A couple of weeks ago I was teaching in the USF business building on a Tuesday, unusual since I normally teach on weekends. I arrived a little early and decided to stroll through the 3rd floor where the faculty offices are located to see how many people were around. I had been hearing from friends at other places that their departments remained empty after the pandemic. The same was true at USF. Sure, maybe a few people were in their offices with the door closed, but I saw few signs of life. This is a problem because to establish a department as a vibrant intellectual community, university faculty need to return to campus.
University Faculty Need to Return to Campus
I first started working hybrid in the 1980s before virtual work was possible. It was often on a Friday when I would set aside the day to work on research at home where I was free from distractions from colleagues and students. The internet allowed us to expand what could be done remotely, and over the years more and more faculty worked from home some days. However, every weekday there were people in the office. On days when I was on campus, I would generally join colleagues for lunch and it was rare that no one was available. The COVID lock down of 2020 put an end to work in the office when everyone was required to work virtually. Even though restrictions have long ended and we have gone back to face-to-face teaching, faculty are still working in isolation at home.
We are only beginning to understand the downside of virtual only. It can be a detriment to mental health as people are socially isolated from peers. This was especially difficult for children during the pandemic, but it has a negative impact on adults as well. For faculty, only seeing one another virtually makes it difficult to create a sense of community that is vital to developing a positive climate. Being able to talk to someone in person and breathe the same air enables us to build a good working relationship and trust that is difficult to do virtually. When I was in the office, I had access to faculty, students and staff, and they had access to me. This enabled me to interact in positive ways, such as
- Ask a question: There were times I needed information and a few steps away was a person who had the answer. The answer was far more informative than I could get in an email, and it was instantaneous. This also got me up from my chair and get a little light exercise.
- Answer a question: Unless I was under a tight deadline, I worked with my door open. Colleagues and especially students would sometimes poke a head in to ask a question. I usually learned something in trying to help them, and an occasional break was welcome.
- Mentor a student: Sometimes a student would come by to ask a question and that wound up a bigger discussion that provided mentoring.
- Receive mentoring: As a young faculty member I would often seek advice of senior faculty who were only steps away.
- Socializing new faculty: New faculty need mentoring and socialization to help them transition from being a doctoral student to being a faculty member. Sometimes this happens in conversations, but often it happens as they observe senior faculty in action.
- Getting to know one another: It is difficult to get to know someone when you’ve only met their pixels. Virtual meetings tend to be more formal and task-focused, especially when you don’t know someone. The informal chit-chat so necessary for understanding someone and building trust is lost.
Teams and Zoom meetings serve an important communication function, but they are not equivalent to face-to-face interaction. What is lost is the organic nature of interactions when people are in one-another’s presence. What was surprising to me in 2020 when our meetings went virtual was that the informal catch-up with colleagues that happened before (including welcome handshakes and hugs) and after was gone, and the “get to know you” chat with new colleagues was gone as well.
Coaxing Faculty Back to Campus
The pandemic forced everyone to work from home, but there has been no transition back to the office. Since no one is coming in, there is no reason for anyone to come in, and a return to campus has not occurred organically. In order for this to happen university administration needs to come up with a strategy to entice faculty to return. I am not talking about enforced on-campus policies, as some companies have done, that would create resentment and be counter-productive. I am talking about giving faculty reasons to come to campus that could serve as a catalyst. This might include the following events that can only be attended face-to-face:
- Free lunch: Departments could have monthly catered lunches on campus and invite all faculty to attend. This could be extended to doctoral students, depending on their numbers.
- Brown-bag talks: Prior to the pandemic my old department had research talks on Friday afternoons. The IO psychology group would have a post-talk happy hour afterwards.
- Research networking event: Since before the pandemic, the USF business school has had research networking events that attracted faculty from across the college and the university. I met many people at these events.
- Training sessions for faculty. There are many topics that faculty are interested in learning about that could be done in a group setting. Workshops on popular methodologies are one possibility. One year the psychology department had a session with our university IRB people where we got to discuss issues and ask questions. It drew a lot of faculty because attendance met the continuing education requirement, and it was far more informative than doing the normal online CITI refresher course.
- Meet the new faculty event: In early fall there could be one or more events where new faculty got to meet the senior faculty.
- Discussions with faculty about the value of being in the office. Involve the faculty in coming up with ideas for events/activities that would lure them to campus.
It is hard to imagine being a new faculty member and having little opportunity to meet colleagues. Some across the country have told me of feeling isolated and stressed working mainly from home. A friend on sabbatical as a visiting scholar told me about asking an assistant professor for directions to a building only to be told that she didn’t know because in 3 years she had been on campus only a few times. Clearly this is a problem that will become worse as more new people are hired who never get to know their colleagues and experience campus life. University faculty need to return to campus for themselves, their colleagues, and their students.
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