Doomed to Zoom?

2022 is shaping up to be the year that work changed.

We are living through the pivot point where office culture has been left behind, but what comes next remains unclear.

A recent article in Curbed, The 3-Day Return to Office Is, So Far, a Dud, highlighted the challenges of employers and employees to settle into a new workplace normal. 

What does the future of work look like when examined through higher ed eyes?

Colleges and universities are many things. One of those things has historically been a locale of work. Our campuses are where much — if never all — of higher ed work occurred.

At residential institutions, students, faculty, and staff gathered daily at a physical locale. (With many students and a few staff staying for the night).

For staff, much of our work pre-pandemic occurred during meetings. Meetings were scheduled or ad hoc, planned or spontaneous.

The common denominator is that almost all of these conversations occurred in person.

Nowadays, the solely in-person meeting seems to have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

We meet more than ever. Yet, we do so either with everyone virtually or with a mix of some people in a physical room and others Zooming in.

Without ever quite deciding that this is the future we want, academic work has backed into a new set of norms regarding meetings. These new norms include:

Default Options for Virtual Attendance:

There seems to be little desire across higher education to enforce a face-to-face meeting requirement. Instead, there appears to be a recognition that in almost any scheduled meeting, some invited participants would not be able to attend if the meeting is in person only.

Even in campus groups that have moved back to meeting in person, it is likely that one or more members of the team will participate virtually.

This new reality might be driven by a shift towards hiring more full-time remote professionals during the pandemic. Similarly, team members may join meetings remotely because they are working at home that day.

Regardless of the reasons, higher ed meetings (at least those that involve staff) are more likely today to be entirely virtual than fully in-person.

Participation Regardless of Activity or Location:

A change in higher ed meeting norms is that fewer people ever miss meetings. Back in the before days, it was not possible to attend a campus meeting if you were traveling for work or home with a sick kid.

Nowadays, colleagues Zoom into meetings from the sidelines of soccer games and the parking lots of dental offices.

We can make it to more meetings from more places. This newfound attendance resiliency has started to shift norms around how we think about reasons to miss meetings.

What impact these new meeting-related behaviors will have on organizational and overall campus culture remains unknown.

Scheduled Meetings Are Replacing Informal Conversations:

Flexible work has been terrific for many in higher ed. Professional academic staff adopted many of the work norms that have traditionally been reserved for tenure track faculty.

These norms include a greater autonomy regarding where and when work happens. For many higher ed staff, a more flexible academic way of working is a welcome development.

What we don’t know is what changes in academic work norms (particularly among academic staff) will mean to academic culture.

One thing that seems clear is that the physical spaces in which some (professional) staff have traditionally worked on campus now feel different. There are fewer colleagues reliably around to chat with. Fewer people you work with to bump into when walking around.

The need to exchange information to accomplish our higher ed jobs has not diminished. What is different today is that much of that information exchange occurs over scheduled meetings instead of informal conversations. And many, if not most of those scheduled meetings are occurring over Zoom.

Who on your campus is thinking about the future of workplace culture?

What will it mean for academic work if Zoom meetings are the default meetings?

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Sunday, June 19, 2022
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Sunday, June 19, 2022

Joshua Kim

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