APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Will Organizations Maintain Flexibility and Remote Work?

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Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould HarperDean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. August Mebane, Associate Vice Chancellor of Human Resources, Winston-Salem State University

During the pandemic, many people experienced the benefits of working from home. Will organizations maintain that flexibility and continue to allow people to work remotely? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to HR professional Dr. August Mebane about how organizations can handle this transition and the policies, procedures, and supervision guidelines they should consider. Learn how organizations can support their operations while also being supportive of the life-work balance desired by their employees.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Dr. Marie Gould Harper. My guest today is Dr. August Mebane. We are going to talk about human resources in higher education. First of all, I want to just share some information about Dr. Mebane’s background. She was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and currently resides in North Carolina with her husband and two children. She attended the University of Delaware where she earned her BA in English with a concentration in Business and Technical Writing. She went on to earn two Masters from Wilmington University in Human Resource Management and Organizational Leadership.

Dr. Mebane completed her Doctorate in Management with a concentration in Organizational Leadership and Change. Her career experiences led her to a path of HR where she has held various leadership roles. Most recently, Dr. Mebane was named the Associate Vice Chancellor of Human Resources at Winston-Salem State University.

She is a leader who believes in having an “anything is possible” attitude while encompassing work and life integration. She takes her responsibilities as a leader seriously, and holds herself, team and organization to the highest level of integrity and excellence. Hi, welcome to our podcast. How are you doing, Dr. Mebane?

Dr. August Mebane: I am doing well. Thank you, Marie, for that wonderful introduction. I’m excited to be here today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Oh, you’re so welcome. I like how we connected on LinkedIn. When I was reading your profile, and whatever question we were talking about, I could just feel the energy in your responses and I felt as though that I knew you personally. And what was interesting was when I reached out to you and saw your area code, I was like, “She’s from where I am.” And, as we talked, I realized we had some mutual friends. And now as I’m reading your bio, we’ve intersected a lot of different places. I worked at the University of Delaware and I actually taught at Wilmington University. It’s a small world. It’s a small world.

Dr. August Mebane: Very small world. Excited that our paths have crossed.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And I think it’s going to be a new beginning of something bigger and bolder.

Dr. August Mebane: Absolutely.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I want to start with my first question. It’s been an interesting year for many industries, including higher education. In your opinion, what do you think the workplace is going to look like in higher ed once we transition out of lockdown?

Dr. August Mebane: Oh, that’s such a great question, Marie, and it’s such a prevalent question right now. Just experiencing a pandemic, a lot of us, this is a new experience for us. And so, after the lockdown, I don’t think the workplace can go back to the way it was.

People have experienced some type of remote or flexible work over the last, what? 14, 15 months. And they’ve experienced a new level of work-life integration or work-life balance, whichever term you want to use, where they’re able to have dinner on time, spend time with family, do self-care, not have a commute or a reduced commute.

People are really looking for that flexibility going forward. And that dynamic of remote and flexible work has absolutely changed how we function as organizations. Some organizations were prepared. They had the technology in place. Other organizations, they had to scramble and try to figure it all out. Wherever we are on the spectrum, we can’t go back to the way things were, or that means we haven’t learned anything over the last year.

[Podcast: How Job Searching Has Changed in the New Norm]

People really will have to find creative solutions to meet the needs of their students, their faculty, and their staff. And so, a lot of higher ed institutions are student centered. But what we’ve realized in this pandemic is that we can’t just solely function off focusing on the students. We really have to be employee centered as well.

And I believe employers will have to start to think about how they’re going to support employees going forward. Although we have a wonderful vaccine option for people, not everyone is comfortable getting it just yet. You have those who are going to wait and see how things go. And as the CDC releases new guidelines, people are getting nervous. Just reading some of the comments about mask wearing and how people are nervous for those who even have young children.

What does that mean for the workplace and people coming back on campus or engaging with colleagues in person? What does that look like? And we’re really going to have to find some creative solutions because we have to show our employees that we care, not only about them, but for their loved ones.

People have lost people to COVID-19 and they look to their employers for support and they look to see if their employer cares about them. The workplace, in general, is just going to be very different. And if it’s not, employers will have to prepare for an exit for employees looking for a place that will accommodate what they desire in their lifestyle. And so, you can’t give people a taste of that flexibility and that remote work and showing the care that a lot of employers stood up and showed to their employees and then take it all back. I just don’t think that would work, Marie.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I understand. As you were speaking, I thought of a couple of other individuals in different industries and I’ve charted their journey in the whole pandemic and what their employers have told them in terms of when they would return to the office. And it’s changed over this year.

And with the changes in the timeline, you could see the changes in the mentality, as well as the philosophy of a lot of the senior management teams in terms of what is this new workforce going to look like? And I think you hit a lot of the points that a lot of companies are talking about as they prepare for the shift.

Now, I’m wanting to go back to a couple of things that you said, and one of them was the vaccine, having the shots. I’ve heard some individuals who have stated they really don’t want to work in close proximity to individuals that have not had the shot.

As a HR professional and the leader for your organization, what types of practices and policies can be written around a situation like that. For example, you can’t really tell one employee about another employee’s medical record. Will there be self-disclosure and how will you set up the work environment for people with this type of concern?

Dr. August Mebane: Oh, that’s such a tough question. We’re still trying to figure things out and just speaking with my colleagues, not just in higher ed, a lot of people are really trying to steer clear of making people self-identify as to whether or not they’re vaccinated.

Let’s go some months back where COVID-19 was very prevalent. If an employee said, “Hey, I’ve been exposed,” or they tested positive, it’s almost as if they had a mark on their chest. Because we were like, “Okay. I don’t want to be around them.” People kind of looked at them differently. Although, hey, it happened, we’re in a pandemic. But people have their own personal perspectives of those who contracted COVID-19.

I think the same is with the vaccine and we do not know everyone’s medical history, underlying medical issues. I don’t think anyone has room to judge anybody. Although we do strongly encourage the vaccine, I’m well aware that there are people who just are not comfortable getting it, and they are vocal.

We have people who have gotten the vaccine, who were vocal, that they still don’t want people in close proximity to them because of the various variants out there of COVID-19. And so, I think that’s a legitimate concern. Or if people have someone in their home who can’t get the vaccine just yet, what does that mean for them? We have to take all this into consideration.

As far as policy is concerned, I think we can help organizations put parameters in place just to say it is your personal choice whether or not you get vaccinated, but we also have, essentially, a business to run. We have to be able to appropriately support our operations.

I think organizations will have to think about how can you support your operations and still be supportive of your employees, because I think it’s still very new? I think we’re all kind of in a trial run here to make sure, we don’t know how long the vaccine will last. And so, for people who have underlying medical issues, that’s scary for them. I think that’s kind of concerning for a lot of people. And so, we have to take all of that into consideration.

I think if we go into too strong with mandates and policies, we really may lose people to organizations who are being more understanding and supportive as we still figure things out. I think we’re still in the phase of figuring it out and we’re testing the water with the mask and the social distancing, and we just have to see how it goes.

And although we’re hoping everything will go very well, we just don’t know. We just absolutely don’t know. And I think employers have to take it from that standpoint of let’s support our employees and figure out how we can best support our operations. Otherwise, we can lose some really great people. And you’re right, changing that mentality and that philosophy is quite important.

Like I continue to say, we can’t go back to the way things were. Either you really care about your employees and trying to provide the best excellence in service that you can, or you’re going to go back to business as usual, which I don’t think we’re quite there yet. And some organizations are taking the approach “business as usual.” And some are saying, “Let’s take our time and really figure it out.” Especially within the system, the university system in which I work, we’re not rushing. We’re trying to figure out how to best support the operations and support our employees.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, I totally agree and I think a lot of other industries are taking that same stance. I believe that they are finally listening to what their employees are saying. Just a few months ago, I was reading about different surveys that were taken by employers and they were getting the feedback from the employees pretty much in line with what you said. They have gotten used to being remote and the flexibility and they see how they can have quality of life.

And I agree with you, that’s going to be hard to try to take that privilege away from them. And I think it’s going to be a game changer in where employees decide to work, whether it’s their current job or a future job, in the case they become active job seekers.

In your opinion, do you believe some other areas of human resources, as it relates to employees, will also need to change? For example, career development. Do you believe that managers’ new roles will be more of a coach versus a compliance officer? And by that, I mean, we have some managers who always want to know what their employee’s doing. They’re struggling with this whole virtual thing because they can’t see their employees. Do you think it’s time that we just start to trust our employees and that we see productivity is still on the rise, and just trust that they’re doing their jobs and work on coaching them to be better employees.

Dr. August Mebane: Absolutely. I think if you’re going to have any type of flexible or remote work option, you really have to trust your employees. And I think trust was the major factor, probably besides technology, as to why employers didn’t pursue these options prior to the pandemic or limited the options.

I think people have stood up and proven that, “Hey, I can be productive in this environment, probably more productive.” There is a sense of missing that comradery on site, on campus. At the same time, there’s also that feeling of accomplishment where you get so much done when you’re not having those “water cooler conversations.”

And so, in order to sustain this, what we have to realize is during the pandemic, we had these flexible and remote options out of necessity. And now, it’s becoming more of a privilege where people will have to decide, “Are we going to allow this privilege? We’re not locked in.” Before, there have been situations where maybe an employee wasn’t as productive, but you couldn’t necessarily penalize them by saying, “Okay, you need to work on site.” Because we were in a health crisis, a public health crisis, and it was recommended for people who could to work remotely.

And so, now, we’re in this space where it’s an option where we have more options to say, “If it’s not working, you probably should work on site.” We have to really equip our employees with the development to show them how to hold their teams accountable, how to still engage their team and communicate. We have to go back to basics and really revamp how managers manage.

And so, coach versus compliance officer, I think it’s kind of both. Some employees will just take the ball and run with it and be like, “This is a privilege. I love it. I don’t want to lose it. I’m going to perform in excellence.” And you’ll have those who may try to play the system, may not be as productive and that’s okay, too. I believe those people will manage themselves out.

But really supporting managers and understanding there’s still a compliance piece to this as far as sensitive data, maybe HIPAA, whatever the case may be. And then, also, a coach aspect of it where you want to motivate your team, make sure they’re not working in silos, they’re not isolated. Making sure the manager isn’t isolated and just feel like they’re out there without the support to really develop their team. The development track looks very different. A lot of people have that fear out of sight, out of mind. But I think, as this becomes more prevalent in the workplace, there’s a place for you to allow your skillset to speak for itself and show up.

I encourage people. Don’t sit on a Zoom meeting with your camera off and just kind of hidden because out of sight, out of mind. Be present. I encourage people dress up, even if it is from the waist up. Look the part. Speak the part. Don’t get too comfortable just because we are functioning mostly in a virtual environment. I think giving the employees those tips as well will help them feel very secure in, “Hey, I still can get promoted. I still can work on projects. I still will be recognized for my work.” And I think leadership will have to make a concerted effort to make sure that’s happening.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. And I wanted to laugh when you were bringing up the point about get dressed up, feel good. As we’re nearing the end, I had moved, well, I created a second office in my home and it was because of how the sunlight hit and I like lots of sunlight. But it’s in a room that has a closet. And I am to the point that I keep that closet with outfits because there have been times, depending on the type of meetings that I have during the day, where I’ve had one outfit on in the morning and another outfit in the afternoon, just to be appropriate for whatever I was on a Zoom call for. And that’s also made it more fun because I’m like, “Oh, I’m playing dress up.”

But it’s a lot different things that you can do. And it gets to that point when we talk about collaboration and when some people have stated that they feel isolated, I never understood that, and that’s because this is actually my third hybrid remote position. I’ve had the flexibility, get the job done, which I’ve always been able to do. Had supervisors who trusted me to do the right thing.

And, with the pandemic, and I think that’s the issue because we’ve been in lockdown. But one of the things that I have done is also give more back to the community around me, which was another area I didn’t spend too much time on during the old way of doing business. Do you think this pandemic has allowed many of us to open our eyes to see how we can become the village again, and work within our communities to make it a better place? What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. August Mebane: Oh, absolutely. I think people are less selfish. It’s okay to be selfish at times, but I think it was like, “Go to work and do what I need to do for me,” because we were in a box. It was like, “Do the commute, do what you need to do, go home. Do what you need to do for your family.”

People have found the balance where community service has become important. When you saw the crisis where people, they’re unemployed or they need food, they’re going to shelters, those things really tug at the heartstrings of many people. Whether it was giving back financially or getting out and handing out meals or food boxes of food, directing traffic at vaccination clinics, whatever the case may be. Volunteering to ask those lovely COVID questions at the hospital to those entering the building. People are trying to give back and they realize, one, life is short, but it’s also important and you want to live it to the fullest. And when you can help your fellow man, it’s rewarding.

I know in our university system, we have volunteer leave where we really encourage people to take that time and go out and volunteer in their community. That’s how much we believe in giving back and being of support. And we’ve extended that time during the pandemic to allow for more time to our employees to be of support to what they may want to do within their communities.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Totally agree. And I have found that I have been able to get to know my neighbors. And when I say that, I mean more than my development, I mean, just in the city that I live in. I’ve spent more time getting to know people, causes, trying to find out where I can help. Because I’m rarely here but, because of the pandemic, I’ve been forced to stay here a little bit longer than I normally do. And it has been a rewarding experience and it is starting to feel more like a village.

But as we end the pandemic and people are talking about returning to work, I know a few individuals who have gone in maybe once a week just to see what’s going on in the office, not everybody back to work. And one of the things that I would consider a challenge, and it’s an area that I’m still concerned about and I want to hear your thoughts, I’m concerned that some people have been in so long that they have lost their social skills.

And by that, I’m noticing even on an informal basis, not in the workplace yet, people exhibiting more mental health issues. What has been your experience with that area and the literature and is that a concern of yours? Preparing people to come back from where are they from a mental health standpoint?

Dr. August Mebane: Absolutely. All through the pandemic, I’ve been sharing the resources we have for our employees, our EAP program. I think people don’t realize, when you’re saying you have anxiety or you’re feeling a little depressed or lonely, those are mental health issues. And so, talking to a professional is the way to go. It’s great to talk to family and friends but if you’re seeing that you’re kind of in a rut, I’m really encouraging employees, family, and friends, whoever I speak to, to just speak to a professional. Because sometimes it’s a little deeper than people realize, and they don’t realize it because they’re just sharing.

People have been locked in for quite some time, and just from the conversation we just had about how do you dress on a Zoom tells a lot. Having to have those tough conversations with some people like, “Hey, you probably should do your hair or not wear a ripped T-shirt on a meeting.” We’re still representing a business, an organization, and you want to represent yourself in the best light possible.

And so, just having to have those conversations, you realize some people are just in a rut. Some people have lost those social skills or that professional acumen where they know the do’s and don’ts of how to dress, how to act, how to speak to someone.

I was quite surprised, but I’ve heard some people use it as an excuse, like, “Well, you know I don’t know how to act. I’ve been in the house for a year.” And I’m like, “No, we are still very much expected to be professionals.” The business aspect of things did not stop for higher ed. And so, the expectation of being professional hasn’t stopped either.

And I think as we bring people back on site and get things as close to normal as possible, there has to be some support and some reiteration of what those expectations look like. Because just from informal conversations and feedback, I think there’s going to be a struggle with people coming back, specifically on site.

As I shared, those conversations are pretty heavy where they’re saying, “Give me something. Even if it’s not five days a week, can I do three days a week? Can I do two days a week from the home?” And it’s very important to people. And so, we have to give them support as they come back to the campus community or on site wherever they’re working, because some people have forgotten and some people are just going to be straight out disgruntled because they feel like, “Hey, I’ve done my job in a virtual capacity for over a year. Now you’re making me come back. Why?”

It’s a little different in higher ed for various universities. For our specific university, we are really based on site with our students. And so, we’re looking at more hybrid courses and online courses as options. But at the same time, our students want that on campus experience and it’s not the same if they’re the only ones walking around. Taking that into consideration, where you have to strike the right balance of supporting the operations and your students, and also being employee centered within your culture.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. I just think it’s going to be an interesting time because, as you have alluded several times in this conversation, there’s not one-size-fits-all. And even though we like collaborating with one another, I think each of us are going to have to customize what we do next because our workplaces have their own DNAs. I think that’s how I want to phrase it.

But I find that exciting because it’s like, “How do you change the infrastructure and chart a new course while maintaining job satisfaction and motivation among your employees?” I’m like you, I think there should be some focus on what matters to the employees because they are a stakeholder. Some people don’t believe that, but I believe that strongly. I want to thank you for joining me today and sharing your expertise. Do you have any closing comments?

Dr. August Mebane: Thank you, Marie. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I just would encourage everyone to think about the approach to remote and flexible work going forward, and you are absolutely right. They have to customize it for their institution and that’s the only way it’s going to work.

And as you’re customizing, leave that flexibility for managers to be able to support their employees in their area, in their operations, but also think about being fair and equitable. Making sure that the manager who’s more strict and doesn’t necessarily have an appreciation for remote work is not leaving out that population of employees to remote and flexible options.

And then, you also have the other side of the spectrum, where managers may be very loose with remote and flexible work. And so, making sure you strike the right balance in supporting the workforce that everyone has a fair chance, if it makes sense for their role. But thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed this conversation, very timely conversation, and hopefully it will help people as they listen.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, indeed. And I look forward to working with you on a next project.

Dr. August Mebane: Absolutely.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I want to thank our listeners for joining us today. I hope everyone has an amazing remainder of the day.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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