Advice & News

January 11, 2023

Is Higher Education the New Helipad for Remote Helicopter Bosses?


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If 2021 was the great resignation, then 2022 was the great contemplation. There were weekly stories in my LinkedIn inbox from various industry publications about everything from quiet quitting to increased employee demands for fully remote and hybrid schedules, to calls for a total organizational culture overhaul so employees could achieve work-life harmony replacing work-life balance, which was the pre-COVID mantra. This is all occurring at a time when we are seeing complicating and opposing views from managers who are saying, "fine, telework if you insist but here are the many ways that we will track your every movement." I like the colloquialism that the BBC uses that so many of us in higher education (ed) are familiar with in their article titled "The Rise of the Remote Helicopter Boss." Those of us who are recovering helicopter parents of millennial college students of the 1990s and 2000s can really relate to this article minus the technical aspects. Innovative technological approaches to tracking are more aligned with today's parents of Gen Z students who air tag them, install tracking locator apps on their cell phone, buy them vehicles with geolocation software, and the list goes on.

Of course, all of this sleuthing or outright propelling overhead would not be necessary if trust and flexibility were two additional categories added to our institutional values statements. The term "trust but verify" is attributed to the late President Ronald Regan. Trust is typically earned, so new employees should expect a lot of verification on the front end of a new job. But what about those of us long timers, why are our keystrokes being counted? For those supervisors being tasked with enduring the hardship of what can only feel like a game of employee Wac-A-Mole, ever watchful of computer deadtime and loathing the quick intrusive direct message (DM) know that you are not alone in the awkwardness of trying to pound employees back into their virtual work holes. I know of a colleague who had to grab a prescription during the workday and enlisted her niece to sit at her computer and type while she ran to the pharmacy. I can envision Jack Nicholson in the Shining endlessly typing "REDRUM" to keep the tracking bots at bay. It can all seem a bit ridiculous, the lengths employers will go through to ensure that someone is chained to their desk, eyes glued to the screen.

Then there's flexibility, or a flex schedule, an increasing topic of angst in Human Resources (HR) and some divisions on campuses across the industry. For most, it really doesn't matter if the office is fully staffed at 8 am, and this is particularly true on traditional residential campuses because most students can barely drag themselves out of bed to be at their 8 am class on time, let alone standing in line at financial aid. Indeed, I will go a step further and state that I think it's safe to say that all four staff members in a Career Center need not be at their desks at 8 am, particularly if it creates hardship when some are parents who must drop off children, or support aging parents, get pets to vets, etc. What about one-person offices, you ask? The answer goes beyond time and attendance for that one manager because they can never fully meet the need of early risers or after-work drop-ins, unless you schedule them from 8 am to 8 pm. These instances require institution-wide solutions, including cross-training, virtual hours to allow for remote work, and a range of other enterprise solutions that don't result in insisting that a manager be in the office for 37.5 hours per week, zooming with students who have shown and told us that they prefer to text their questions anyway.

Inflexibility inevitably becomes an employee retention issue because while one institution may have a no-remote policy, the college down the street offers hybrid, and you'd be surprised how many of your employees would take the job for the same or even less pay. I recently spoke to an HR executive in corporate who was offering an increased salary and title to a millennial accountant, but the job would require full in-person versus his current fully remote schedule, and he respectfully declined, stating that he might consider hybrid one day a week, but for the most part, the juice wasn't worth the squeeze.

If you are lucky enough to be at an institution and in a role that allows for hybrid work, leaders are afforded the opportunity to move their day around with great flexibility as long as they are communicative and meet goals. This is an equity issue that is not often discussed. There are also generational factors that influence the great divide between the C-Suite and a sometimes younger, employee base. I wouldn't go as far to say that there's values misalignment across generations as some industry articles have posited. I believe that a strong work ethic exists across the range of the four generations we see in the workforce of today but the "how", is definitely debatable and misaligned, even when the "what" (serving students, fulfilling the mission, fiscal responsibility, productivity) generally has shared consensus.

For me, as a vice president, I have given up on staying in the office beyond 6 pm to avoid bringing work home, because bringing work home is the "not so new" normal. I figure, if I am going to work from home in the evening anyway, I might as well leave when everyone else does and tell myself that I am modeling good work-life harmony. Leaving with the herd may be heresy to some leaders, but there's a group of us that still blur the lines between work and home in order to get the job done and still be present, for our families when needed. I offer this same flexibility to my staff, within the parameters of the HR policies at my institution.

Other leaders are more traditionalist, and not only do they not blur the lines, but they also show up in person for ten-hour days, five days a week, and still work from home. Been there, did that, and had the Xanax to prove it. Those days are over for me and others who are rejecting having or being the remote or in-person helicopter bosses. I have mentored and coached more people this year who are leaving higher education because of the traditionalists in the C-Suite. The answer is not in denigrating those who seek to find work-life harmony and label them as individuals who don't want to work. The key is not to create a false dichotomy and tell them that they can have it all. Don't place intense expectations on them when an employee in their department leaves and is not replaced or take the Big Brother approach to management and helicopter in to ensure productivity, and then desire/demand a positive, collaborative, caring work culture among faculty and staff that will permeate down to how we fulfill our institutional mission and educate and serve students. You can't have both, so I strongly urge my colleagues in leadership to bring together all the great scholarly minds, partnered with SHRM, ACE, and AACC and come up with a new model that will bring the best of what we were into all that we can be. The future of work depends on it, and higher education can lead the way.

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