Dear Members of the Brown Community,
I am writing to provide an update on planning for return-to-campus operations in time for the start of the fall semester and to share the principles and values guiding Brown’s decisions around the future of remote and hybrid work for Brown staff.
As I shared with the community in my April 6 letter, because of rapid improvements in the public health situation and the widespread availability of effective COVID-19 vaccines, Brown is planning to return to the traditional two-semester academic calendar and mostly in-person operations beginning in Fall 2021. Based on discussions with Brown’s public health and medical experts, as well as the Rhode Island Department of Health, we plan to return to significant on-site operations on August 16, with the goal of nearly all faculty, staff and students returning to campus in some capacity by the beginning of the fall semester.
We know that this “return to normal” raises a host of questions about the return to campus for currently-remote employees, and specifically whether some employees who are currently working remotely will have the opportunity to continue to work remotely or in hybrid form (partly in-person and partly remote). Later this week, a set of communications from the Future of Work Steering Committee will outline the policies that will guide units across campus in making determinations about how staff in academic and administrative areas transition to mostly in-person operations. Today, I want to share the principles driving these policies.
Brown’s approach to in-person and remote work
The issue of how best to blend in-person and remote work is complex. Many employees in essential on-site functions have been working on campus throughout the entire pandemic, while others have returned in recent months. Although many currently-remote employees are eager to return to campus, others would like the option of choosing a hybrid or remote schedule. I have heard from Brown employees who value both the flexibility and the reduced commuting time that comes with remote work, and who feel that their productivity has improved during the pandemic.
At the same time, the experience of the past 15 months has demonstrated that, while we can do many things remotely, it is extremely difficult to maintain the levels of collaboration, collegiality and sense of community that are core to Brown’s culture without being physically together. We also know that the dynamics of the new forms of collaboration that we have been able to achieve during the pandemic — assisted by various technology platforms and tools — may change when various colleagues are remote and others are on-site.
One of Brown’s great strengths is that it has a people-centered culture. Professional and personal relationships within and across academic and administrative units are vitally important to the functioning of the University. Newer employees learn from established employees through formal and informal mentoring. Students benefit from the personal relationships they establish with Brown faculty and staff. And the chance encounters and organic conversations that arise in unplanned interactions throughout the workday and outside of scheduled meetings promote collaboration and innovation. Even as we recognize the flexibility of some remote work, as we plan for the year ahead, we are sensitive to the reality that our people-centered culture cannot easily be nurtured, cultivated or sustained via Zoom screens.
For these reasons, we have decided to ask the majority of currently-remote employees to return to full-time campus work before the start of the fall term. Maintaining Brown’s strong sense of community and our collaborative environment is a priority as we plan for the year ahead. However, we are creating the possibility for some jobs to be done in hybrid or remote fashion when we can be certain that alternative ways of working will not negatively affect academic or administrative operations or disrupt the ability of others to do their work.
The Future of Work Steering Committee
In March, anticipating that Brown would return to a traditional two-semester model in the 2021-22 academic year, I charged the Future of Work Steering Committee (chaired by Executive Vice President Barbara Chernow and Vice President Shontay Delalue) to develop a new policy for enhanced Alternative Work Assignments for staff.
The development of the policy has been guided by the following principles:
- Protecting the health and safety of all employees and students;
- Sustaining a strong sense of community and maintaining a vibrant on-campus experience for students, staff and faculty, as well as others who engage with Brown;
- Safeguarding our collaborative and collegial culture and way of working;
- Supporting learning and growth opportunities to further our mission;
- Expanding workplace policies that enhance the productivity and well-being of employees while balancing the value-added nature of in-person interactions;
- Fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace;
- Remaining sensitive to external factors that may compel the need for remaining agile (government orders, school district closures, transportation resources, availability of caregiver options, and other considerations); and
- Advancing operational excellence in all that we do.
The new policies developed by the Steering Committee establish criteria and a process for positions to be classified as in-person or eligible for a supervisor to work with a staff member to explore either hybrid or remote status. These new classifications will become part of an enhanced Alternative Work Assignments (AWA) policy. At the core of the policy is the recognition that supervisors will have to work closely with their staff to envision a workplace that supports productivity and effective ways of working, efficiency in performing essential functions, and the ability and capacity of individual staff members to work effectively in alternative ways.
One of the most important aspects of the approach recommended by the Steering Committee is that it is equitable. The classification of positions as being eligible for consideration for remote or hybrid status will be determined by the requirements of the position and the operational needs of the unit and the constituents it serves. This approach ensures that employees in very similar roles will have the same options to apply for hybrid or remote work arrangements. University Human Resources (UHR) will work closely with supervisors to ensure that requests for enhanced Alternative Work Assignments are reviewed equitably.
Departments may choose to test alternative approaches as a pilot as we all learn together during this time of transition. Flexible work arrangements will continue to be subject to review every year, including the new categories of Alternative Work Assignments.
Supervisors will receive a communication this week outlining details of the new policy, the roles and responsibilities of supervisors in implementing the policy with their staff, and how UHR will support supervisors throughout the process. This will be followed by a communication to all employees that explains the new policy and processes for staff. For faculty, the provost shared information last week about applying for exceptions to the requirement that faculty be on campus for normal in-person attendance to perform their regular duties, including advising and mentoring students and participating in University and departmental activities and events.
We understand that the new policies for flexible work for staff may prompt many questions, and we will host a Staff Town Hall at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, June 15, to answer questions about return-to-campus planning. In addition, UHR is arranging additional forums for supervisors and employees to support the transition. We are committed to working together with supervisors and all employees to shape the future of work at Brown.
In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to seeing greater levels of activity on campus as we move toward the August 16 “return to normal” in preparation for the fall semester. Our plans continue to be based on the increasing pace of vaccinations against COVID-19 and the expectation that the vast majority of the Brown community will be vaccinated by the end of the summer. The health and well-being of our community remains our top priority as we continue to deliver an exceptional educational experience, pioneering research and scholarship, and excellence in our business operations.
Christina H. Paxson