Campus News

More work to be done

As Carolina prepares for a July 19 return to campus for those who have worked remotely throughout the pandemic, nearly 500 University employees attended Tuesday’s Employee Forum town hall, with many expressing concerns about going back.

Campus scenes on August 11, 2020, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)
A campus scene from summer 2020. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

With less than a month to go before most University employees return to work on campus, almost 500 people tuned in for an online town hall discussion with questions and concerns about the process.

University Ombuds Dawn Osborne-Adams facilitated the town hall event, which was sponsored by the Employee Forum.

“There is very little that is as compelling as a person speaking honestly about what is most important to them,” Osborne-Adams said. “There’s no panel of experts here, but I’m going to say we have almost 500 experts in this meeting. And what you’re experts about is your own experience.”

The event was structured around four questions that the Employee Forum had posed to employees in an online survey:

  • concerns about return to campus plans,
  • lessons learned from working through the pandemic,
  • applications of the lessons learned and
  • ways to rebuild community and return to campus safely.

The survey results and employee feedback at the town hall will go into an Employee Forum report for University leadership.

In typed comments in the Q&A box and remarks shared live on screen, employees expressed frustration at a leadership decision that they said doesn’t seem to take into account their success in improving productivity and work-life balance while working remotely, among other concerns.

The Employee Forum-hosted event comes as University leaders prepare to welcome the bulk of Carolina’s approximately 12,300 employees back to campus next month. In April, University leaders announced plans to have employees who have been largely working remotely since March 2020 return to campus July 19 in preparation for the return of students and the commencement of a normal fall semester in August.

“Our hope is that by providing this date now, employees currently working remotely have sufficient time to prepare for a full campus return,” said the April 21 message, signed by Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin and Vice Chancellor for Human Resources and Equal Opportunity and Compliance Becci Menghini.

Since then, Facilities Services has inspected buildings across campus and scheduled cleanings in preparation for the large-scale return of Carolina’s workforce. The University is currently reviewing applications for a hybrid remote-work program to be trialed this fall. Earlier this month, the Office of Human Resources launched a Returning to Work on Campus website to answer questions and help employees navigate this transition.

For 90 minutes Tuesday, employees took advantage of the opportunity to vent and share their thoughts on the return to campus. Concerns included:

  • frustration at the perceived abruptness and rigidity of the July 19 date,
  • distress that they and unit-level managers were not consulted about the decision,
  • desire for continued work flexibility,
  • worry that they will lose the work-life balance achieved during the pandemic,
  • fear about health risks for themselves and family members,
  • concern about cost and inconvenience of commuting and parking and
  • anxiety about the uncertainty of the future and impact on their mental health.

Flexibility was one of the most common themes from attendees. “All the managers in my office wanted a flexible working policy, to do three days in and two days remote,” said one attendee. “We need realistic and compassionate decision-making in these policies and not something that is a one-size-fits-all approach.”

“I don’t feel that UNC has learned any lessons because it’s obvious that not every position requires an on-campus presence,” said one attendee. “Why go back to a model that’s not serving us when we have shown that we can serve our constituents without having to be in the office every day?”

An attendee who has a toddler at home said that she appreciated the work-life balance she achieved during the pandemic. “We can work toward something new and something better that works for everyone,” she said. “We have proven our efficiency and effectiveness over the last 13 or 14 months. It gives us more flexibility and more freedom.”

Others called for a more staggered return to full-time work on campus to ease the transition back from remote working conditions. “We have lived through a traumatic experience. And you can’t process trauma when you’re living in it,” said one attendee. “The idea that we’re being asked to ramp up very quickly to eight hours a day, five days a week doesn’t give us the mental space” needed to deal with “the reality of our lived experience.”

Participants also brought up concerns about mask wearing, physical distancing, air quality and the time required to get buildings ready for full-time occupation again. “Now that leadership has expressed an interest in having a campus presence,” one attendee said, “that one-day shift may not be a good solution.”

At the end of the meeting, Employee Forum Chair Shayna Hill summed up next steps and thanked participants. “Our mission is to actively seek out concerns and address them constructively with administration, so we can’t do that without hearing from you,” she said. “Thank you very much for your candor, your honesty and your courage for coming and sharing with us today.”

Employees will have another opportunity to ask questions and share concerns about the return to campus at two hour-long information sessions hosted by the Office of Human Resources next week. A session on June 29 at 3 p.m. is for managers and supervisors, while a session June 30 at 2 p.m. is for all University employees. Participants who register and submit questions in advance will receive an email with a link for the YouTube session.

For a recording of the June 22 town hall, visit the Employee Forum website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a more accurate number of full-time employees, approximately 12,300.