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Hey Higher Ed: What's the Plan Here?

I have never experienced such collective stress, in my life. I am coaching clients….and myself through endless pivots, changes, adaptations, and we are struggling mightily. To remain resilient. To adapt. To evolve. To pivot. To adjust. To the ever-changing plans for fall 2020 on our higher ed campuses.

I can appreciate that COVID numbers and testing and guidance evolves and shifts daily. I understand that we need to think outside of the box and get creative. And we, alt-ac and faculty employees alike, have been pivoting our asses off. 

So at this point, I would like to squarely aim at higher ed as employers and ask:

What’s the plan here?

At what point are you gonna “call it”? What’s the deadline for committing to a path for fall 2020? And does that deadline take into account staff’s mental health too? Staff are stressed. Staff need their employers to commit to the official path ahead for fall 2020, and so they can align their work and personal plans with the official workplace plan. 

We see endless communiques to students, outreach on social media, and public-facing messages about concern for the health and well-being of our communities. We see that you are making every effort to support them.

And us, employees? Are we being supported? 

Faculty and staff are being asked behind the scenes to scenario plan and figure out the domino effect fall-out from each and every scenario. And we are exhausted. 

Some of us are also caregiving for someone who has fallen ill with COVID. Some of us are caregiving for elders who are at high risk. Some of us are also parenting. Some of us are doing all of those things while also trying to manage a full-time job. Some of us are working off-contract, not being paid for our summer planning. All so we can continue to operate and provide teaching and safe learning to our students.

It takes employees to support our students. Whether faculty or staff, we are depleted, weary, worn out, zoomhausted. We need a break. 

By having us continuously plan and evolve up until the 11th hour….higher ed employers are depriving employees of the ability to plan their own work in any concrete way, and to plan for their own families. 

This is some of the hardest career coaching I’ve ever done. I have several clients whose plan A is to continue to try to make this all work becoming ever-more-worn out…and plan B is to quit.  Even though I am the strongest advocate for women in the workplace, and know the data that shows women pay a steep price for leaving any workforce, ever….I would like higher ed employers to face their employees and answer:

How is asking employees to carry on like this any less stressful than us just taking unemployment? 

Sure, of course, the practicalities. Unemployment won’t pay the bills. It’s not forever. The penalty of a gap on your resume, and the struggles of getting a foot back in a door someday. The penalty that means you’ll never command the same earnings potential. The career capital one sacrifices by walking away. The medical and retirement benefits gone. 

But as a career coach, I’m also always guiding clients to focus on what is within their locus of control. With unemployment, for those who have really thought through whether they could swing it…it seems like they have an advantage there. There’s much more they can control. 

They can control what their personal career plan is, how best to execute it  and the timeline. They can plan whether to sign their kids up for online or hybrid or in-person schooling. They can plan what they can work on to advance their careers in a manageable time frame, under reduced stress. They can control how they find and protect time for: doing (creating,  making, writing….), rather than planning for one’s employer. (The way this is playing out is also incredibly inefficient for employers! Employees are faithfully planning, all the while knowing that yesterday’s planning efforts will be replaced by today’s, on repeat ad nauseum. Employees are spinning their wheels planning….and not DOING!)

Asking employees to ever pivot and remain flexible is fine up to a point. My clients are well beyond that point. They have flexed so hard they have snapped.

 

The Worst Merry Go Round

Well, here we go. We have found the worst policy to come out of higher ed during a pandemic. (Although, this working mom points out it would have also been awful during The Before.) Behold: Florida State University bans parenting during remote working.

Now, before I tear this apart: I’ve seen a couple of different explanations of how this unfolded (none of which is anything but outrage- & what-the-hell-worthy!).

But one explanation was that it’s just a reminder of their regular telecommuting policy that requires parents who are working from home to have childcare. My employer actually has that exact same policy; they just haven’t taken the cruel step to remind us of it during a bleeping pandemic, when already stressed-to-the-max parents have no alternative. The other explanation I’ve seen is that the story is misunderstood. That this policy applies only to staff…and only to staff who cannot do their jobs remotely.

No matter how many explanations FSU offers, outrage and condemnation remain the lasting impression of this news. And that’s no surprise, and in fact, deserved.

But here’s the thing.

Now, while we can all agree that nobody can get safe childcare right now and that this announcement couldn’t have been handled or timed worse….what I don’t see anyone talking about is how do we expect higher ed employers to handle this as the pandemic continues unabated, long-term?

Before you think I have any answer: I don’t. And neither does anyone else. In fact, a viral New York Times story from yesterday did a good job of summing up the issue: In the Covid economy, you can have a job or be a parent. Pick one.

Parents like me can advocate. And we should, and loudly. And often. Especially those of us with sufficient career capital to push back on behalf of younger and less experienced peers and colleagues.

And employers can continue to operate with grace and patience and tolerance. But for how long do we expect them to do that, as higher eds hemorrhage money and incur increasing costs?

My employer has from the beginning made all kinds of flexibility available to parents. The work week is now all inclusive – any shift, whatever works. Told managers to look only for outputs, not hours at desk. Operate with empathy. Accommodate missed deadlines, slipping productivity. And worst case scenario – your tasks cannot be done from home? Can you do these other kinds of tasks? Then do those instead.

Then they came up with a new timesheet entry and I started to get suspicious. We were told: if you need to take hours for parenting, no problem. Just report those using a new time code on your time sheet. You won’t be docked any time off, you won’t be docked any pay. Just wanting to measure what parents are able to do. We never got a clear explanation other than: we just need some way to measure the impact of the pandemic on our workforce.

Hmmm.

Well, folks, even that “just check parenting hours on your timesheet” era has come to an end. Those parenting hours are going away in 3 weeks. Employees who are full-time who are also parenting…must then start taking Families First Covid Response Act hours (FFCRA) leave.

This is basically buried in the fine print of our return to work guidance. Barely mentioned in the required official return to work training. And I’m discovering most of my colleagues in other units haven’t even been told this.

FFCRA is all fine and good in theory. It provides up to 12 weeks of leave for caregiving due to the daycares and school closures. It protects your job during that time. It gives you your benefits…and a stairstep down in pay over the 12 weeks.

Most of us can already see problems there, as it’s far from a perfect solution. It does only the bare minimum, and for not nearly long enough. And it’s up to individual universities & colleges to figure out how they implement & who is eligible for FFCRA. So: am I supposed to start paying less and less of my bills over time? And what happens after 12 weeks?

THEN WHAT?!

After 12 weeks, magical wand waving and Coronavirus is gone? It’ll suddenly be perfectly safe for all to return to in-person schools, daycares, day camps, so staff can get back to full-time regular work hours? What about how many school districts are planning on A/B cohorts, or half days, (and that’s only if we are allowed to go in person)?

I’ve been asked to commit to my in-person, in-office schedule that I’m supposed to return to in 3 weeks. As a person with 19 years work experience in higher ed, working a knowledge desk job. Having proven my ability to continue to kick ass while remote, and now while remote WHILE PARENTING. As the only parent on my team. So I can’t imagine how it’s going for cashiers, groundskeepers, housing staff, financial aid, and anyone else on campus whose job requires them to be physically present, and who doesn’t have nearly the career capital I do.

Employers are looking at parents, parents are looking at schools, schools are looking at the CDC and WHO and frankly, other countries’ models which don’t apply well to the USA because of deep cultural differences. And round and round we go.

The Best Laid Plans

It’s been a few months now since I went remote. (97 calendar days, not that I’m counting.) And just as we’ve settled into remote work….the plans for fall semester have started to take hold in concrete ways.

In the past 3 months, we’ve seen it all. The 15 scenarios for fall. Two competing visions. The running lists of publicly-announced plans (and why they’re like nailing jello to the wall). Endless questions about what it might look like and the effects of going in person, staying online, declarations they “must” be in person, and everything in between.

But by now, my university – and many others – have moved from planning into “okay, we laid out our plans, full speed ahead.”

I have to report back starting the week of July 20th. It’s up to individual managers to interpret how that works for each team, but the expectation is that all teams have at least some on-campus presence during business hours. Following the no more than 30% of any team on site at once, physical distancing, masks, etc. My boss needs all of us to submit our preferences and needs so she can put out a proposed schedule.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I’m the only parent on the team. (Okay, actually my boss has a child, but they’re starting college, so a little bit more self-sufficient than my 8 and 6 year olds.) While K-12 schools here have slowly started to trickle out their plans, we don’t know anything for sure yet.

Based on what we do know – our state’s ever-more-alarming headline-making atrocious COVID-19 case numbers, my autoimmune disease, and how little one in general knows about the lasting, long-term health effects of a deadly virus…we are leaning towards online school for the kids.

Someone has to be here with them. That would be me, I think since my husband’s work ordered him back into the office in person the second the state opened. He has been taking liberties with work – working from home on afternoons here and there to help – but he’s not allowed to or supposed to.

We have no local family to help. I suppose we could hire a part-time nanny, but is that safe? I can’t guarantee that any mother’s helper isn’t also trotting here, there, and everywhere, masks and distancing be damned.

Nevertheless, I’m to submit which day(s) and shift(s) I might be able to be on-site. I cannot possibly be the only academic struggling with this scheduling matrix nightmare.

How are you handling this? What are the conversations looking like for you, at your work?

Keep Failing Forward

When it comes to failing, where do you tend to assign blame? Knowing academics, I’m guessing that you tend to blame yourself (because often that’s true).

Let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say you are competing for a job that you really want. You put forth the effort to write a strong cover letter and tailor your resume. You get a call for a phone interview. You start to accept that this might really happen. You get an in-person interview. You give a great interview. You are charming, you’re personable, you have strong answers prepared, and you’re sensing that the committee liked you. After you leave, you start thinking that “this could be it! I might finally get the job I deserve!” You even start to publicly tell your references and circle that you did really well, and you are waiting for an offer any minute.

And then, you get the rejection email.

What’s your reaction?

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Are We In For a Recession? What does that Mean for your Job Search?

I am not an economist. And my crystal ball is permanently broken. But judging by an uptick in anxiety, stress, and a heightened sense of “oh, crap! I NEED to land a new job before a recession” in my inbox, it seems like all the news that a recession may be coming are taking their toll.

Again – I’ll repeat – I know NOTHING and am in no way qualified to talk about whether a recession is coming. I strongly urge you to defer to real experts in the economy. Who can tell you far better than I can whether we’re headed for a recession. Who know what on earth a yield curve is or why it’s inversion matters.

But I do have

  • emails from 2 folks saying their team is getting the axe (Layoffs)
  • loads of requests from folks looking for a new job – for all kinds of reasons. But a big theme seems to be “my workload is overwhelming me. My employer isn’t doing ANYTHING to reduce it!” which sounds to me like their employers are scaling back on hiring.
  • email from people who have been looking for a while (3+ months) and are getting more worried & discouraged (sigh! I feel ya! )

So what’s my inbox like? Should I job hunt before a recession hits? Do I just take the first offer that comes along, presuming it’s going to get rougher? Is there any point keeping up a job hunt during a recession?

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