Is Your Administration Building Obsolete?

By Lucy Leske

Can campus leaders administrate from afar?

Eighteen months ago, COVID-19 sent most administrators home to work remotely. Some of them will never go back to work in a campus office, and a significant number of others wish they didn’t have to.

What if they stayed away? What if the administration building was repurposed into classrooms, labs, and studios? Is it possible for administrators to lead a college or university from their remote devices, anywhere on the planet? Can an institution attract a stronger, more diverse leadership team if it doesn’t matter where they work?

Such questions have cropped up more and more as the global pandemic has persisted and campus leaders have had time to mull over how they might accomplish their work differently once it’s over. As an executive recruiter, I regularly talk with presidents and vice presidents so I asked some of them to reflect on the future of administrative work for this essay.

COVID-19 has taught us, they said, that it’s simply not as essential to carry out many administrative tasks and processes in person as we once thought.

My fellow recruiters and I have worked with search committees, boards, and campus leaders to adapt to a virtual hiring environment. Plenty of institutions have hired candidates in the past 18 months without ever meeting them in person. Some administrators “arrived” for Day 1 on the job without leaving their homes — participating remotely in onboarding, orientation, and meetings for much of the first year of their tenures. They executed plans, enrolled students, raised money, and oversaw building construction — all via videoconferencing.

No distance too great. 

It helps to remember that remote leadership is not new. Long before the pandemic, many industries, including higher education, had chief executives who were not in the office day in and day out. Videoconferencing and telemeetings also were nothing new. What was new in 2020: Everyone on campus — students, professors, financial-aid staff members, trustees — had to adapt to remote work, whether they wanted to or not.

The presidents I’ve worked with since early 2020 have figured out how to operate from their homes. Some have worked hundreds of miles from their campus, even in other states or countries. They and their teams have discovered that no distance is too great when you have a phone, a laptop, and a reliable internet connection.

Now that campuses and administration buildings are reopening — albeit under mask and vaccination mandates — plenty of folks are wondering whether a remote leadership team could be the new normal.

For Domenico Grasso, chancellor of University of Michigan at Dearborn, the experience of remote administration was mostly positive. Over the course of the pandemic, team members would come to the campus once or twice a week for socially distanced group meetings and team-building activities, but they mostly worked from home. Grasso believes that the added flexibility actually increased productivity, improved quality of life (by, for example, reducing commute time), and decreased pressure on everything from work-life balance to campus parking. Remote work and more flexibility have been beneficial, too, he said, for staff and faculty members, many of whom have significant commutes. Not being on the campus five days a week created a lot of win-wins.

Remote leadership does not have to be all or nothing.

Suzanne Rivera, president of Macalester College, in Minnesota, does not envision hiring — by design — senior administrators who would work entirely remotely because the essence of the small, residential, liberal-arts college is “togetherness.” That said, she and her team have learned that working from a remote location intermittently can be effective. Thus, each senior leader at the college will have the flexibility to take occasional work-from-home days and work-related travel days.

How well leading from afar works may depend just as much on the position as the person. Anthony Collins, president of Clarkson University, in upstate New York, said its interim chief financial officer — who was hired, and has operated, remotely — worked out very well. The same is true of Clarkson’s information-technology team. Those positions lent themselves well to remote work.

However, Collins notes, it’s difficult to learn institutional culture when you are not working alongside team members in person. “If you already know everyone,” Collins says, switching to remote leadership “works great — at least for a time.” But shared cultural understanding lasts only so long when interactions all take place online. And it’s hard for everyone, no matter how long they’ve worked on a campus, to overcome the barrier of the Zoom screen. If we learned one thing last year, it’s that a “people person” would much rather be with others than at home, and vice versa. Intuitive people who lead by getting a sense of the room or by feel have had a pretty hard time of it.

The challenge of culture. 

Learning campus culture is challenging for new hires even when working in person. Most of the leaders I spoke with were skeptical that it could be learned remotely. Needless to say, during the worst of COVID-19, the times demanded just that. There was no choice. Hundreds of presidents and administrators who began their tenures in 2019 or 2020 spent the majority of their time working from home. The orientation and onboarding process — normally conducted in person through a series of one-on-ones, group meetings, informal gatherings, formal events, and other means — had to be done through technology. A lot of information changed hands, but it was still tough to get a feel for people.

Leslie Cornick said her onboarding as the new dean of the School of STEM at the University of Washington at Bothell was largely successful because her new colleagues understood how difficult it would be to start while fully remote, and rose to the challenge. They went out of their way to be welcoming. “It was a lot to digest,” she said. A process that might have lasted months pre-COVID was compressed into weeks with one meeting after another on Zoom. It was exhausting, but the intense immersion helped her feel part of the community very quickly. It remains to be seen whether this experience of remote orientation and onboarding has lasting effects, positive or negative.

Ultimately, the remote-leadership experiences of college and university chief executives and administrators over the past 18 months have been mixed. Zoom has transformed the team meeting into a more efficient leadership tool. There is less socializing and more emphasis on getting the agenda completed, if only to reduce video time. There is less of a tendency to linger after a meeting. The downside of that is the loss of crucial in-person conversations — water-cooler impromptus and hallway tête-à-têtes. If there is no administration building, senior leaders have to engineer the conversations that build relationships and culture and that lead to the informal mentoring and networking that are essential for executive success.

Remote work as a recruiting tool. 

The tradeoff of togetherness for the convenience of leading from home has won converts. It is therefore no surprise that those of us in executive recruiting are seeing an uptick in candidates asking whether a job opening allows for part- or full-time remote work.

Matthew K. Eynon, vice president for advancement at Franklin & Marshall College, understands the importance of working in person at a small college that is all about residential life. Nevertheless, he knows many executives outside higher education who function well working from home and attending meetings in the company headquarters as the need arises. Those meetings become essential to build personal connections and learn institutional culture.

In recruiting good people, he said, if it means the difference between hiring and retaining a highly qualified fund raiser who needs or prefers to stay in Los Angeles versus a less-experienced person who is able to relocate to the campus in rural Pennsylvania, he would opt for the remote worker. That’s a shift he hopes his college will make going forward. Like fantasy football — a game in which participants assemble the best team with players from the entire NFL roster — the possibilities of building a dream team from people living anywhere in the country or around the world are enticing.

Offering a remote-work option can make a difference in recruiting and retaining talent, agree Andy Brantley and Rob Shomaker of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. In a recent white paper on workplace challenges in academe, they wrote, “Employers who intentionally incorporate some level of flexibility will be the employers who more competitively recruit and retain employees at all levels of the organization. The private sector is embracing remote and hybrid work as part of its strategy. We must also do so.”

Colleges and universities are not competing just with one another to recruit and retain talent, they are also competing with other labor sectors. Mission may trump compensation for some candidates, but it may not trump the flexibility and work-life balance that competitors are offering to executive talent.

Unintended consequences for remote leaders. 

Whether the option to work from home increases an institution’s access to a more diverse talent pool is an interesting question. Many people with whom I spoke for this essay have seen an uptick in interest from candidates who otherwise would not consider relocating — from, for instance, an urban to a rural setting.

Can a remote-leadership option help institutions attract greater diversity to their leadership teams?

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College, in Connecticut, is skeptical that a remote-work option can truly increase diversity on the leadership team. Effective policies to hire, retain, and promote women and people of color who choose remote work are critical. “My concern about remote work,” she said, “is whether we can apply rules consistently and equitably. I’m not convinced that we can come up easily with equitable practices that don’t adversely affect women, people of color, and those on the lower end of the social-economic spectrum.”

Historically, women and people of color have been disadvantaged by limited access to support systems, networking, informal leadership development, and mentoring. Being away from the campus could exacerbate that tendency, she said, adding, “Fully remote workers are likely to lag behind on promotions and eventually feel less vested in the institution.” Worse, others may perceive remote colleagues as less vested and pass them over. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Taking all of that into consideration,” she said, “the work and the needs of the workers should drive the remote-work practice, and that will vary across an institution.”

Outside higher education, many industries and organizations have cracked the code on building community as well as attracting a diverse leadership team, even when the work is largely remote. Jenny Rickard, president and chief executive of the Common Application and formerly chief enrollment officer for the University of Puget Sound and Bryn Mawr College, predicts that as higher education evolves, post-COVID, travel budgets will diminish, office space will shrink, and campus space will be repurposed.

Furthermore, focused, intentional culture-building doesn’t have to happen only on the campus. At the Common App, most of the leadership team and employees work remotely. In fact, the entire organization has shifted to virtual-first — meaning that employees come to its Arlington, Va., office or travel for work events only if they choose to do so. That’s a big draw when you’re trying to attract top-notch talent in our pandemic-transformed environment.

Still, while culture-building doesn’t have to happen only in the office, it can be more difficult to achieve when people aren’t meeting in person regularly. Rickard and colleagues are working through these challenges in real time, planning community-building meetings in which people spend time understanding what’s going on in the organization, as well as social activities to see and get to know one another.

A fully remote team.

Whether it is possible to lead remotely depends to a great extent on the leader and the willingness of the institution to adapt. Cost and the talent pool will drive more and more institutions to consider hiring remote leaders. At the African Leadership University, remote leadership is not just a post-COVID reality, it is essential. The entire leadership team, including its president and founder, Fred Swaniker, are spread across the African continent, Europe, and the United States. As the university was building its leadership team, it didn’t matter where people were located. What mattered was that new hires were the best leaders available. All of their work is remote, with the exception of the chief of student affairs on each of the university’s two campuses.

“The African Leadership University is one real-world answer to the following hypothetical question: What would you create if you could build a college from scratch?” wrote Brian Rosenberg, president emeritus of Macalester College and president in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in a November white paper. “In this instance, absence and scarcity — of buildings, of programs, even of endowed funding sources — [brings] freedom and flexibility.”

To make that work, the entire leadership team huddles daily online for 15 minutes. In these brief sessions — informal with no agenda — team members share personal and professional updates. Those conversations enable team-building on a regular basis — maybe even more frequently than would be the case if everyone was gathered together on a campus. Weekly meetings are thoughtfully structured. Everyone has a role. A rotating facilitator runs the sessions, someone is assigned an inspiring story to tell, and everyone gets down to business. Rosenberg reports a surprising level of honesty and transparency among the group, which is enabled by the technology, not impeded by it. He reports, in fact, that they get far more done and get to know each other better than if they were to attempt physical meetings. Most of the leadership have never met each other in person.

Rosenberg predicts that institutions will increasingly face tradeoffs when recruiting and retaining talent, no matter the position. “The single greatest impediment to attracting outstanding leadership is location,” he said. “Outside of the big-name institutions, most colleges and universities have neither the brand strength nor the resources to tap the highest-quality talent pool.”

If presidents and other top administrators are open to using technology in running their institution, remote leadership will be as common to higher-education leadership as it is in other industries.

In other words, don’t plan the demolition of the administration building just yet. Rather, reimagine its future.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to republish has been granted.