Dr. Karen Pedersen, Dean Kansas State University Global Campus, reached out after reading my piece 9 Reasons Why Campus Online Learning Teams Should Be Permanently Remote.
In her email, Karen wrote:
“If you are interested in learning more about how we are doing that at Kansas State University within our online learning unit (referred to as Global Campus), I would be very interested in talking with you further. We have been working on our plan for several months, engaging with university leadership, and it was recently announced that Global Campus is the university’s “pilot” for permanent remote operations. We are giving up our building lease for a 20,000 sq ft building on June 30th and shifting our operations to a permanently remote workforce. It has been a journey, but we are excited about the opportunities ahead of us and many of your 9 reasons were part of our framework for this move.”
To dig further into what is going on at KSU, Karen agreed to answer some follow-up questions.
Q1: First, can you tell us some about K-State Online and Global Campus?
Throughout its 55-year history, Global Campus has had different names and iterations. The unit has always offered courses and programs to learners at a distance from one of the K-State’s three campuses through technology-mediated modalities with an entrepreneurial approach. Today, Global Campus is the home of K-State Online which includes over 100 online programs from an associate degree in Web Development Technology to a doctoral degree in Personal Financial Planning and just about everything in between. Programs cross over all eight academic colleges at K-State. Enrollment in K-State Online courses was over 12,200 (over 81,200 credit hours) in FY20 and it continues on an upward trajectory.
Q2: Tell us about KSU’s decision to shift the Global Campus team to be permanently remote? What was the process to figure this out, and what are the factors that drove that decision?
The idea of Global Campus moving to a permanent remote work structure was generated as we addressed budget challenges in mid-2020. Going remote would result in ending a lease on a 20,000 square foot building. This change would address budget challenges by offering approximately $200,000 savings annually. While budget implications were an initial benefit identified from this move, other more impactful benefits were identified through the discovery process. After having successfully and seamlessly moved to remote operations at the start of the pandemic, while maintaining a high level of productivity, we felt Global Campus was an excellent unit for consideration to move permanently remote.
In September of 2020, I charged three working groups with exploring the potential for a remote work structure. One looked at remote work best practices and benefits across industries. The second working group explored remote work from the staff member’s perspective. Staff were surveyed on their perceptions and preferences for/against a remote work structure for Global Campus. Of those who responded to the staff survey, 87% indicated a preference for a remote work environment. The third working group involved Global Campus leadership in an exploration of unit workflows and potential business impacts for permanent remote work. Insights from these working groups were shared at a Global Campus Update meeting which included all staff.
Based on this initial discovery and the related outcomes, I then tasked another working group to build off of the first phase and develop a proposal for remote work. The group included representatives from all affected units but was small, with only six members, to maintain agility. The proposal was shared with leadership and Global Campus staff then presented to the Provost for approval.
With approval from the Provost, the university re-worked our somewhat dated telecommuting policy into an updated remote work policy. Policy development required engagement of multiple groups across the institution including Human Capital Services, the Division of Financial Services, Provost’s Office, the Deans Council, the President’s Cabinet, the Office of General Council, University Facilities, Information Technology, and the Division of Communications and Marketing. The new policy is not yet available to the entire institution, but Global Campus is approved as the pilot for the policy in order to meet the June 30 deadline for giving up the building lease.
Global Campus is maintaining a small centrally located campus footprint of about 1,000 square feet, which will provide hoteling space for staff as they attend on-campus meetings and events, a small technology-enabled space for meeting with campus partners and a student employee work location for peer recruiters and advisors as it is often more convenient for them to work at an on-campus location between classes.
Q3: What advice or insights might you be able to offer to other universities that are thinking about shifting to a more remote workforce? Are online learning teams the only candidate for this shift, or do you think that remote working arrangements should be evaluated for other roles in higher education?
As a unit leader, it is important to have a shared vision with senior leadership. Is your institution even open to considering staff permanently working remote? Knowing your institution’s readiness is helpful in moving forward. We had an opportunity as our lease on our current building was set to expire at the end of June, so the timing last fall to get the conversation started was ideal.
Second, it is essential to understand what your staff are thinking. For Global Campus, our staff survey indicated a fairly overwhelming interest in permanently working remote. But it wasn’t 100%. So, listening to staff is critical. Given our work across the university, it was important for some staff that we had a “centrally located presence” on campus. Having a much smaller footprint with hoteling space when staff are on campus serves as that “presence” that was essential for some.
Next on my list would be lead time. You know your campus better than any one. So, what is the process flow through which a request like this will move? Be sure you plan for the time it will take to move through whatever approvals are needed. Does your campus have a telecommuting policy or will one need to be created? Plus, you need to plan time to vacate a space. What happens to all of the paper files, etc.? As noted above, we started in September and we are on track to be out of our building by June 30th. Your lead time may vary.
Finally, I would just be clear about the why. As noted, our move started as a financial one, but became so much more than that. I really appreciated the nine reasons you outlined in your article as they were considerations that we discussed. We anticipate the move to a remote work structure will allow us to hire a more diverse staff and to attract larger, more qualified pools of candidates than when employment was required to be in Manhattan, Kansas.
We are excited to be the first unit at Kansas State University to go permanently remote. Given that our learners are for the most part remote from the campus, our ability to seamlessly support them was a core consideration in our proposal and ultimately the decision. I do believe other higher education units could be viable for consideration to go permanently remote.