Are we returning to a pre-pandemic status quo? This report has answers.

March 15, 2023

UM-Dearborn’s Future of Work Report highlights: hybrid schedules, mental health care, and it may be the right time for all colleges to be on main campus again.

Photo of people working in a hybrid environment in the External Relations department
Digital Media Specialist Kathryn Bourlier, left, Writer Lou Blouin, on screen, and Assistant Director of Communications Kristin Palm discuss campus news needs in a hybrid meeting. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Amazon and Walt Disney Company corporate employees are returning to the office. Ford Motor Company and State Farm office workers are either fully remote or remote-first. Headline after headline shares how employers are either dialing back or leaning into the workplace changes brought on by the pandemic.

So: What’s UM-Dearborn going to do?

A UM-Dearborn Future of Work Task Force spent nearly a year exploring this question. They gathered feedback from UM-Dearborn community members through multiple listening sessions and focus groups and sent out faculty and staff surveys.

“What we heard was, 'please trust us,’” said Associate Provost Maureen Linker, FoW Task Force co-chair.  “With the pandemic, we had to trust people like never before, and we saw how faculty and staff really stepped up to meet student needs and university priorities. They got their work done in unprecedented ways. It's important that we don’t forget that and we don’t hastily follow what others are doing — we need to do what’s best for our campus’ people and priorities. When putting together the report, we kept that top of mind.”

In addition, the task force looked at student needs shared through the Student Experience Survey, which was conducted in Fall 2022. They also explored research studies and looked at best practices followed by regional and national universities across the country.

Human Resources Director Rima Berry-Hung, also a FoW Task Force co-chair, said the work yielded a report with key recommendations, which you can read here. Those address what everyone is curious about — namely: What's next? And how will it affect us?

To help give a better understanding of the framework that will support what’s next for UM-Dearborn employees, Berry-Hung and Linker discussed the report and answered a few questions.

Question: The report says UM-Dearborn is continuing to support hybrid schedules. Is this just for now? Or a long-term plan?

Rima Berry-Hung: “A hybrid model — a balance of home and campus work locations — is what people say they want. Students want it and told us they like having virtual appointments and online courses. And staff have said they want it too. A hybrid work model for campus employees has led to flexibility that’s created a huge difference in people’s lives.

“In focus groups, staff said they can now do things like take their kids to school or schedule around eldercare responsibilities — while still getting their work done. These are people who stepped up in a crisis moment for our campus and performed. So why would we take away the flexibility now?

“Of course, that needs to be balanced with having a presence on campus to serve students, industry partners, customers or clients. That’s where the supervisors come in. Supervisors know what is needed at the unit or department level and will need to make tough decisions. (To help, the FoW team made a decision tree.) Not everyone — like employees in Facilities or Public Safety — can work a hybrid schedule. But, when possible, we encourage striking a balance and allowing some flexibility because it may lead to higher job satisfaction and greater retention.”

Q: The report said there needs to be an on-campus presence, but also calls for flexibility. How do supervisors balance both?

RBH: “To meet student needs, offices should be open and staffed Monday-Friday, 8-5. But how that’s accomplished can be done with flexibility.

“For example, virtual Fridays have worked well for offices that might not experience much foot traffic. In many non-peak periods throughout the academic year, like around holidays and throughout summer, they might offer services remotely. Other offices and departments have developed a one-stop model, which is where cross-trained team members serve in-person needs for one or more departments.

“Supervisors know their team’s needs and responsibilities best. That’s why the report isn’t suggesting a top-down solution. We encourage supervisors to create a balanced approach between organizational business needs and employee well-being. To help support supervisors with that, we’ve included multiple resources in the report.”

Q: That addresses staff wishes for flexibility. But what about the faculty feelings of burnout?

Maureen Linker: “Prior to the pandemic, we had a goal of 20% online or hybrid courses. Well, as we know, we quickly pivoted to 100% and that was really challenging. The sudden change took a toll on faculty and students’ mental health. In a survey, the majority of faculty indicated that they feel unsatisfied with how their professional and personal life is balanced. Also, the majority of faculty surveyed said that they are emotionally drained from work a few times a week. So we’ve looked at the mental health resources that we have and that we can provide. With the experts we have on campus, we suggested discussion opportunities like mental health panels (there’s one at 12:30 p.m. April 11, location TBA), and getting more information through avenues like surveys, to get information to help us inform policy, practice, and improve support.”

Note: The Healthy Minds Survey was sent to faculty and staff emails today.

“Adding to the stress is that research and publishing are an important part of a faculty member's work — but the survey shows that more than half of faculty respondents say they don’t have enough time for research or scholarly writing, in addition to their other duties. Since the pandemic, many faculty have experienced an increase in their work with prepping and moving classes online, mentoring students in need and balancing new challenges. We support that the university offers a COVID Impact Statement (developed by faculty on our campus) that faculty can choose to include in their promotion and tenure evaluations. Changes brought on by the pandemic have shown us new ways of doing things, which is good. But change from it has also been a huge challenge and I recognize that. I’ve lived it too.”

Q: Carbon neutrality is a campus — and worldwide — priority. How does that factor into the Future of Work plan?

ML: “An added upside to these remote or hybrid work and course options is that they also offer the university opportunities for reducing its carbon footprint by consolidating space on campus. With fewer people on campus at a given time, we need to determine the most effective ways to manage space in a way that’s good for supporting students, creating a vibrant community environment and being responsible with resources. 

“Faculty and staff have been very vocal about Fairlane Center in particular. There’s no food service at this time, there are empty spaces between offices, and it feels a little disconnected from the main campus. So the committee looked for ways to set up situations where people connect with the main campus on a regular basis. Looking at the main campus, there is now available space due to hybrid work and retirements. To consolidate space, CASL faculty in the Social Sciences Building are moving into the CASL Building. In early summer, the College of Business and the College of Education, Heath and Human Services will move from Fairlane Center into the SSB. 

“At this point, the College of Business and CEHHS move is temporary because it’s important to see how it works for our students, faculty and staff before making a permanent change. This brings us together on the main campus and helps create a sense of community and fits in with our strategic initiatives around carbon neutrality, with our carbon footprint being reduced by using less space. We’ll see how this works over the summer and scale from there. The feedback we received from the UM-Dearborn community and data reviewed all pointed toward making this change.”

Q: So the report recommendation will help guide us moving forward. How will we evaluate what works well and what needs updated?

RBH: “There is a standing campuswide committee, which is being put together now, that will want to assess how it’s going and how we’re going to move forward with these recommendations as a campus.

“Assessment will continue and your experience will be part of that. When you get surveys, please take them. Join focus groups. This is a long-term plan, but we’ll need to see what’s working well and challenges people are facing as time goes on. Please continue to speak up. We want to continue to make decisions that make us leaders and best.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.