The UC Women in Tech Committee wishes to start an honest conversation with you about how UC can better support and retain female technology staff. The purpose of this letter is to help managers and leaders create a more diverse and healthy workplace. Not every idea presented here will apply to every situation or workplace, but it is hoped that managers can use a number of these suggestions to adapt to this new world of work.
CURRENT STATE OF UC IT
In the post-pandemic world, staff are increasingly stressed and have more options than ever to take jobs elsewhere.
In the virtual or hybrid work world, the increased demand for technology has required staff to support new technologies almost “overnight;” to do more and offer more technology, but stop nothing; and like everyone, to make huge adaptations in their personal lives. Female staff in particular are burning out, quitting their jobs, taking jobs with more flexibility, looking for better or different opportunities, and simply leaving the workforce completely.
The world absolutely changed in March 2020. Work will never be the same. UC’s high standard of excellence depends in part on expert and dedicated technology staff. But it is not clear that UC has yet truly changed its approach to work and to supporting and retaining diverse and skilled technology staff for continued excellence.
There are bigger workloads and people feel like they never get a break.
The UC WIT Committee has been a source of strength and support for our community throughout the pandemic. We hear especially from families who are struggling with school and daycare changes, as well as the stress of supporting the transition back to onsite work. They share the common anxieties and concerns that so many are experiencing during this atypical time for humanity.
But since the winter break, our conversations turn more and more to the issue of increasing work stress impacting members’ job or function as a contributing team member. As more staff leave, those who remain are required to take on larger workloads, back filling for colleagues who have left and supporting the transition back to onsite / hybrid work. Perhaps of deeper concern, is the fact that many staff report feeling a lack of enthusiasm and energy for their work – feeling as if they never get a break.
UC must be able to recruit and retain top IT talent, which means talent that is diverse in lived experiences, culture, and background. Employees can expect to work hard, tackle challenges, and rise to the occasion when necessary. At the same time, we have a responsibility to envision a culture that supports staff, does not perpetually overwork them, and enables them to balance their work and personal lives.
The post-March 2020 UC retention strategy needs an overhaul, per this excerpt from the CUPA-HR article Higher Education Workforce Challenges and Opportunities posted on the EDUCAUSE website in July 2021:
“Returning to ‘business as usual’ is not the strategy that will help us recruit, retain, and engage talented colleagues who could quickly be whisked away by the corporate sector, another college or university, or other local employers that adopt more forward-thinking approaches to work and commitment to their employees.”
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MOVING FORWARD
Let’s create a better approach to work to retain talented female staff and maintain UC excellence.
We hope to start a UC-wide conversation on what we can all do to truly change how we support female staff in this ever-changing work environment. Here are a few ideas to begin the conversation. Most don’t require funding, but rather a change in mindset. Perhaps culture shift can begin by selecting just a few things from the list and adding in others in time?
- Prioritization. Clearly prioritize effort and clearly make decisions to not do some work. Priorities should be made with female staff attrition and burnout in mind, and to provide staff with dedicated focus time on the identified priorities.
- Project Timing. Consider staggering the timing of strategic initiatives, reorganizations, system rollouts, compliance, and policy changes so that teams are not juggling too much at once.
- What’s Working. New UC leaders and managers need to take time to learn current systems and programs that work well and that they may build upon.
- Burnout. Demonstrate explicit leadership support for tangible changes to address burnout vs. just talking about it. Acknowledgment of the challenges with staff is welcome but ultimately hollow if nothing actually changes.
- Remote work. Recognize and learn how to offer and support remote work as it is critical to attracting, recruiting, and retaining a diverse campus workforce.
“…those at the top of the hierarchy making decisions about post-pandemic return-to-work plans are typically white, male executives. And it’s perhaps not surprising that they are most likely to say they would prefer to work full-time in a traditional office environment… those who opt out of the office at the greatest rates (including women and working parents as well as people of color) may be the most harmed by “proximity bias,” or preferential treatment shown to people who work physically together. Without careful consideration to counter this effect, remote employees could miss out on networking opportunities, stretch assignments, promotions, and career advancement.”
(Why Flexible Work Is Essential to Your DEI Strategy, by Sheela Subramanian and Ella F. Washington, Harvard Business Review, February 2022)
- Flexible schedules. Increase or support continued flexibility in schedules, hours, and location where work occurs. Recognize that the key to retaining female staff now is supporting their personal preference about where they work and, if possible, the times of day. This approach may help everyone focus more on productivity rather than being tied to a typical Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. mentality. Schedule flexibility is also key for caregivers, whether families juggling care for children or aging loved ones.
- Family friendly equity. Ensure that policies, practices, and language extend family flexibility and expectations to all staff.
- Expectations for downtime. Clarify expectations for when people are available. Turn off notifications in Slack after work hours. Email or Slack sent outside of work hours should be queued to send later. Respect time zones for remote employees.
- Female staff engagement. Actively invite female staff to help plan this new workforce culture, including iterations and adjustments. Ensure engagement from women and, in particular, BIPOC women. Many have been disproportionately and adversely impacted during the COVID-19 crisis due to childcare and other responsibilities. Implement practices that help female staff feel seen and heard.
- Authentic communications. Be careful in communications to avoid platitudes and instead strive for authenticity. Be sincere and follow through. Be the model of the changes so urgently needed. Commit to making an explicit change and inviting other leaders to join you.
- Transparent Listening. Practice transparency and regular communications to keep staff in the loop. Set up listening sessions, alternating with town-hall type information-sharing sessions. Promote a culture of feedback, and create regular opportunities for staff to be able to be open and create space where critical or negative comments aren’t taboo.
Support for Teams
- Equity for remote/on-site. Model and encourage equity between on-site vs. remote employees including alternatives for informal mentoring, ‘facetime’ with leadership, planning career paths for remote employees, equipment refreshes, and desktop support.
- Personal time. Protect vacation time; where feasible, schedule important events during prime work months rather than summer or Thanksgiving through winter break.
- Thinking time. Support mental health days once per quarter or as needed based on your ‘read of the room.’ We are not suggesting a day off work necessarily, we are suggesting a day at work where people have time to reflect or think strategically.
- Cross training. Support professional development and business continuity by cross-training teams and, where possible, backfilling with temporary staff so no team is called to do too much for too long.
- Less busy work. Look for ways to reduce busy work. Perhaps reevaluate time-tracking systems if that data is not used. Or simplify approval processes. Not every action needs to be a committee decision.
- Mindful scheduling. Follow mindful business practices around scheduling meetings and allowing for production time. Consider whether routine (weekly/monthly) meetings are needed. Create a culture change that accepts cancellation of meetings if agendas are light.
- Fed 50. Adopt shorter meeting times, e.g. meetings that are 25 or 50 minutes. Or consider the “Fed 50” used at some federal agencies: starting a meeting 5 minutes after the hour, and ending it 5 minutes before the hour, e.g. 9:05 AM – 9:55 AM.
- Friday light. Make Fridays “meeting-light,” allowing staff to work individually, or connect less formally with colleagues. This also creates more opportunity for our staff organizations and communities of practice to come together, or to allow staff to schedule personal-care appointments.
None of us know exactly what the post-pandemic workplace will look like, but we can imagine a few of the components. We would welcome the chance for female staff to partner with leadership in developing new positive approaches for shaping this environment which will, of course, evolve as our understanding evolves of how we can best work in the hybrid/remote workspace.