leaving (at least for a while).

Turnover also leads to a variety of other costs to the institution. Resignations by key administrators, faculty, and staff slow momentum as coordinated efforts are forced to idle. Additionally, there are challenges with getting replacements up-to-speed through the onboarding and training process. Calculating the employee turnover costs to your institution may be a reality check and vital to the decisions you make in preparation for the Turnover Tsunami before it hits.

2. Preparing for COVID-19 Waves, Variants, and the Unvaccinated

By bringing people back to work, leaders still need to be prepared to come up with protocols that can be quickly implemented regarding social distancing. While the pandemic has slowed (in most states here in the US), there are still numerous issues facing higher education institutions.

First, there’s the ever-changing status of the coronavirus itself. It continues to mutate and it’s unclear if the current vaccines will offer protection against the variants – it is clear that those unvaccinated people and those who have not received the two doses are at significantly higher risk of contracting the virus than those who have been fully vaccinated. Many employees state they would quit if forced back into an office environment due to safety concerns. How is your institution prepared to handle this objection?

The second question is about whether to mandate student and employee vaccination. This is a hot topic that divides so many. Is your campus going to require employees and students to have the vaccine? Or is that taking away individuals’ civil liberty?

A Houston hospital decided to require all employees to be vaccinated and fired 153 who refused. This ended up as a lawsuit that was thrown out by the court – the ruling was that the hospital had the authority to require vaccinations and that they were well within their rights to fire those employees who refused to be vaccinated. However, this raises questions and important conversations about individual rights vs. the collective good, and at some institutions, some might attempt to put this under “academic freedom,” (which is a fallacious argument in our opinion). Still, higher education leaders need to check with state regulations and align policies accordingly.

Additionally, many employees have medical conditions that put them at risk for COVID. Many of these individuals also may have a quandary about getting the vaccine. These individuals are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and rules regarding COVID 19, so HR needs to be up-to-speed and ready to have these conversations.

3. Employee Performance — Quality vs. Quantity

Society has focused on ensuring that employees put in the required “seat time” for the workweek. However, what the pandemic has taught us is that individuals can produce quality work without strict in-person administrative oversight. In fact, in many cases, employees turn out the same or higher quality of work in less time, increasing performance and employee engagement.

Now is the perfect time for higher education leaders to shift their thinking in relation to remote employees. It is incumbent on higher education leaders to start thinking about individuals as “free agents,” not indentured servants.

4. Workforce Hybrid Models

Industry is moving in the direction of a workforce hybrid model, i.e., a combination of at work and at home flexibility. For example, Unilever, Google, and American Express are adopting policies that will let employees spend at least part of the workweek at home. As more and more companies move in this direction, higher education will feel pressure to follow suit.

Perhaps higher education leaders can flip the model, emphasizing and rewarding quality of time and production. And doing so would lead naturally to the conversation of how to structure work. Perhaps that means that someone in the finance department works mostly from home whereas someone in a college who interfaces with students might be on campus more often. This approach would go far in helping employees feel valued.

As mentioned earlier, employees and specifically those of younger generations have differing views about coming into the office than do “Boomers.” Therefore, a hybrid model that creates a more individualized approach to work may be useful. This can include team building, as well as setting up schedules and structures – such as a common day to be in the office for in-person meetings – to encourage productivity when people are working in different areas.

5. Retaining and Hiring Faculty That Embrace Online Education

The pandemic also forced higher ed to embrace online education. While it initially could be seen as a shotgun wedding, this form of education is gaining steam and only going to be a more valuable offering, especially at the graduate level wherein the vast majority of cases, students can no longer afford to take two years off of work to get their degree. That’s why it’s important for higher education leaders to incentivize faculty and staff to engage in developing online resources and explore various features to further push institutional capacity in this area.

There are two sides to the online education coin when it comes to faculty: retaining those faculty who have skills with online education and hiring new faculty.

Let’s face it: most faculty did not get their doctorates through online education – it was face-to-face delivery methods. And this is how, until the pandemic hit us in the face, most faculty taught.

Teaching online requires a very different skill set than what most “traditional” faculty are used to. Rather than being the “sage on the stage,” you must learn how to be the “guide on the side.” This is a different pedagogical approach, and faculty should be trained on how to facilitate online learning.

Old dogs CAN learn new tricks. But there are some faculty who will not be interested in learning. For those, you might consider developing your own internal “OPM” capacity, a group of faculty and instructional designers who are dedicated to building new online programs and/or converting existing on the ground programs to online.

That deals with the retention side of the coin. But then there is the hiring side of the coin. Most universities hire faculty based on the scholar’s research, but given the growing emphasis on online, I think institutions need to be “smarter” with their hiring criteria, and included in that should be the prospective faculty member’s ability to teach in multiple delivery systems.

The main question for online is not “if,” it is “when” – and do we build it or buy it? And remember, it costs more to hire new people (especially new faculty) than it does to train and retain the people you already have.

6. Employees Want Better Work-Life Balance

The pandemic has triggered conversations in relation to work-life balance. More employees are focusing on this area, wanting to have time to spend with family and passions outside the workplace. Therefore, institutions that take this into account will benefit. For example, providing access to childcare is a perk that many younger employees will want to access.

There are some institutions that are already doing this. For example, Windward Community College, which is part of the University of Hawaii System, received a large grant from the state of Hawaii to build an on-campus childcare center for its students. This has made it far easier for students with children to attend school.

7. Preparing for Shifts in Facility Use

Another consideration is how the office and workspaces will be configured and used. For those returning to the office environment, safety and quiet space are deciding factors in returning to work or looking for employment elsewhere. Will the institution continue to encourage social distancing by spreading individuals out in workstations? Or will this be an option for those who are not vaccinated or who feel more comfortable in having some space? If so, is there a way to accommodate this need, especially if a new COVID variant emerges?

 Decisions about the workday will impact facilities’ use. Fewer people on campus means less of a need for more buildings and less wear on the facilities. Working remotely will have an impact on construction and maintenance costs. 

Wrapping Up

Preparing higher ed for the Turnover Tsunami will require college and university leaders to acknowledge and embrace employee and faculty expectations brought about by the pandemic that is starting to emerge. The world is seeing a shift in the work environment with employees requiring more work-life balance – and their willingness to walk away from jobs to achieve this balance. Therefore, employers – including higher education – must make tough decisions about what the organizational culture will be like moving forward.

Higher education leaders will face many important decisions. For example, is the institution willing to make decisions to retain employees by offering them opportunities for flexible schedules – or is it willing to make the necessary financial investments to recruit new employees who will agree to work on campus? Will employees be able to adopt a hybrid schedule or does everyone have to be in the office? What kind of “perks” like childcare will be provided to help employees with work-life balance? How will the institution deal with current and emerging issues related to COVID-19? Is the college or university ready to up its game in relation to online learning? And how do facilities play into the equation?

While all these questions have pros and cons, the final decisions that higher education leaders make will have an outsized effect. These decisions, which will affect employee morale and their goodwill, the budget, and the institutional representation, should not be made lightly.  But they should be made.

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