Zooming into the (golden?) age of remote work

Has COVID-19 ushered in a golden age of remote work, or is it merely a temporary solution for an unprecedented situation? Jytte’s vice chair Melissa Plath considers the questions related to remote work from the perspective of the equality between different staff groups.

Say goodbye to the office era, we are now entering the age of remote work. This isn’t the first shift in the ways of working – the move from individual offices to shared or open offices comes immediately to mind – and it won’t be the last. What makes this new age different, however, is that it wasn’t precipitated by new theories in management or driven by financial considerations, but rather arose from an unexpected global event, one that caught both employers and employees by surprise.

A change in management of this magnitude would normally be coupled with strategic planning and a set of measures to smoothen the transition and identify and mitigate risks, but the response to COVID-19 necessitated a swift transition, where the tools to support it were developed or acquired in real time.

Change under duress is not usually smooth, and often serves to highlight the problems or outdated assumptions already existing in an institution. For instance, the rules and norms surrounding remote work at the University of Jyväskylä are confusing and seem to reinforce old ways of thinking about the role, in particular, of the so-called Other Staff. But change can also be a time of innovation, where new standards and improvements can be implemented without the burden of the past.

Who has the right to work remotely?

Pre-COVID-19, working remotely was a rather confusing business. For most university employees at the University, the rules and regulations around who has the right to work remotely, when, how often, and with what agreement are ambiguous and often based on assumptions tied to existing notions about the nature of university work.

Research and teaching staff, whose work is seen as requiring the flexibility to take place any time or anywhere, can direct their own time under the Total Working Time system. Daily hours and, generally, presence in the office, aren’t monitored. On the other hand, Other Staff, whose work is primarily seen as providing services to the university community, are expected to be in the office during regular working hours. Their working time and presence are monitored through a time clocking system.

While these assumptions are understandable, they don’t necessarily reflect the reality of work for university staff, nor are they entirely consistent with the University’s rules. The nature of the work for both staff categories is both more diverse and more similar than these conventions would have us believe. Services for staff and students are delivered by both staff categories; meetings to develop the teaching, research, activities, or functioning of a department or faculty require input from all staff members; projects with substance related to the work of the University are coordinated or implemented by both research and teaching and other staff; etc.

The University’s rules for who can work remotely and how often are more complex than might be assumed. Despite the absence of a monitoring system, Research and Teaching Staff are nevertheless expected to be in their office or workplace 4 days per week during the autumn and spring semesters or teaching periods. Conversely, Other Staff are allowed to work remotely, but only with a separate agreement, and usually for only one day per week on average, with the approval of their supervisor.

As the nature of work at the university becomes more diverse, and the differences between the staff categories smaller, the appropriateness of a dual, confusing approach to remote work has to be questioned. Is such a system fit for purpose?

Skills for the remote work era

As the severity of COVID-19 became clearer, the necessity of transferring to remote work and teaching also became apparent. The university responded, rapidly moving the majority of both to distance. No one was quite prepared for this sudden, comprehensive change in the way of working and in this, the inadequacies and resiliencies in the system were exposed.

New software was acquired or taken into use for virtual teaching and meetings, forcing staff and students to quickly develop new skills and learn the etiquette of working or learning together online. Calendars quickly filled up with meetings in Teams, Zoom, Jitsy, Webex, and the various other web conferencing platforms and everyone learned the importance of the ‘mute’ button.

Lagging behind, however, were the tools and procedures for reporting working time, as required from members of the Other Staff category. Excel templates were created and updated to track starting and ending times and breaks taken during the day. These were first sent only to supervisors, then to supervisors and to the centralized worktime reporting email address. In August, PremiTime was introduced to allow staff to enter their working time electronically from their mobile phone or computer.

While this move to a mostly digital environment wasn’t without bumps, the relative ease with which students and staff took up these new tools and acquired the necessary skills to use them demonstrates the adaptable and flexible nature of the university community. However, with the gift of hindsight, we can also see that the university’s earlier approach to remote work made the shift more difficult. The rather rigid approach to remote work resulted in the need to establish the tools and procedures for Other Staff to work from home. While the response was generally adequate, it still forces the question of the usefulness of such a rigid policy for remote work.

Remote work after COVID-19

The university is not just an institution, but a community of staff members and students. Remote work will not, nor should it, replace the face-to-face interactions, discussion, and encounters that serve to enrich the teaching, research, and other work undertaken at the university. However, it is also a viable, and sometimes desirable, way of undertaking work. A return to the earlier approach to remote work seems unwise and a missed opportunity to learn the lessons COVID-19 is teaching.

University work is evolving, and it is a more complex picture than the two staff category system would imply. This exceptional situation has shown us that the assumptions made previously around remote work don’t necessarily hold true. Many services can be provided remotely, interactive meetings can be organized on Teams, and working time can be monitored.

A new, clearer and more thoughtful approach to remote work is needed post-COVID-19 and symbolizes more than just the right to work from home. It demonstrates flexibility, trust, and a recognition of the nuances of university work. To do this, the needs and wishes of the staff and students should be better understood. The creation of a vibrant university community should be combined with opportunities to contribute to that community both in person and from afar. The aim for productivity should be coupled with flexibility and trust. Such an open, reflective approach to remote work will create a community with more choices and possibilities, and ultimately, a happier one.

Melissa Plath
Jytte’s Vice-Chair
Project Manager, Finnish University Partnership for International Development