Building Flexible Workplaces in Higher Education Institutions

27 Jan 2022

Work flexibility and flexibility used to be words only freelancers could dream of (particularly in software or web development, but not only). With the pandemic changing how we view work, education, and socialization, though, things have drastically shifted in the world of flexible workplaces. Today, even higher education institutions (long considered to be among the most traditional types of workplaces) are considering the idea of adding more flexibility to their staff.

How come, and what exactly does this mean?

Read on and find out more about building flexible workplaces in higher education institutions.

Workplace Flexibility: What It Is and Why It Matters

In the flexible workplace, all stakeholders involved have a flexible schedule that allows for flexible working patterns. In other words, you can get your work done from home or from the office, whichever time suits you best, and whenever you feel most capable of doing it. This means being able to travel while still being able to do your job (no need for you to take days off when your flight is at 8 pm).

To add to that, flexible workplaces allow employees to switch from full-time work to part-time and vice versa. This means having flexible hours and/or flexible days in the week: it can be four or five days a week, or 20 hours a week.

Of course, all these varying definitions of "flexibility in the workplace" differ from one company to another, according to their policy and what business leaders feel comfortable with.

What Is Workplace Flexibility?

In (very) short, workplace flexibility is an arrangement that allows employees to follow flexible working patterns and adapt their schedule to fit the needs of personal and/or professional life.

Why Is Workplace Flexibility Important?

Workplace flexibility has always been important. However, under the influence of all the COVID-19 lockdowns since 2020, more and more employees have made flexibility among their most important criteria for choosing (or staying at) a job. Statistically, 73% of employees want flexible work options to be offered by companies even after the pandemic is over.

This goes to show that flexibility in the workplace is a benefit most people enjoy. And it makes all the sense in the world they do: flexibility enables them to build a better work/ life balance, and in most cases, it also helps employees be more productive, which benefits both them and their employers. Furthermore, offering workplace flexibility is also important for employee retention, engagement, and loyalty.

So, if you want a short answer to "why is workplace flexibility important", it's this:

Because it's a win-win for both employees and employers.

The Difference Between Flexible Work and Flexible Workplace

Before we dive into further details, we must also note that there is an important distinction to make between flexible work and a flexible workplace. Flexible work is defined as flexible working patterns, flexible hours, flexible location (home or office), and so on.

Flexible workplace is more than that: it's the entire flexible work arrangement from start to finish. In other words, flexible work can take place in a flexible workplace. However, flexible work can also be done from home (entirely, because you are not a full-time employee or because you run your own business) or an alternative location of your own choosing.

Higher Education as a Workplace

It's easy to forget that higher education institutions are workplaces too. And that means they offer benefits, packages, and very specific work policies as to how things should be done by professors, assistants, and staff.

As a general rule, higher education used to be considered among the more traditional workplaces, where flexibility would be hard to obtain. However, when all universities had to move their lessons online, many realized that, with the right tools and techniques in place, remote teaching and learning are both very possible and beneficial.

Factors That Shape Higher Ed Workplace Culture Today

Higher education culture tends to be different from other organizations' /corporate cultures. However, this is changing.

Since flexible workplaces are becoming more and more common in private companies, flexible work culture is trickling through the corporate world and it reaches higher education institutions.

But, there's also another reason why flexible workplace culture is growing in schools: demographics. The majority of professors and assistants in higher education institutions are millennials. And flexible work is very appealing to young people who grew up with technology, who know how to use it, and who know how much flexible workplaces could benefit them.

Along with flexibility in the workplace, the last couple of decades have brought many other changes in the higher ed culture. Some of the most notable elements of today's university culture include:

The Growing Importance of Equity and Inclusiveness

Equity and inclusiveness have always been important. However, it was mostly under the influence of the last two decades that more and more higher education institutions have implemented clear policies to support inclusiveness and equity across all levels.

Workplace flexibility in a higher ed institution can create even more inclusiveness by allowing talent from remote areas to participate in the educational process (on both the teaching and the learning end).

Employee Mental Health and Well-Being

Clearly, employee mental health and well-being should always be a priority. However, universities are seeing this more and more as a matter of urgency.

Flexibility in the workplace is bound to make a huge difference in employee mental health and well-being among university staff members (just as it has been making in the case of non-educational institutions and corporate cultures).

Talent Attraction and Retention Challenges

Bringing in talent (and making sure you retain it) is definitely important in higher ed. The more talented teachers an educational institution has, the more talented students it will attract -- and the more prestige the university will receive.

Workplace flexibility can help universities attract and retain more talent, particularly from the younger demographic mentioned above. All Millennials and Zillennials want flexibility -- and that includes higher ed staff as well.

Compliance With Workplace Health and Safety Regulations

Without a trace of doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has redefined how we understand "workplace health and safety". As a higher education institution, creating workplace flexible-friendly processes and policies will enable you to switch from remote teaching to on-site teaching accordingly and comply with safety regulations (even when they change at a very high pace).

Reduced Availability of Office Facilities

Last, but definitely not least, another aspect of workplace culture higher education institutions should consider in the modern world is reduced availability of office facilities. If you want to make the most out of what you have in terms of office space and technology, workplace flexibility is exactly what you are looking for.

Catching up With the Corporate World: How to Build a Flexible Higher Ed Workplace

Clearly, it makes a lot of sense for higher ed institutions to switch to more flexible workplace models. How to do it, though?

Here are some fundamental tips to keep in mind:

Allow More Staff to Work Remotely

The best flexible work practice for higher education institutions is to allow more staff members to work remotely. It will simplify processes, save money, and improve happiness all around.

You don't (and probably can't) move the entirety of the staff to a flexible work model. Start where it makes more sense, though, and scale from there. For instance, if you have staff that only needs to be on site for lessons a couple of hours per week, start by providing them with flexible workplace benefits, see how it goes, and create processes based on your experience with them.

Focus on Employee Well-Being

Switching to a flexible/ hybrid work model isn't necessarily easy, and it tends to be even less facile in institutions very anchored in tradition (like higher ed institutions tend to be, for example).

However, remember that you are doing this both for the benefit of your university and its students and for your employees' well-being. The more you focus on this, the more solutions (and better) you will find.

Promote Campus Culture and Connectivity

An organization's culture is not built in the proximity of its people. This has been proven time and again by companies with employees located everywhere in the world, but which still manage to feel like they pertain to the same culture.

Even more, this has been proven again during the pandemic when most office-based companies had to move their "culture" online -- and did it successfully.

The more you promote campus culture and connectivity, the easier it will be for your institution to switch to a hybrid work model where both staff and students are allowed to participate in the educational process from different locations (on site or remotely).

Adopt Workplace Technology

Technology is your friend, particularly when you want to scale flexible workplaces. The right tools (such as good cameras, high quality microphones, room booking software, and so on) can eliminate all the hurdles of teaching remotely (or alternating between remote teaching and on-site teaching). Moreover, the right tools can also help you improve productivity, make better workspace plans and make better business decisions for the future.

Minimize Cybersecurity Risks

One major concern many organizations have when it comes to switching to hybrid work models is cybersecurity -- and rightfully so. However, this is another area where the right tools and processes can make a world of difference when it comes to protecting your institution's data from negligence, accidents, or malevolent actions.

All in all, building a flexible workplace as a higher education institution is now more possible and beneficial than it has ever been. Everything boils down to the correct approach and the correct choices for your institution.

Test things out, build processes and policies, train your staff, and create a better, more inclusive and more mental health-friendly workplace for the people who are the beating soul of your educational efforts.

Topics: Employee well-being, Human resources

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