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If the entire staff of the Office of Sponsored Programs are in one place, it must be Wednesday. Other days of the week, individual team members work seamlessly from home. Photo by John Eisele, CSU Photography
Recruiting and retaining employees is a challenge for any business in today’s job market. When an organization like Colorado State University needs people with highly specialized skills, finding and keeping them becomes even more important. And it can take some flexibility and creative thinking to overcome issues that could cause good performers to leave.
The Office of Sponsored Programs, within the Office of the Vice President for Research, was facing just such a challenge last year.
Assistant Director Ashley Stahle said the office was about to lose one of their valued employees over housing issues in late 2018.
“She lives in Millikin, and got tired of the daily commute,” Stahle recalled. “We really didn’t want to lose her – she was one of our top performers – so we offered her the option of working from home. She accepted, but then we realized we needed procedures that would set guidelines for the whole department.”
While the State of Colorado and CSU support telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements, there is no university-wide policy. According to the Human Resources Manual, “Flexible work arrangements are encouraged whenever, in the discretion of the department or unit head, they will promote the productivity and efficiency of the work unit and enhance employees’ work-life integration.”
Stahle said the key to making teleworking even possible in the 36-person office was the adoption two years ago of an electronic file-sharing system. FileHold replaced the mountains of paper documentation previously stored in central filing cabinets and allowed everyone in the department to pull up relevant information from their own workstations.
“The Office of Sponsored Programs manages grants, contracts and cooperative agreements that support research on campus, cradle to grave, from developing proposals to submitting to sponsors, then tracking the expenses once the funding is received,” she explained. “For instance, in post-award, we work with research administrators across campus to monitor that the funds are received and appropriately spent, as well as that all reports are submitted in accordance to the terms and conditions of the award.”
Almost all communication between department staff and researchers, administrators and funders takes place over the phone or email, and there is very little unexpected walk-in traffic to the office that would limit the office’s ability to allow teleworking, according to Stahle.
“So, when we thought about it, no one should be able to tell if you were working on campus or somewhere else, as long as we maintain our professional level of service,” she said.
With encouragement from the director of OSP, Stahle researched how peers at other universities, in particular the University of Maryland and University of Colorado Boulder, had dealt with the issue. Then she convened a committee of people in the department who were interested in teleworking, and after about two months of discussion, with input from representatives from HR and the Office of the Vice President for Research, the guidelines were ready to roll out in February.
The OSP Telework Procedures and Agreement document spells out what types of jobs and employees are eligible for teleworking, computer equipment needed, supervisor approval standards, and monitoring of performance and productivity.
“The document makes it very clear that teleworking is not an employee right or benefit,” Stahle said. “It is completely voluntary on the part of the supervisor and employee, and can be cancelled at any time by either party for any reason.”
Employees who want to telework must provide their own equipment that meets department standards for connectivity and data security, and a space that is dedicated to a safe work environment. Everyone in the department is connected through Microsoft Teams for group chat and online meetings.
Stahle said that about five of the three dozen staff members have opted to work from home on a regular basis, either two or three days a week, and schedules can be adjusted based on the needs of the office. Teleworking is also available on a temporary or ad hoc basis, for example, in bad weather or after a medical leave.
“Everyone has their own relationship with work, and teleworking isn’t for everyone,” she said. “Some people thrive on the energy of being in the office with other people; others know they would struggle with distractions at home. One of our younger staff members wants to be in the office to learn from the more experienced folks through dealing with day-to-day issues that come up.”
Wednesday is the designated “all-hands-on-deck” day, when everyone is in the office for staff meetings and available for other in-person discussions with researcher and administrators in the colleges. It also coincides with the monthly RAM Around meetings.
Recruitment and retention
So far, according to Stahle, the program has worked out well: “We not only retain our valuable contributors by increasing their job satisfaction, but we can also using the teleworking option when we are recruiting employees who might not be able to afford to live in Fort Collins.”
One area that still remains a bit of a challenge is saving money on transportation. While teleworking cuts the costs of commuting a couple days a week, on-campus parking options don’t always align with reduced schedules.
There could be more options available soon, however. Aaron Fodge, director of Alternative Transportation, said Parking and Transportation Services supports telecommuting because it helps the university reach sustainability goals, and is partnering with the university and departments to align technology and transportation options. Alternative Transportation staff can help departments learn about available options.
PTS has been exploring ways to provide more options for faculty, staff and students, and recently added a single day online parking permit. There are also two- and three-day per week permits available for the full year or by semester. Reduced hourly rate parking is available in the Moby Arena lot and pay-by-plate spaces in other lots allow day-long parking. Lots both at Moby and on Research Boulevard are served by the Around the Horn shuttle.
Stahle said the one question she gets most often about supervising teleworkers is: “How do you know if they are really working?”
Her answer: “The same way you can tell if people in the office are working – they get their work done.”