Jan 04 2021

Higher Ed IT Teams Adapt Back-Office Operations to Remote Work

Colleges rethink legacy systems and adapt new solutions to optimize operating models.

The shift to remote operations has been transformative for learning, but educational institutions are also feeling the effects in their back-office operations — leveraging new solutions and in some cases tackling upgrades that previously had not been priorities.

Just as colleges have adopted new tools and policies for online learning in recent months, they have a similar opportunity to achieve new efficiencies and deepen resiliency on the business and operations side.

The closure of in-person education in March forced educational institutions to change their back-office operations overnight, says Dave Ballard, senior vice president for public sector for SAP Concur. Because few had the infrastructure to go virtual, most had to improvise, quickly piecing together a mix of tools and strategies.

“The back-office changes and operational issues caught people off guard,” Ballard says. “Many didn’t have the level of preparedness around technology and business continuity they needed.”

Remote Operations Add Complexity to Higher Ed IT

In August, SAP Concur surveyed more than 500 finance and administration decision-makers in higher education institutions and K–12 schools across the country about how they are navigating hybrid and remote work and learning environments. One key finding was that remote work has made administrative roles more challenging and complex.

More than 40 percent of respondents said they were managing at least three new responsibilities since the start of the pandemic. In addition, almost all said that sustained remote work was impairing their ability to comply with state and federal government reporting regulations.

Although some institutions traditionally have been hesitant to upgrade legacy systems and processes, the pandemic left them little choice, says Ballard. Nearly all respondents said investments in technology or personnel would be critical in maintaining operations. Seventy percent said that investments in hardware and software are essential to facilitate department operations that are remote, but 63 percent said their finance and administrative departments lack a fully remote solution.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Get best practices for choosing the right IT partner.

Colleges Seize Opportunities to Upgrade Administrative Functions

Despite these challenges, the forced adoption of new workflows has created opportunities for institutions to enhance their resiliency and efficiency, says Ballard. One area in which many have been able to justify increased spending is in business continuity and back-office automation. SAP Concur, for example, has seen an uptick in interest in its invoicing application, says Ballard.

“We saw one school where people were driving to the CFO’s house to get checks cut to pay suppliers,” he says. “Many are now really looking into accounts payable automation.”

Even when in-person classes resume, campus leaders indicate that they expect remote work and distance learning to continue to some degree, thereby continuing to affect their operating models.

In the survey, half of the higher education decision-makers said they expect to adopt new operating models in the next five years to offset revenue losses. Among this group, 94 percent also anticipate cost-cutting measures such as hiring freezes, layoffs and pay cuts. Despite budget cuts and workforce reductions, many are now adopting mobile apps and tools to help them migrate to hybrid classroom and back-office operation models.

“There has been a huge shift in mindset,” says Ballard. “We had people running on systems so siloed and dated they were afraid to make changes. Now, the cracks have become chasms in their operations, and they’re finally starting to address it.”

Getty Images/nimis69