Creating an Equitable Workplace

When remote work is an option for some employees but not others, how can school leaders foster inclusion and belonging among all faculty and staff members?

Apr 11, 2024  |  By Carney M. Heavy O’Brien, Robert Fields School

Climbing the stairs to my office after greeting students upon arrival, I could feel the energy of the building buzzing around me — the laughter of students, the chatter of faculty, the hum of activity that permeated every corner. Yet, beneath the surface, I knew there was a growing tension — a divide between those who felt tethered to the physical demands of onsite work and those who navigated the challenges of remote engagement.

At our last faculty meeting, the frustration over the perceived lack of daily engagement from the business office was clear. Earlier in the week, a member of the administrative team voiced their concerns about the constant barrage of onsite responsibilities detracting from their ability to focus on critical tasks. Caught between these two perspectives, I found myself grappling with a dilemma that felt increasingly complex. How could I navigate this delicate balance, ensuring both onsite and remote staff felt valued and supported in their roles? Where should we draw the line in setting equitable parameters while still upholding the institution's commitment to excellence? Perhaps most importantly, in the face of competing priorities and perspectives, how could we facilitate a sense of unity and shared purpose, supporting a culture of collaboration, compassion, and collegiality?

Although the circumstances of the pandemic brought this challenge into sharp relief, it’s not a new dilemma. Reflecting on my journey across various independent school settings, one recurring theme emerges: the importance of equity in workloads and school engagement among various offices, departments and grade levels, particularly when the nature of the work allows for remote engagement. It's not enough to have lofty ideals outlined in mission statements; they must be integrated into every facet of institutional operations, and our mission-driven DEIJB initiatives must be aligned with equitable expectations for everyone.

At the heart of this discussion lies the balance between engaging in the life of the school and fulfilling administrative responsibilities. The folks working in the business, development and communication offices are often tasked with duties conducive to remote work and face the challenge of integrating into the school community while maintaining productivity. Meanwhile, teaching faculty and other onsite administrators are required to be physically present, shaping the daily experiences of students and families. This dichotomy prompts a sometimes surprisingly wide range of critical questions surrounding equity. What follows are some of the common challenges I’ve faced in schools and a few things that have helped to alleviate the tension.

For remote workers:

  • Integration of Professional Development: While NBOA has an abundance of exceptional professional development opportunities through virtual workshops, webinars and online courses, periodic on-campus visits by remote staff and participation in school-wide events can build social cachet and help maintain connection to the school community.
  • Inclusive Decision-making Processes: Although Zoom fatigue is real, when used judiciously, video conferencing and collaborative platforms allow remote staff to show face and actively participate in decision-making meetings. Regular communication channels, such as virtual town halls or feedback surveys, have also been useful in ensuring all perspectives are heard and valued.
  • Recognition and Celebration: Establishing a system of peer recognition and appreciation, regardless of staff location, can help highlight the contributions of remote office staff. Public acknowledgments during "staffulty" meetings or newsletters, along with virtual celebrations of milestones and achievements, can foster a sense of inclusion and recognition.
  • Equitable Distribution of Responsibilities: Developing transparent processes for assigning tasks and projects ensures responsibilities are distributed fairly among all staff members. Shared task management tools such as Trello or Slack and regular check-ins can help support transparency, monitor workload distribution, and address any disparities that may arise.
  • Cultural Competence in Remote Interactions: Insisting on inclusion in in-person cultural competency training and providing additional online resources for remote staff, such as ISM’s Cultural Competency in Independent Schools: What Leaders Need to Know, can support offsite staff in navigating diverse perspectives and effectively communicating with families and colleagues. Encouraging ongoing learning and engagement with diverse communities fosters sensitivity and inclusivity in remote interactions.
  • Accessibility of Resources and Support Systems: Remote staff's success depends on their access to necessary technology tools, such as laptops, software and communication platforms. Additionally, offering virtual mentorship programs and networking opportunities, such as NBOA’s membership communities, helps remote staff connect with peers and access support systems within the school community.

For onsite administrators and faculty:

  • Flexible Scheduling Options: Implementing flexible scheduling options for onsite faculty, such as compressed workweeks or alternative start/end times, allows them to better balance work and personal commitments. This can be especially successful in team-taught classrooms and for enrichment teachers.
  • Remote Work Opportunities: Offering occasional opportunities for onsite faculty to work remotely, especially during periods of inclement weather or personal circumstances, provides them with flexibility without compromising their connection to the school community.
  • Rotating Responsibilities: Implementing a system of rotating responsibilities for onsite duties, such as dorm duty, pickup line or recess duty, ensures that the workload is distributed equitably among faculty members and allows for periods of respite.
  • Collaborative Support Networks: Establishing collaborative support networks among onsite faculty allows them to lean on each other for assistance with onsite responsibilities, such as covering classes or supervising extracurricular activities when needed.
  • Professional Development Flexibility: Providing flexible options for professional development, such as self-paced online courses or asynchronous learning modules, accommodates the varying schedules and commitments of onsite faculty.
  • Clear Communication Channels: Maintaining clear communication channels between onsite faculty and administration ensures that their needs and concerns are heard and addressed in a timely manner and fosters a supportive and responsive work environment. A weekly, 3-4 question snapshot “temperature check” survey with an option to “schedule an appointment to discuss further” has been successful in addressing any simmering concerns.
  • Personalized Support: Offering personalized support and resources to help onsite faculty manage their workload and maintain work-life balance, such as access to counseling services or wellness programs, demonstrates a commitment to their well-being and professional growth.

Addressing these questions has required a multifaceted approach, encompassing policies, practices and cultural shifts within the institutions I have served. By prioritizing equity in working conditions, schools can foster a sense of belonging and empowerment among all staff members, ultimately enriching the educational experience for students and families alike. Through open dialogue, proactive measures, and a shared dedication to fostering an equitable work environment, independent schools can truly achieve their mission-driven aspirations.


Author

Carney M. Heavy O’Brien

Co-director

Robert Fields School

Carney M. Heavy O’Brien is co-director of Robert Fields School, a preschool-grade 5 school in Brooklyn, New York. She previously served as head of school at Washington Montessori and before that in administrative roles at Chatham Hall and Indian Mountain School. 

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