The (flexible) future of work at Rutgers: School moving to put recommendations learned from pandemic into action this fall

State university says recruitment, retention, employee well-being key to pilot program, new work initiatives

Higher education has long been criticized for being slow to react to change — and then taking a long time to act when it comes time to get up to speed.

Rutgers University made an announcement Thursday that challenges those assumptions.

The Rutgers Future of Work initiative announced by President Jonathan Holloway not only builds on the flexibility and innovation that kept the university successfully operating throughout the pandemic — it talks of implementing flexible work arrangements for employees.

The effort is being made to ensure the university remains competitive in a changing work culture while better serving students and the community.

Simply put, Rutgers is attempting to lead the way into the new normal.

“Managing the university throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us to be more flexible, resourceful and resilient while staying focused on what matters most to our students, faculty, staff and the communities we serve,” Holloway said.

“As we launch the Future of Work initiative at Rutgers, we will make certain that our students are well-served — that they have reliable and consistent access to people and resources they need, both in person and online; that they can benefit from the best practices of technology-enhanced teaching and learning; and that we meet their physical and mental health needs as we also support the well-being of our employees.”

The president approved all 25 of the university Future of Work Task Force’s short- and long-term recommendations, which were crafted with input from the university community through employee and student surveys and listening sessions. Holloway appointed the task force a year ago to explore insights gained during a pandemic that significantly changed how work gets done at nearly every workplace — including Rutgers, which pivoted quickly in March 2020 to remote instruction and, where possible, virtual operations.

Among the short-term recommendations:

  • Flexible scheduling: The university will adopt work arrangements for positions and units where that is possible — with eligible staff who are granted permission for such arrangements expected to work a minimum of three days per week on campus or at Rutgers locations where employees are regularly assigned to work. Called FlexWork@RU, the yearlong pilot program will begin Sept. 1.
  • Caregiving support: Being mindful of frontline workers who don’t have a remote work option, the short-term recommendations include exploring emergency caregiver support programs and expanding the types of authorized flexible work arrangements to include a flex workday schedule or a compressed workweek option.

To be clear, Holloway said these remote options do not necessarily involve teaching — although he hopes academic departments, centers and institutes may be able to develop flexible work options for faculty.

“That said, it is my unambiguous expectation that faculty teach, train, advise and mentor in person,” he said.

Many of the task force’s recommendations will be discussed with labor union representatives as they are considered, the school said.

Vivian Fernández, senior vice president for human resources and task force chair, said it’s all about creating a modern work environment.

“During this pilot year, we will apply what we have learned to formally offer employees more flexibility and develop programs to help improve their work-life balance and overall well-being and enhance workplace culture, while operating the university with greater efficiency,” she said. “The changes we will make will help us better meet the needs of our students and employees and attract and keep the excellent employees we need as a leading national public research university.”

Rutgers officials said planning will begin in the fall on the task force’s long-term recommendations, which include ensuring that Rutgers maintains a robust, student-centered campus environment, reimagining teaching approaches to enhance student engagement and learning, and improving the quality of technologies and faculty preparation for effective online teaching.

“We will work together to put in place a thoughtful plan to support workplace excellence, attract and retain top talent, improve student and patient experiences, support innovation and sustainability, and foster a caring, inclusive, respectful work environment,” Holloway said.