NASFAA's Altitude: The Workplace Flexibility Aid Administrators Want Most

Welcome to NASFAA's "Altitude," a new-ish Today's News series that aims to provide a 30,000-foot view on the intersections of economics, public policy, management, and student financial aid. Look for an assortment of links, reactions, conversations, and other missives from NASFAA President Justin Draeger and others. It may be easier to say what this series isn't: a place to find answers to tough regulatory and implementation questions. We'll be trying out this series over the next few months, so please send us your comments and follow us on Twitter

By Justin Draeger, NASFAA President and CEO

Financial aid offices are short-staffed and overworked; that's nothing new. But the pandemic has exacerbated many of these trends and made them more acute. . 

  • The Anecdotal Evidence: At NASFAA's Leadership & Legislative Conference & Expo last week, I asked the 350 attendees how many of them had open, unfilled positions at their school. Nearly the entire audience raised their hands. Next, I asked how many of those positions had been unfilled for more than three months. Just over half raised their hands. 

At NASFAA, we're still trying to get our arms around the scope and causes of these issues, but based on conversations with hundreds of financial aid administrators over the last year, I have a hunch that the problems may boil down to a few key issues: compensation, underappreciation, and burnout. Even as we work to identify the exact reasons for these staffing shortages, it seems wise for all schools to re-examine how to both attract and retain qualified staff, including the use of work flexibilities. 

What You Say Is Most Important: Last week we looked at two flexibilities and asked, "Given the choice, would aid administrators prefer (1) a four-day, 32-hour workweek, without any reduction in pay or benefits, or (2) the ability to work from home all or most of the time?" 

  • The Results: Overwhelmingly, the answer from 765 respondents was: reduce the work week from five days to four. Acknowledging that this is not a statistically sound, representative sample, the number of people who participated in the survey and responded so overwhelmingly toward working fewer hours can still lead us to some interesting lines of exploration. 

Shortening the Work Week: Who's Trying It & Who's Interested In It? Microsoft Japan, Shake Shack, Buffer, Unilever's New Zealand office, and Kickstarter have all been experimenting with four-day workweeks.

The governments of Spain and Scotland are planning trials to subsidize employers that give workers an additional day off. In the United States, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation to make a 32-hour workweek standard. In higher education, I'm only aware of one school, the now famous D'Youville College

What do these companies have in common? The employers that are most interested in trying it have the following characteristics: 

  • Tend to be small (<90 employees) 

  • Tend to be nonprofit 

  • Tend to focus on work-life balance

  • Tend to come from or be tied into the tech sector 

What are the results? The benefits to workers in achieving more work-life balance are obvious. Who doesn't look forward with excitement for long three-day weekends? But here are some benefits to consider: 

  • Productivity Boost: Microsoft Japan tracked the results of employees working four days a week over the summer of 2019. It found a 40% productivity boost, along with several other efficiencies like reduced electricity costs and office expenses. Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand announced a smaller — but still significant — 20% productivity boost. At a minimum, the same amount of work appears to be getting done in less time. 

  • Happier Employees: Iceland's Reykjavik City Council shifted workers to shorter hours that researchers said provided "groundbreaking evidence for the efficacy of working time reduction" that reduced stress and burnout while increasing employee health.  

  • Fewer Meetings: Microsoft slashed its standard meeting duration from 60 minutes to 30, and limited standard meeting attendance to only five people, and urged workers to use "collaborative chat channels" rather than time wasting  emails (i.e., think Slack rather than Outlook). 

  • Less Goofing Off: The more time someone spends at work, the less productive they become, due to the widely understood concept of diminishing returns. Many companies have experimented (unsuccessfully) with the concept of working four 10-hour days, and studies have consistently shown how workplace productivity tumble in those environments. For office workers, productivity loss from 10-hour days can be measured in how many times staff turn to social media, personal email, or anything else other than work, which is naturally going to occur when people are tired and  overworked. 

Old Habits Are Hard to Break: While culturally ingrained, the five-day, 40-hour workweek is subjective and arbitrary, as historians are quick to point out. In colonial times, the standard workday was sunup to sundown, according to the Economic History Association. That all began to change through the industrial revolution and unionization when workers' total weekly hours dropped from 55 hours in 1900 to 40 during the Great Depression. Nearly 90 years ago, the U.S. Senate passed, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported, a bill to reduce the workweek to only 30 hours, in hopes that if everyone worked fewer hours, more people could be hired to offset job losses from the depression. That effort was ultimately abandoned as the government pursued other strategies, like hiring millions of workers for large public works projects. Taken together, there's nothing particularly magical about a 40-hour work week, except that it has become part of our cultural make-up. 

  • Is Momenting Growing? A pilot program in the UK seeks to provide a global platform for like-minded people and companies to explore the idea of the four-day workweek, which includes resources, case studies, and FAQs. 

  • Or, Is This Movement Just For Slackers? "Any man demanding the forty hour week should be ashamed to claim citizenship in this great country," wrote the chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Gear Works shortly after Henry Ford reduced the standard workweek to 48 hours. Ford argued that his employees would be more productive with fewer hours. But especially in America, working at 100 MPH is often ingrained into our cultural DNA, and humblebrag social media posts often perpetuate the message. 

Not All Roses: The entire debate may be a privileged conversation because what can't be ignored are lower-wage hourly workers whose livelihood is made up largely of how many hours they can work. Reducing the standard workweek could disproportionately impact those who are most vulnerable to macro- and micro-economic disruptions. Some of this pressure could be relieved by expanding earned income credits and child tax credits, two things that seem to have bipartisan support but are stuck in political limbo. 

Why It Matters: Work is evolving, and while colleges and universities aren't always known for leading the pack on workforce innovations, they are also not immune to workforce shortages. The Department of Education is in the midst of a regulatory-palooza that will result in a proliferation of new regulations and programmatic requirements. And they're doing it at the same time they're ramping up the Office of Enforcement within Federal Student Aid to "strengthen oversight of and enforcement actions against postsecondary schools." 

In Summary: Shortchanging the financial aid office is a tempting way for institutional leaders to hold down costs. But this pennywise, pound-foolish strategy could ultimately lead a school to pay more down the road if the school is found out of regulatory compliance. Wouldn't that lead every school to find solutions that increase employee productivity, retention, happiness, and well-being all without increasing wages? 

Time will tell.


Publication Date: 2/23/2022

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