Article by Eric Norman, Tower Hill School
In earlier phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most campuses were closed, many business offices rapidly shifted key processes online. And many that did found that strategies such as automation, outsourcing and remote working arrangements greatly facilitated work force management with no detriment — and even improvement — to business operations.
As classrooms are now filled, sports are being played, school-wide meetings are being held and even events like homecoming and faculty dinners are returning to in-person formats, there is a real and understandable desire to return to “normal.” This “normal” often presumes that everyone should be back on campus full time. Processes shifted, but culture, in many cases, has not.
Business officers can ensure progress with flexible work arrangements by taking steps to address and adjust school culture, which can impede constituents from embracing change. The CFO is in an ideal position to evoke change in this regard because they often oversee both HR and IT, and spend significant time working with external constituents that have readily adopted cloud-based processes and flexible work arrangements (i.e. banks, auditors, brokers, vendors, trustees). CFOs also know how difficult it is to hire and retain high quality employees, many of whom find geography or the requirement of being physically in work each day to be a barrier. Surely, if those barriers were removed, recruitment and retention would improve.
Hiring and Supporting Remote Staff
Independent schools, whether day or boarding, base their missions on in-person learning experiences. That likely will not change for decades, even though many of our students will go on to hybrid experiences in college or the workforce. This makes the cultural challenge daunting, as the majority of a school’s workforce is required to be on campus, from teachers to facilities personnel.
Identifying which positions can be done remotely or in a hybrid fashion is the first critical step. Positions in the business office, development, communications and admissions (particularly where recruiting is done nationally and internationally) quickly come to mind, and other support roles in administrative capacities can all potentially be done in a remote mode. Well-crafted job descriptions that include a robust list of duties will help allay fears that remote workers aren’t working if they’re not on campus.
When the head of school and trustees back decisions made by the remote workforce, their support goes a long way.
And when remote employees start their jobs, do not be bashful about endorsing them and promoting the work they have done, as fellow employees will have fewer opportunities to see this work themselves. Remind the school community that these employees love their school and work as hard as anyone else on campus. When the head of school and trustees back decisions made by the remote workforce, their support goes a long way.
Here are some additional tangible ways that the institution can support remote work.
- The employee handbook should have a clear and concise telecommuting policy that lays out criteria so that the arrangement is written into the employment relationship.
- Polices should potentially include providing technology/equipment to remote employees (printer/scanner/monitor) with access to shared drives and school tech.
- Meeting rooms throughout the school should be equipped with adequate technology (i.e., Wi-Fi, video equipment) that support a mix of on-campus and remote employees.
- As large conference rooms become less important with hybrid work arrangements, make sure there are smaller huddle or collaborative spaces for employees to meet.
- While telecommuting generally gives the institution a net gain of office space, make sure that hybrid employees have flexible workspaces available when they are on campus.
- Continue to offer remote employees professional development opportunities.
- Develop inclusive activities, like having a hybrid employee make a presentation to the school virtually or scheduling an ad hoc remote happy hour.
Self-Service Technology and Transactions
Whether or not employees work remotely, a business office may want to transition more processes to the cloud, which itself may require a cultural shift. The first step is to identify and adopt best of class applications for student billing, accounts payable, payroll, human resources and facilities management, which can streamline operations. Finding a general ledger system that can interface with all these applications is also critical in terms of ensuring both the accuracy and timeliness of data. And linking the HR module directly to insurance carriers and the retirement benefit provider will reduce transactions in the business office.
A key aspect of many of these applications is their self-service portal. Parents and employees can register and log in to access information and take action on student billing or payroll and benefits, respectively. New families and employees who begin their tenure with the school using the online systems are more likely to find information themselves rather than picking up a phone to call for simple questions. Transactions, supporting documentation and authorizations are all input electronically by the end user into each respective application, which not only reduces the workload of the business office but also improves the reliability and accuracy of data.
While best of class applications will be end-user friendly and offer tutorials and help functions, the school can also offer on-line and recorded training sessions for new users. Once families and/or employees are onboarded, they can move through decision points (i.e., picking a payment plan for student billing, choosing benefits options) within the module. Auto-reminder emails sent from the application will ensure adequate touch points. You could elect to have budgets sent out monthly and share reminder videos about business processes and open enrollment distributed when appropriate.
The internal website should have updated employee forms, a current handbook, a benefits manual, and clear communications that give employees a roadmap for all transactions. The same is true with the external website for parents looking to make tuition payments or get billing questions addressed. Provide clear lines of communication to the school community around completing transactions. Email addresses and direct-dial phones should be labeled by function, not by a person. This means having dedicated email addresses for @studentbilling, @payments, @payroll and @accounting, for example.
With these measures in place, employees and parents should quickly learn to use the website, portals and dedicated email addresses to ask questions and submit supporting documentation, and will call the dedicated phone lines when they need to speak to someone. The business office can collect and store data systematically and securely in the cloud, and constituents can easily access the data and decision-points.
Moving from In-House to Outsourced
Moving to cloud-based and automated processes may lead the school to outsource work that was previously done in house, by school employees. Independent schools pride themselves on a strong sense of community, so it is imperative to communicate how services will improve when once in-house processes are outsourced, and how the business office will be more effective and cost efficient.
Tower Hill, for example, suffered from years of underperformance and mistakes in the business office, which had been using outdated systems and procedures. We migrated to new systems, implemented new policies and moved to a largely outsourced team with the goal of providing state-of-the-art platforms with capable staff. We implemented all of the changes over the summer, when there were fewer people on campus, to minimize difficult optics and disruption. Because leadership was transparent and communicated clearly and frequently about the benefits of these changes to end users, employees were receptive.
Our outsourced employees are key participants in numerous school meetings and have direct interactions with employees and parents, so the community has gotten to know them, and the line between outsourced and in-house has become less defined. If questions or transactions get complicated or require a decision, our outsourced firm will push the information up to the CFO or director level.
Maintaining Customer Service
School community members will accept the loss of in-person interaction if they experience accurate, helpful and timely responses.
Nothing is more damaging to a hybrid or remote working arrangement than when a position or office is being nonresponsive. There must be a mindset that the business office and its related areas are there to support the academic mission and all the other aspects of the school, and a strong customer service mindset should be maintained. School community members will accept the loss of in-person interaction if they experience accurate, helpful and timely responses. That means emails are promptly answered, transactions are quickly processed, technology is easy to use, calls are immediately returned and there is always a high level of responsiveness. While the CFO will not generally be handling transactional level conversations in this kind of system, they should make a concerted effort to pull together outsourced functions, remote employees, in-house employees and parallel departments to set the tone and expectations for service.
Culture can be gradually influenced. It takes purposeful management, the enhanced use of information systems, outsourcing where possible, defined lines of communication, and a strong customer service mindset to make it all work. Ultimately, independent schools will find that they can hire and retain better personnel, replace outdated business processes, improve data and gain efficiency.