CAAE Virtual Meet-Up Recap, June 2021: Return To Work

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Julie Decker (Florida State) and Gretchen VanValkenburg (Auburn) led CAAE’s Virtual Meet-Up on June 15, 2021 on the topic of Return to Work. They provide CAAE members with their main takeaways and resources for further reading and consideration.

By Julie Decker, President/CEO, FSU Alumni Association and Gretchen VanValkenburg, Vice President for Alumni Affairs & Executive Director, Auburn Alumni Association

We are on the cusp of the next great shift in Alumni Relations across our institutions – the return to work, with its inherent challenges and opportunities. While no one knows exactly what to expect, and nothing is ever written in stone, we know we will have to balance the competing priorities of our staff members’ needs, fears, anxieties and preferences with our university’s policies and needs. (See the "Workers Want Flexibility" graphic below, from the Society for Human Resource Management.)

As we have all gone through varying waves of COVID from early 2020 to mid-2021, we all have examples regarding the approach of our institutions to remote work and now, the return. With the vaccination rollout in full swing, attention is turning to being in-person, with many experiencing fear or anxiety about their return to the office. One study even revealed that staff may experience the feeling of homesickness, upon their return to the office.

For those institutions that have not yet fully returned, as leaders, we are encouraged to be as flexible as possible. We need to be prepared to interpret university policy, but not be so rigid that employees feel disenfranchised. Every day, we hear about turnover in higher education as an industry. We would be remiss in neglecting to offer flexible work schedules to meet the needs of our talent crunch. 


Other considerations:

  • Avoid getting trapped in the notion of “presenteeism,” where an employee’s presence takes precedence over their productivity. Presence does not always equate to productivity and we have over a year’s worth of work-from-home results to prove it.
  • Consider getting your office – the physical space – ready for the return. Give it a deep clean and refresh your space. Take this opportunity to create an environment where staff are excited to return. 
  • Avoid a full-time return at once, if you can. Start slow and offer staggered work days at the office. 
  • Remember, there is real anxiety among staff, particularly staff from underrepresented groups, who may have been disproportionately affected by COVID.
  • Give thought to what you are getting “back” to. How do you want to paint a picture of moving forward to something?

As leaders, your team will observe your own response to the return to work and the approach you set. Stay positive, flexible, and clear. Onward! 

Click here to view the recording of the Virtual Meet-Up

Click on the links below to access additional reading suggestions:

Back To Office Anxiety? How To Keep Your Fears In Check (Forbes, March 16, 2021) 

Returning to Work Soon? Here Are Some Ways to Make the Process Easier (Cleveland Clinic, May 13, 2021)

Why presenteeism wins out over productivity (BBC, June 7, 2021)

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