Dec 07 2023

Higher Ed Institutions Embrace Remote Work Policies

Software, policies and processes help connect and engage remote employees in higher education.

As remote work becomes increasingly common in higher education, college and university employees say they want it to go even further. In an EDUCAUSE survey, more than half of higher ed workers said they’d like more remote work options.

And the stakes are high: Those who aren’t satisfied with the remote work situation said they were more likely to seek other employment, potentially leaving institutions in the lurch at a time of high staffing shortages.

Schools may find it challenging to meet the current need.

“You can't just take those tried-and-true approaches that have worked really well onsite and hope that they still work in a different modality,” says Jenay Robert, senior researcher for EDUCAUSE.

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Higher education has unique considerations regarding remote work. Faculty might need tools to facilitate remote classes, while office employees might need equipment to take calls. Everyone needs secure access to campus networks, and IT staff members need to be able to troubleshoot technical issues from afar.

With the right technologies and smart strategies, it’s possible to keep remote employees productive and satisfied. Here’s how some schools are making remote work successful.

Universities Make Accommodations to Improve the Remote Experience

At the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, all 160 employees of the chancellor's office work remotely.

The office uses Microsoft Office 365, relying on the online versions of Outlook, Email, Word and Excel. When working from home became necessary, the IT team was able to rapidly deploy Teams, and that made a big difference, says Tim Custer, director of technical services.

Teams doesn’t just make remote work possible; it transforms the experience. The tool “allows you to see if someone's even available and then start a conversation with something as simple as a chat. That might evolve into a phone call or screen sharing or maybe pulling in some other people for some collaboration,” Custer says. “It is a single tool that you can use to evolve the depth and complexity of the conversation as needed without having to switch communication methods along the way.”

That flexibility helps remote employees to feel connected.

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“It improved accessibility for employees who weren't right across the hall or even in the same office building. Instant chat over Teams made them more accessible,” says Mic Sadler, director of IT shared services. “That, in turn, has made people more efficient.”

To ensure a positive remote work experience, the IT team has worked hard on the back end, particularly when it comes to end-user support.

“Our help desk workload increased exponentially when we went remote because it became kind of the epicenter for issues as people were consuming these new technologies,” Sadler says.

To ensure smooth sailing, the team uses Microsoft Intune to enable the help desk to remotely support people at home, and it uses Microsoft Defender to secure those connections.

“The Intune product aided in a shift from doing software setups and deployments physically at the help desk to doing them over the wire,” Custer said. “We're able to drop-ship equipment from a manufacturer such as Dell directly to an employee's home, circumventing the help desk, and have them install all the software over the wire. That’s a big benefit to efficiency.”

IT Departments Support Remote Workers with Processes

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, about half of the 300-plus workers in Technology Services are permanently remote, and 93 others work offsite two to four days a week, says Terri Klinker, associate director for strategic business at Technology Services.

“We have both Microsoft Teams and Zoom as the primary communication platforms. We use email, primarily from Microsoft, and we have Google as a platform that we support as well,” says Taylor Judd, assistant director of cybersecurity operations and engineering.

To ensure the success of those remote workers, the IT department has focused on putting in place strong processes to govern technology use.

“That is everything from having agendas for meetings to notetaking to sharing out notes after those meetings,” Judd says.

He’s also using technology to support the informal contacts that help keep remote workers connected.

“It is incredibly important to have specific engagements to help with ‘hallway conversations’ and socializing, to enable folks to have a positive, engaged environment,” Judd says.

DIVE DEEPER: Standardizing collaboration tools can save time and money.

The shared Teams chat area for the cybersecurity team, for example, has a channel called Random. “It is like the old water cooler, where people will post things that they're interested in, like GIFs or memes. It's internet culture in a professional, contained environment,” he says. “That helps remote workers feel like they still are engaged in the office when they're not necessarily having those hallway conversations.”

Leadership also has invested in continual equipment upgrades to keep at-home workers at the top of their game. A three- to four-year equipment refresh cycle “deters some of the problems that we might have with remote work from an equipment perspective,” Klinker says. “And if something fails, we ship something out right away, regardless of where the workers are, so they can get their job done.”

To deliver effective support to remote workers, IT relies on its own tools. With Teams screen sharing and remote control, “if someone is having an issue, IT support can go in, look at the problem and make that change on the fly,” Klinker says.

Standardized equipment likewise ensures productivity at home.

“That helps facilitate the support because they don’t have to deal with a lot of different types of equipment, and we can have spare parts as needed,” Klinker says.

Software Helps Universities Make the Shift to Remote Work

At Southern New Hampshire University, 88 percent of employees work fully or partially remotely, logging in from across 36 states, according to Shanita Williams, associate vice president of people experience. This represents a big shift for the IT team.

“When COVID hit, our remote workforce exploded. Technologywise, we were not in a position to service folks remotely,” says George Lloyd, vice president of ITS support services. “Suddenly, we needed the ability to essentially install software on the machines and maintain patches. We really had to shift not just the way we worked but also all the technologies.”

In response, SNHU turned to Lakeside Software’s digital experience platform and Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager. “We moved toward a much more mature technical posture to support our folks,” Lloyd says.

Source: CUPA-HR, “Providing Remote Work Opportunities Will Aid Your Retention Efforts,” November 2021

“Lakeside allows us to see what machines are healthy. We really rely on the compute health scores to understand who is suffering out there from a compute standpoint and to know whether we need to upgrade them, uplift that machine or just add memory or resources to the machine,” he says.

With the program, the team is able to build in automations at the laptop level.

“It will automatically clear the Teams cache, for instance, if Teams is dying on you,” Lloyd says. “We can also automatically send a repair straight to that machine, based on a metric that we pick up on the health score. It's changed the way we work completely, and for the better.”

The IT department also has shifted the way the service desk operates, to ensure at-home employees can do their best work.

“We have retrained our folks to essentially troubleshoot everything right to their router, right to their computer at home. What's your bandwidth on your router? What applications are failing?” Lloyd says. “We can see this easily in the data and can troubleshoot the specific problem without actually having to get on the machine.”

By putting in place the right technologies, “our IT team really has been instrumental in helping us stay connected and keeping up the productivity levels in a distributed workforce,” Williams says.

“Our engagement scores actually soared when we initially went remote,” she says. “That's a testament to the fact that people feel they have the tools to do their job.”
 

Getty: Adobest, Igor Suka, Prostock-Studio, Phynart Studio
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