By MARTY LEVINE
More flexible working hours and locations are likely arriving for Pitt staff, but creating a successful program for employees to work different hours — or even from home — takes a lot of planning.
That was the message of three Pitt supervisors who have created such opportunities for their staff. They spoke at a Staff Council-sponsored panel discussion on “Flexible Work Arrangements at Pitt” on Feb. 20, which drew nearly 250 people in person and another 600 online. (The discussion also is available onlline here.)
“I would believe that we’re going to end up drafting a policy or guidelines on flexible work arrangements,” said John Kozar, assistant vice chancellor for University Benefits, also part of the panel. “It’s going to be very general,” he added, since different Pitt departments have different abilities to offer alternative hours for starting and ending a workday; compressed weeks (such as four 10-hour days); opportunities to work remotely; and job sharing.
Such arrangements serve to benefit employees in a number of ways, the panelists said: boosting morale, offering a better work-life balance, saving employees money and travel time and even creating productivity and efficiency.
And fresh work arrangements also benefit Pitt, they explained, by encouraging a happier and thus more loyal staff, making Pitt more attractive as an employer and promoting more sustainable work environments, at little cost.
Panelist Jennifer E. Woodward, vice chancellor for Sponsored Programs and Research Operations, said she created flexible working arrangements in her department after arriving in 2014 to find a large and diverse staff but a number of vacant positions, with too few workers for the workload and a high turnover rate.
“We had workers in our office who had given up working in their chosen field so they could achieve a better work-life balance,” she noted.
In 2015, she proposed a telecommuting pilot program after researching best practices here and at other universities and writing a white paper to justify the effort to those above her. “I relied heavily on Human Resources” to devise a program that stayed within current HR regulations, she added.
The program began with one part-time person working from home, and eventually included opportunities for all to do so, one day per week. Everyone had a signed telecommuting agreement, outlining when employees would need to be in the office, when they could work from home and when they would need to check in with supervisors.
“We were a success,” Woodward said. “The employees actually were healthier” — and working outside the office can even be more efficient, she said, “especially for staff who were distracted by the noise of 47 other employees.”
Michele Montag, executive director for Staff Personnel and senior assistant dean in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, said the school began devising flexible work ideas in 2014 as well.
“We have a very diverse workforce, so we had to think about what would work” in a variety of departments and administrative units, she said. First, staff were offered a shift in hours beyond the regulation 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., then a four-day work week and finally remote working options. The school offers guidelines for these options but allows individual departments to modify them.
Not all departments need to offer all options, she noted, and not all jobs are eligible for such options, especially those positions that deal in person with “customers” throughout the day, such as front desk personnel.
Most Dietrich School units offer some variety of flextime today, she said. And even where working from home is not an option — such as among advisors in the student advising center — the use of compressed work weeks has actually been a boon to students, since advisors are now available to help them during more hours.
Some Dietrich staff who are unable to take advantage of flextime options during the main school year can take advantage of them during the summer, Montag reported.
“You have to support your supervisors,” she added. “You need to recognize that this is a huge change for managers … and that there is a huge amount of accounting surrounding this.
“We put the onus on employees to really think how this works for the department” and come up with appropriate plans, Montag said. “We pilot at all levels … so people are clear that things are going to be reviewed and assessed in an ongoing basis.”
Employees aiming for a job-sharing arrangement, or who have some duties that can only be performed in the office, should talk to other staff about how the in-office duties will be handled before proposing such arrangement to their supervisors, she recommended. One employee shouldn’t create a situation where others need to scramble to cover for them, she said.
At Purchasing Services, said director Thomas E. Youngs, those who call for help are often talking to an employee working from home. After one of his staffers made the case for such an arrangement, it has been opened to all, but restricted to certain days, with more senior employees getting first dibs.
If you’re on the phone with such an employee, Youngs said, “you don’t want to hear the baby crying or the dog barking; in fact you don’t even want to know that the person is working from home.”
“It is not meant to be daycare,” he added. Working from home can even have drawbacks, he said, since it can be socially isolating and managers may miss the in-person, spontaneous collaboration with employees inside an office.
But given Pennsylvania’s low unemployment rate, he said, “it is hard to find people” for jobs, and so “the work-from-home arrangement is really expected now. … Stock options and bonuses are not so good here,” he added, which drew a laugh. “So Pitt needs to have something attractive to employees.”
Questions from staff
There was no shortage of questions from those in attendance:
Will the University provide a computer for my home work?
What if I fall at home or at Starbucks while working there — does worker’s compensation apply?
Consult the University’s worker’s comp policy— and don’t work at Starbucks; you need a dedicated, data-secure work environment.
Do I still need to take an unpaid lunch hour at home?
Some offices offer condensed (half-hour) lunch periods for remote workers.
If my post is funded by a research grant, is there any conflict with working remotely?
Consult the terms and conditions of your research award and the percent effort required.
Any difference in optional work arrangement rules for exempt and non-exempt employees?
If I only have to come to campus on one or two days a week, will Pitt pay for my parking?
Do not hold your breath.
Asked whether there is a central place to find job-sharing opportunities, Kozar replied that this is “something we could look into.”
And to the query, “How do you honestly know that someone is working at home?” Woodward replied that work taking place online is easily checked, but in the main, “It’s all about trust.”
As for how Dietrich faculty have responded to staff on flextime, Montag said “We’ve certainly had some anxiety around it.” She recommended that faculty be consulted every so often to assess staff performance under new work arrangements.
“They shouldn’t be noticing a difference, because the work is getting done and you’re not missing a beat,” she said. “But we’ve had no problem with that.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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