Skip navigation

As staff expectations around work evolve, universities test out how to adapt

Flexible work arrangements are becoming key factors in recruitment and retention.


When universities welcomed students and staff back to campus this fall, not everyone was keen to return – at least not full-time. The experiences of the past 18 months had inspired new ideas on how and where employees could work. University staff, like those in many other sectors, started questioning the need to be physically present in the office every day. At the same time, administrators had seen opportunities in the shift to remote work.

In response, many Canadian universities started testing remote or hybrid work arrangements. Paula Mendonça, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Memorial University, is participating in one of seven flexible work pilot projects being run at her institution. She and three of her office’s five team members are working in a hybrid arrangement that sees them in the office at least two days a week, including one day a week when the entire team is present. Otherwise, they are free to work from home.

“When this opportunity to be part of the pilot program happened, we jumped at the opportunity,” said Dr. Mendonça. “I have team members that can now walk their children to school in the mornings and still be at their computer at 9:00 a.m.” But the hybrid work arrangements affected more than work-life balance. “What I see on my team right now is the pride, trust and accomplishment that my team knows that they’re not being evaluated by the time that they’re sitting at their desks but by their work performance.”

The opportunities to participate in Memorial’s pilot projects were limited. Just 70 employees from seven units are involved. Stephen Dodge, director of human resources, said they have been purposefully “deliberate and considerate.” They will be using a research lens, engaging a faculty member to lead an evaluation that will include “the experience of those employees, their unit managers, units that work with them or get service from them, and whoever their client base is, which could be students, for example, or internal clients,” Mr. Dodge said.

Similar programs are underway at the University of British Columbia, the University of Winnipeg and Acadia University, while many others are managing a variety of return-to-campus plans.

‘Increasing appetite’ for hybrid work

At McGill University, work plans have been delayed for a number of employees due to continued COVID-19 public health measures. However, they launched a pilot project in October that’s being managed by the university’s New Models of Work Project Office. It will see 120 employees from five units working out of a shared space for 18 months. They are splitting their time between campus and home offices, many of them also sharing workstations and computers. Diana Dutton, associate vice-principal of human resources, said the project is motivated by an “increasing appetite” for hybrid work arrangements, but also by a space crunch.

“I think this is the case for quite a few universities; we have quite a bit of rented space,” said Ms. Dutton. “We need to be able to get a good understanding of what type of work is done best, in what kinds of circumstances, to what degree we can perhaps reduce that footprint, and what we need to do from a design and furniture perspective to make that workspace functional.” She said there will be ongoing assessments “to apply some of those learnings to developing policies and practices as we go.”

While hybrid working arrangements were less common in the university sector, they are by no means a new phenomenon. Thomas O’Neill is a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Calgary who has been studying hybrid working and virtual teams for almost 20 years. He said that before the pandemic, the idea of flexible work arrangements in the university sector was “a total nonstarter,” but he hopes that is changing. “It really should be about creating a fulfilling work environment because that’s the right thing to do,” Dr. O’Neill said. He cautioned that many universities may now be in a position of playing catch-up. “I think universities should be setting a bar for creating a great staff experience, and what I see is they’re way behind.”

Ms. Dutton recognizes that universities may not have been the forerunners in flexible work arrangements. She said they have been looking at best practices, but she thinks a university is a different type of employer. “Our clients are physically with us on campus. McGill made a commitment as we were going through the pandemic that we would continue to be an in-person, campus-based university and so we need to do our own reflection in terms of how one delivers services in that kind of environment,” Ms. Dutton said.

Working with unions

University administrators will need to work through some of these changes with their unions. “There’s a certain amount of understanding that everybody was caught off guard [with the pandemic], but still what we saw was a downloading of costs and risks to workers and students,” said Chandra Pasma, a senior research officer with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “Moving forward, it’s really important that flexible and remote work programs be designed in ways that aren’t downloading those costs and risks…. These programs need to be designed in consultation with workers.”

Other sectors may offer some insight into best practices. Dr. O’Neill referenced a previous partner organization, that created clear sets of personas identifying whether a position requires a full-time presence in person, no presence at all, or a hybrid arrangement. The company “gives some guidance on helping managers have a discussion with their direct reports about which persona fits and then there’s an approval process,” Dr. O’Neill said. “That tends to make things a little bit more fair across the organization. There are clear standards about how these decisions are being made, not just the bias of a given manager.”

Almost everyone agrees that flexible work arrangements are becoming key factors in recruitment and retention. “I do believe that it’s an expectation at this point and employers have to find a way to offer that in a way that meets their own needs as well,” Ms. Dutton said. “That’s really the balance we’re looking for here: how do we meet our own needs as a university, as we serve our clients, our students, our professors, and how do we meet the needs of our employees.”

For Dr. Mendonça, there is little question greater flexibility is beneficial. “When I think about the work-life balance, when I think about how the pandemic has affected particularly caregivers and women, having this flexibility really benefits everyone,” she said. “It’s a matter of equity in the workplace. I don’t see how, in the future, this cannot be adapted and expanded to the rest of the university.”

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Craig Mitton / November 29, 2021 at 15:06

    I agree that universities need to adapt and continually find new ways to function. As staff are paramount to the success of universities as a whole and individual research programs specifically it is a no-brainer to ensure staff are healthy and happy in the workplace. Having said that, the article does not touch on the other side of the argument, that being that there are many benefits to working in person together.

    For those of us afforded the opportunity to work from home during the pandemic, many (but not all) have experienced real benefits and as a result it has been difficult to re-engage staff to return with much enthusiasm. But let’s not forget that meetings in Zoom all but eliminate the water cooler chats that contribute to one’s social well being as well as to the academic mission. The unscheduled ‘drop-ins’ simply don’t happen in a remote work from home scenario. And even for the scheduled meetings that do happen over Zoom, here after 18 months of this practice in my view there is both lost efficiency and missing connections that directly result in less collaboration and interplay amongst team members.

    In short, there is real benefit lost with work from home that the article does not touch on. Work from home sounds great on one level but has significant drawbacks for those of us ‘on the ground’ managing research teams.

    Now I’m not saying it has to be one or the other, of course there is a middle ground to be reached. But since Sept having my own team back in the office one or possibly two days a week at most, quite frankly I am increasingly frustrated with the central HR work from home policy.

    In my view, staff and faculty should be interacting at a minimum 3 days a week at the office and quite possibly 4 days a week. I don’t think this is an antiquated view of the world, rather I think it is actually in the best interest of both staff and faculty and will enable both research programs and universities to better meet their objectives. I hope further hope that in due course there is some quality evidence that arises within the university context that can inform these policies going forward.