Planning our return to campus workplaces

Williams staff and faculty,

With vaccination efforts well underway and the public health outlook stable, we’ll soon begin the process of re-opening the campus. This includes asking those of you who’ve been working remotely to return, joining those who have already been working on campus during the last year.

Since each unit and office’s work and needs are different, every team will be asked to craft their own plan for returning to on-campus mode at a time of their choosing between June 14 and the end of August. I hope this provides flexibility for anyone who’s contending with family or personal circumstances, and that having the relevant information this far in advance will help you prepare for the transition.

Many of you will likely have practical questions. Once you’re ready to begin planning, I encourage you to start by reviewing a memo that Dukes and Fred have assembled to help guide our planning. As a next step, please share any questions with your managers, so that each team can have a discussion appropriate to your particular situation. We’ll ask managers to collect those questions and share them with colleagues responsible for the relevant aspects of workplace environment, including HR, Facilities, etc. Since many of the questions are likely to be shared by multiple units, this will enable us to give clear and consistent answers to everyone.

The return to campus will be an important step for each of us and for our community. It’s also the latest in a long series of changes we’ve had to navigate. As I’ve talked with public health advisers and experts about the timing of a move back to campus work, they’ve pointed out that the “Covid off-ramp” will be at least as challenging as the “on-ramp” was. When we closed campus last spring we were all facing some level of risk. During the off-ramp phase, however, everyone’s at a different place: some people are vaccinated while others aren’t. Some are eager to return to pre-Covid ways of life while others are vulnerable or anxious. Some enjoy working remotely while others feel stuck at home. In such a diffuse environment, there are even some people who will wonder why we’re asking staff to return to campus at all.

The decision is driven by my belief that a learning community is stronger when we work together in person. That doesn’t preclude flexibility for personal needs, but it does weigh against a remote-first approach. Moreover, the public health concerns that drove me to close campus last spring are significantly easing: the latest public health news suggests that our country and region are slowly exiting the most dire phase of the pandemic. According to state data, 53 percent of eligible people in Berkshire County have now received at least one vaccine shot, and with supplies becoming more reliable that number will climb further before mid-summer. I want to take this opportunity to strongly encourage every one of you who’s eligible to get vaccinated if you haven’t done so already. We haven’t yet decided whether to make this a requirement for staff and faculty next fall, as it will be for students, but we’re taking time to seriously consider the possibility.

We will, of course, monitor the public health situation so that we can opt to reconsider our plans if the outlook worsens. We’ll also track fall 2021 decisions by area schools, preschools and daycares for the same purpose. Individual employees who need to request schedule accommodations for medical or family care reasons may talk to your managers using the same process that was available before the pandemic.

I’ve been asked whether the experience of the last year might prompt broader review of our remote work policy beyond accommodations for individual needs. To consider the question we’ll put together a working group, co-chaired by Vice President for College Relations Megan Morey and Dean of the Faculty Safa Zaki, that will reflect on what we’ve learned, listen to community views and advise me on whether changes to Williams remote work policy for staff would be helpful. The group will start their work in June and carry through into the fall. More information, including a roster of members and opportunities for community input, will follow.

Any potential changes to our work policies will have to be carefully analyzed for their likely impact to our campus and community. We need to return to our standard model of work before such judgments are possible. So Senior Staff and I will only consider options after the group has gathered input and research and presented me with its full analysis next fall.

For those feeling anxious about the change, I understand. This will be challenging both logistically and emotionally. It helps me, though, to consider that more than 350 staff from Facilities, Dining, Campus Safety, the Children’s Center, Student Health Services and other units have been working on campus throughout the pandemic, as have some faculty. Some have done so by choice, while others are in jobs that can only be done in-person. As colleagues they’ve demonstrated that on-campus work can be done safely in far more challenging conditions than the ones we’re likely to face this summer. I hope you’ll join me in acknowledging them for that accomplishment, and in learning from their experiences about how we can make our own returns equally safe and productive.

This has been a long, long year. As I’ve been thinking about what’s ahead I’ve also reflected on how far we’ve come. You’ll recall how difficult it was for us to close campus and move to remote work, and then how worried we were about bringing students back the following fall. Each new shift brought a wave of discomfort and uncertainty. But each change also worked out well in the long run because we relied on science and careful planning and our respect for each other. We’re going to stick to that approach as we prepare for a return to campus this summer.

I’m grateful for the work you all do to support Williams. I very much look forward to seeing you in person again in the hallways, on campus and in town, so I can finally and fully thank you for your strength through this challenging year.