5 Reasons Why I Should Stop Whining About Working Virtually | Inside Higher Ed

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One consequence of IHE eliminating comments is that nowadays, I get a lot more direct e-mails. That is great. I’m always happy to hear from folks.

My typical response is to encourage correspondents to turn their notes in letters to the editor. Sometimes correspondents take me up on this idea, most times not.

My recent piece, 5 Reasons Why I’m Struggling with Working Virtually, served to generate enthusiastic private responses.  

Below are some of the rejoinders to my post, amplified with some self-critical creative license.

I’ve grouped these responses under the rubric of reasons I should stop whining about working virtually.

#1: Mostly, Higher Ed Work Is No Longer Virtual:

The first response to worries about virtual higher ed work is to note that most higher ed work is no longer virtual. Colleges and universities may not be back to normal, but they are (mostly) back in person.

Classes are not being taught in classrooms. Events are being held on campus. Games are being played. Many meetings are face-to-face. Everyone might be wearing masks (except the players on the field/court/ice and the refs), but face-to-face higher ed has returned.

The professional staff at most schools have some flexibility in how they work. If folks want to come to campus to work and to meet, they can do that. Or, if the work can be done from home, and the meetings can be on Zoom, that is an option.

Instead of complaining about virtual higher ed work, isn’t it a better response to stop working from home?

#2: The Option of Virtual Higher Ed Work Is Reserved for the Most Privileged:

Complaining about virtual higher ed work is a bit like rich people lamenting the downsides of estate and capital gains taxes. If you are privileged enough to have the option to do some of your higher ed work virtually, then the least you can do is recognize how good you have it.

The reality is that throughout the pandemic, many people with the most demanding jobs in higher ed have been coming to campus each and every day. The people with higher ed jobs that could not be done via Zoom, e-mail, Canvas, and Slack are also some of the least well-paid people at any university.

Worrying about the downsides of virtual work ignores the real-world challenges of higher ed workers who have little flexibility or autonomy.

If we are going to spend our time and energy making academic employment more equitable, just, and rational — then we should be focusing our energies on the most marginalized amongst us — not the most privileged.

#3: For Some Areas of Higher Ed Work, Virtual Teams are a Labor Supply Necessity:

Another reason to stop complaining about virtual higher ed work is that someone might take that complaining seriously. The last thing higher ed needs is a snapback to a culture in which remote work and remote workers were devalued.

A return to viewing remote work as a practice to be minimized would be disastrous for our colleges and universities. First, and right away, we would lose some of our most productive contributors. Many of the best people on your campus and mine are remote workers.

Some colleagues live close enough to come to campus but have found that primarily working from home leads to significantly better productivity. Other colleagues live (or moved) too far away to come to campus each day but are doing invaluable work.

In my world of learning design, the only way to attract and retain the smartest learning designers is to be flexible with geography. These non-faculty educators are in too much demand, and they can work too effectively remotely to require that everyone put in campus desk-time.

#4: The Benefits of Virtual Higher Ed Work Options Far Outweigh the Downsides:

Yes, there are some costs to virtual work. Everyone is exhausted by all the Zoom meetings. We spend most of our days with screens and not real people. The informal and social aspects that catalyze creative collaboration are hard to replicate on digital platforms. But really….arenot these all small prices to pay for a type of higher ed work that is more flexible?

The ability to work away from campus means that we can all better navigate our non-work lives. Working from home means the ability to be home for unexpected family issues. Flexible work allows us to better integrate our work and home responsibilities.

Freed from the necessity of “proving” your productivity by showing up to campus for nine (or more) hours a day, we can all now schedule our work in ways that suit our working rhythms and family needs. We can thank the pandemic for that change. Would we really want to go back?

#5: Instead of Complaining about the Challenge of “In-Between” Work, You Should Suggest Some Solutions:

Finally, instead of complaining about the downsides of virtual work — wouldn’t it be better to suggest some better ways of working?

We are likely to be in a place for many months to come where things will not return to the way they once were. We will be wearing masks when together. Many of our colleagues are now permanently working remotely. Everyone’s work is now blended. This is the new reality. It’s time to start figuring out how to make the new higher ed work for all of us.

How might we go about building a new post-pandemic higher ed workplace culture?

Where is the conversation about the future of higher ed work occurring?

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