Changing workforce at USask

COVID-19 has brought about many challenges for the world over the past 20 months, with one of the biggest being how we work.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Businesses had to move, almost overnight, to a remote work setting, most for the first time in their existence. When this shift happened, many business and workplaces, including the University of Saskatchewan, noticed something that they weren’t expecting. The rapid switch helped break down the cultural and technical barriers that existed and instead of productivity falling, it increased in many instances.

“There was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear over how this was going to work but once you get over that hump, the transition to remote working went fairly well and surprisingly smoothly,” said Gregory Power, chief operating officer in USask’s College of Medicine. “If you could go back in time to February of 2019, and asked us how might this work if no one was actually together, many would have thought it would have been a disaster. But in some respects, there were amazing efforts of people adapting to figure out how to keep the place running for our learners and our researchers so they could continue to do their work.”

What the pandemic has shown is that employees want, and expect, flexibility in their jobs, enhanced work-life balance and more consideration given to their mental and physical wellness. Results from USask’s PandemicEngagement Survey show that 92 per cent of employees would like the flexibility to balance work done on campus and remotely and that 45 per cent of employees would prefer to split their time remotely and on campus.

In response to what the university has learned  about the future of work, post-pandemic, USask has created a series of guidelines (Alternative Workspace Guidelines) for colleges and units to follow to determine future work arrangements in their areas. These guidelines outline what the post-pandemic workplace at the university will look like, including hybrid work and remote work, and feature an agreement (Alternative Workspace Agreement) that employees can use to formalize this process. The university’s HR team is also equipped to facilitate leaders and teams through these decisions.   

Power and other leaders in the College of Medicine have found these guidelines very useful in having discussions with their employees. With the college being  a highly distributed organization already, with more than 2,000 physicians working in clinical settings across the province, they wanted to push the decision-making to the edges of their organization where people could make choices that are best for their situation, rather than a one-size fits all approach.

“We are using the Alternative Workspace Agreement as a basis for a conversation with our employees,” said Power. “We want to put our employees in the middle of those discussions and figure it out.”

There are a number of factors that will need to be looked at for each employee before decision can be made regarding their future work arrangement. These include whether the person needs to physically be on-site to do their job, interact with others on a daily basis or use equipment or machinery that is located on campus. The key is to match the employee’s preference with what the organization needs to operate effectively. The university is encouraging employees, and their people leaders, to start having the discussions about how they will work post-pandemic, despite many still working from home because of the fourth wave.

“We’ve really embraced what the university’s approach was, which was get learners back and reinvigorate the teaching and learning,” said Power. “Get the people back who need to be back for that and do that safely and let’s not put any undue burden on our campus.”

He has also seen many positive changes in his employees since the start of the pandemic.

“We have seen people thrive in this setting, being able to juggle their work life better and that has made them happier,” said Power. “One of the things that has been interesting is that there has been this openness at work, that it is OK to step away from work and go to the dentist, for example. It has allowed people to say, I do have a life and I have to take my kids somewhere and I will be back in 30 minutes. There has been more authenticity about how people come to work.”