How One University Is Trying to Help Its Employees Protect Their Personal Time | #itsecurity | #infosec

Friday afternoons off. Sending emails only during work hours. Safeguarding vacation time.

These are among the burnout-prevention and retention efforts Cornell University is testing on faculty and staff members this summer.

The policies will be in place for six weeks in June and July for benefits-eligible Cornell employees, and are intended to thank the university’s work force for its efforts during “a time of continued stress and strain,” as administrators put it in an email announcing the program. It’s also, one expert said, part of a larger rethinking of work norms in academe, which have generally lagged behind workplace reforms in the broader economy.

“This has been a pretty remarkable couple of years, and we really wanted to acknowledge that,” said Mary George Opperman, vice president and chief human-resources officer at Cornell, noting that many Cornell employees have had to contend with Covid-related health and care-giving barriers, in addition to the changing nature of their work on a campus that has been operating through a pandemic. Some, she said, have also had to shoulder the workloads of departing colleagues, as Cornell faces faculty and staff turnover.

Along with decreeing that Friday afternoons are off — or allowing those whose work doesn’t allow them to be offline to take equivalent time off — Cornell is hoping to foster a greater commitment to work-life balance. “Managers are encouraged to support their teams with uninterrupted vacation and personal time,” the email to faculty and staff members, signed by the president, the provost, and Opperman, read. “Email, instant messages, Zoom invitations and meetings can and should wait for employees’ return to work.”

Cornell administrators also want their employees to be more judicious about after-hours communication with colleagues. “Drafting an email, then waiting to send until the next business day, will go a long way to demonstrating respect for staff members’ personal time,” the message said. (Or, as the writer Anne Helen Petersen, who tweeted about the Cornell policy, put it, “delay send! delay send!”)

Some units at Cornell are also considering not holding meetings on Fridays, the administrators’ email said. (A pilot program at Washington State University, which began in February, also recommends against scheduling standing meetings on Fridays.)

Feedback has been positive so far, Opperman said, and while the policy is intended for this summer only, Cornell will consider revisiting it based on the results.

‘More-Balanced Lives’

Other colleges have for years adopted less-formal versions of the policy, like closing an hour early on Fridays, said Margaret W. Sallee, an associate professor of higher-education leadership and policy at the University at Buffalo. And D’Youville College, also in Buffalo, N.Y., is piloting a four-day work week, wherein employees clock in for eight-hour shifts rather than working 7.5 hours five days a week. But Sallee said she hasn’t seen an institutionwide policy like Cornell’s that grants all employees an afternoon off, without asking them to make up that time elsewhere.

That Cornell is a quasi-private institution might make such a change easier to carry out. Union contracts that stipulate how many hours constitute a work week could prevent some of its public counterparts from adopting “summer Fridays,” Sallee said.

Taking Friday afternoons off may be the most concrete action from Cornell’s message to faculty and staff members, but urging employees to reconsider practices like meetings and emails points to a broader purpose. For Sallee, it marks “a more holistic, larger move toward, How do we help folks have slightly more-balanced lives, in terms of reclaiming some of their their personal time?” That question is especially salient in summer, when some higher-ed functions slow down, she said.

And it’s an important one to ask, especially as higher ed struggles with employee disillusionment, burnout, and turnover. In the beginning of the pandemic, Sallee said institutions went into a sort of triage mode: “Everybody was so panicked about losing students, and asking faculty and staff to support students.”

But in the past year, she’s seen that focus shift. “Institutions are starting to notice how burned out their faculty and staff are, and realizing, just from a business perspective, that if they don’t pay attention to supporting them, they’re going to leave,” she said. There’s some evidence that an exodus has already begun. For example, staff turnover at the University of North Carolina system spiked between July 2021 and January 2022 — it was 77 percent higher than in the same time frame last year — according to system data.

The measures Cornell proposed have all been adopted to some extent in the corporate world. “When we look at what industry is doing, we are losing people. It’s not enough to get Friday afternoons off in the summer,” Sallee said. “But it’s a needed move to try and begin to retain the talent that is leaving higher ed in droves.”

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