Dynamic Spend Management: Adapting to New Workforce Needs in Higher Education

What does a hybrid workforce look like in higher education? With the fall start, and for some institutions, a return to campus, fast approaching, many colleges and universities will be operating with a hybrid workforce for the first time, requiring updated staffing and operational procedures.

Yet many employees, now experienced with remote work, are hesitant about this new post-pandemic hybrid model. While international data from Future Forum’s Remote Employee Experience Index suggests that 83% of employees across all industries no longer want to work in-person five days a week, 20% of employees indicated they wanted to work remotely full-time.

There are no simple answers for these complex considerations going forward: What does the future of the workforce in higher education look like? What must we take into consideration? How are institutions going to adjust? To prepare for this new chapter and to provide flexible work options to employees, institutions will need to rethink staffing for online and in-person instruction, policies related to on-campus parking, new and updated technology tools among other needs, all while managing expectations across the campus enterprise—both online and in-person. Due to these needs, colleges and universities will be best served if they work to both educate and connect all areas of campus, using the tools they have at their disposal to do so.


Easing into flexibility to ensure efficiency

While all campus operations are not likely to become 100% remote, the amount of time that employees will spend in-person on campus is lower than it was pre-pandemic. Therefore, accommodating off-site work and helping the workforce be effective and efficient in this new capacity, is critical. Institutions like UCLA, Boston University, and Duke already have tasks forces in place to create smooth transitions. Ensuring a smooth transition means making both off-site, and on-site, work safe and seamless. Following the federal guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for indoor spaces is a quick way to alleviate the expected stress of returning to the campus environment. Investing in CDC-compliant seating arrangements, updated scheduling and employee collaboration models, increased cleaning plans, and improved operational policies are, at minimum, required as university and college stakeholders continue to navigate the pandemic impact. It is also critical to evaluate the daily needs of faculty and staff. Which teams should be on-site at the same time? Does it make more sense to have people in the office on days they have meetings with one another? If so, which teams take precedent?  

While institutions are addressing over-arching or governing policy and procedures for a safe return to the office, department leaders are left to implement those policies. These department heads need to evaluate and address a multitude of dynamics to make a hybrid model work within their department. For example, what resources will an employee need to be successful when working outside or inside of the office? Are some employees in need of specific training or nurturing from more senior staff members? If they are, what are the best ways to facilitate that learning in a safe, hybrid model? Beyond safety, these leaders need to ensure that their staff is supported and continuing to grow as professionals, despite the location in which they are working.


Re-writing policies to accommodate the new normal

With safety top of mind for leadership, institutions will need to update certain policies and procedures. Universities are revising their travel policies, deciding whether to require vaccines and masks for returning staff, providing guidelines for how staff should report future illnesses and making resources available on-site for employees to turn to should they need help.

In other areas, like IT, institutions are looking into providing a strengthened infrastructure. With that comes a need for updated guidelines regarding equipment reimbursement, telecommunication processes, stipends for augmented “typical” home services, such as the internet or mobile communications, while also ensuring to not create a tax burden for the employee.

Given the number of policies surrounding spend management, the considerations in a hybrid workforce regarding finances are especially complex. Will the university be outfitting employees’ home offices with the appropriate equipment or reimbursing them for internet connection? What changes are needed in the travel and expense policies to adjust for hybrid models and is the expense system updated to reflect these changes? If employees will be working remotely, how does that impact the invoicing process for vendors or suppliers? Can we take this time to push vendors to submit invoices via email or accept ACH (Automated Clearing House) payments and virtual card payments? These are just a few of the many scenarios higher education leaders face in crafting remote and hybrid work policies.


Adopting automation wherever possible

During the throes of the pandemic, technology allowed university employees to shift to a remote model while still working across departments seamlessly. The University of Alabama (UA) is a perfect example of this, having gone live with automated audit solutions in January 2021 as part of an ongoing effort to fully eliminate paper-based processes. The once “stare and compare” method of auditing that UA operated through paper and campus mail is now a thing of the past, allowing for simpler, virtual processes for all users. 

These tools can be helpful when implementing a hybrid model in bridging those who will be on and off-site, and even allow for more efficiency as well. Penn State University, which processes more than 240,000 expense reports a year, saw no backlog in its processes during and in more recent weeks of the pandemic. Jan Barnoff, director of financial information systems for the university stated, “with all receipts electronically generated for expense report submission and approvals, we no longer have to bring those into the central office and have them scanned.” Similarly, in July 2020 while the university was virtual, they went live with a massive new instance/P-card request automation project with no pilot, no grace period, and remarkably, no hiccups due to the simplicity of the solutions they used—a great example of how automation can increase efficiency.  


Embracing new opportunities 

Going forward, colleges and universities can take this opportunity to update and ensure all corners of the intuition are consistent and leverage universities’ solutions with one another. By evaluating policies, technologies, and other in-person work considerations, higher education leaders can set the institution up for success in years to come and be agile in adapting to whatever "new normal" is next.


Huron is a global consultancy that collaborates with clients to drive strategic growth, ignite innovation and navigate constant change. Through a combination of strategy, expertise and creativity, we help clients accelerate operational, digital and cultural transformation, enabling the change they need to own their future. By embracing diverse perspectives, encouraging new ideas and challenging the status quo, we create sustainable results for the organizations we serve. As a Certified SAP Concur Advisor, Huron has extensive experience in implementing travel, expense and invoice management solutions while understanding the unique challenges of assessing, building, and optimizing best-in-class programs. Learn more at www.huronconsultinggroup.com.

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