Skip to main content

Stanford Campus Conversation details what return to on-site work will look like this fall

During Tuesday’s Campus Conversation, the president, provost and others discussed what the return to on-site work may look like.

As thousands prepare to return to on-site work, Stanford must re-imagine its work landscape with a careful balancing of the operational needs of the schools and units and the preferences of employees, Vice President for Human Resources Elizabeth Zacharias told the community Tuesday.

From top left, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Yvonne “Bonnie” Maldonado, Elizabeth Zacharias and Provost Persis Drell discussed what the return to on-site work may look like. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“We expect a lot of learning during the period in front of us, particularly in the context of the ongoing changing environment,” she said while discussing implications of flexible work options for employees. “As a result, some of the decisions about work arrangements will take longer to make than others. By taking this time to experiment and not putting an emphasis on making decisions quickly, especially when it comes to policy, we are more likely to achieve the work environment we envision.”

Zacharias’ remarks were part of a Campus Conversation on Tuesday focused on returning to on-site work that also included President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Yvonne “Bonnie” Maldonado, senior associate dean for faculty development and diversity, Taube Professor of Global Health and Infectious Diseases, and professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) and of epidemiology and population health at the School of Medicine.

Fall quarter instruction and research are expected to look more like pre-pandemic operation, including in-person classes; open labs, libraries and museums; and to an extent, public events, and thus many staff members also will be returning to Stanford’s campuses.

Still, public health conditions are changeable, as seen with the recent increase of the Delta variant, the leaders cautioned, and Stanford will adjust its protocols as conditions evolve.

“We have the opportunity right now to shape the future of work at Stanford – and to determine what worked well in our previous way of working, what we need to adjust and what needs to be created anew,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

“It’s an important and even exciting time of transition,” he said, adding that university leadership is committed to supporting faculty and staff through the process.

As the university welcomes back more members of the campus community, Stanford is striving for equity in the process of determining what that will look like, but outcomes may differ due to school or unit circumstances, Drell said. Everyone in the same job classification isn’t expected to have the exact same work arrangement across the university, as personal circumstances differ.

Individual schools and units are making many of the implementation decisions, she noted, and some specific questions may need to be answered by unit leadership.

The university is looking to provide more flexible work opportunities, particularly for staff who don’t provide direct service to students. As a residential university, priority is placed on in-person support, Drell said, and Stanford’s “highly collaborative” environment will necessitate being on campus at times.

On the other side of the equation is employee preference. The university wants to support its employees as they face challenges coming back, such as affordability, caregiving responsibilities and commuting, Drell said.

“We also seek to support sustainability, foster health and well-being and enhance inclusivity,” she said. “So many of these considerations will argue in favor of hybrid work situations, while also supporting our operational needs.”

A consistent framework

Zacharias said the Flexible Work Committee is focused on:

  • Supporting schools and units in using a consistent framework in their decision-making process,
  • Developing systems to support a flexible infrastructure and
  • Providing resources to address the cultures and norms of schools and units.

Managers have shared that consistency, culture, policies and parking are important issues to address, she said. This input is helping the committee shape resources and tools.

Stanford Transportation is also assessing parking options due to the changed transportation needs of the Stanford community. Alternate or hybrid schedules may be an option to alleviate that stress for some, Zacharias said.

Managers will conduct role assessments with their school and unit operational needs in mind, speak with employees about their individual circumstances and preferences and find opportunities to experiment with flexible work options during summer and fall pilot periods.

The university is still working under interim policies designed during the pandemic, Zacharias said, and guidance around work arrangements, including temporary remote work, is updated to reflect the transition back to on-site work during the pilot period.

Telecommuting and remote work administrative guide policies in place before the pandemic are being assessed with recommendations being made now. These include policies for provisioning home offices and stipends for internet and phone expenses.

In the winter quarter, the university will assess what’s been learned and refine work arrangements, Zacharias said.

Compensation guidelines for fully remote roles are also under review. It’s anticipated that more will be shared about these policies in early fall.

Public health

Maldonado said the three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the U.S. are “extremely safe” and “remarkably effective” in preventing not only infection but also hospitalizations and deaths.

“While there are breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, over 97% of all infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States, including in the San Francisco Bay Area, are now among those who are not vaccinated,” Maldonado said. “This is why a requirement for vaccination is so important in keeping our entire Stanford community safe from COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and even deaths.”

Maldonado and her colleagues at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, have been tracking COVID infection rates in six Bay Area counties since June 2020. Data showed that new infections in the Bay Area’s general population dropped from a peak of 17.7% in December 2020 to 0.83% in June 2021.

However, the infection rate may be increasing again due to the highly infectious Delta variant, with most Bay Area cases occurring among unvaccinated residents.

It’s believed lifting of the state’s mask mandate on June 15 has helped the virus travel more easily in public spaces, Maldonado said. Coupled with the Delta variant as the now dominant strain, it may lead to further developments of variants that may be more infectious.

Some employees who are parents are worried about how to keep elementary-age children safe as they return to campus.

Maldonado said prior to the Delta variant, vaccinated individuals with a breakthrough infection had a low viral load and were less likely to have symptoms or transmit the virus. With the Delta variant, even in those who have breakthrough infections after vaccination, the amount of virus they’re shedding is much higher.

As such, Maldonado said staying masked indoors and in crowded areas, even for vaccinated people, is the best way to keep children and families safe and reduce the risk of transmission of the Delta variant.

In the question-and-answer period, Drell added that Stanford is also considering having students wear masks while in classrooms.

“We are not making changes to our plans to be in person with all students on campus and in-person teaching for the fall quarter, even though we’ve seen a slight uptick in cases, hypothesized due to the Delta variant,” Drell said. “But we are going to keep a close eye on the situation … and we may have to adjust protocols, including masking protocols, as the public health situation changes and as county guidance changes.”

Masks continue to be required for everyone in some locations, such as on public transportation and campus spaces open to the public, and they are recommended in crowded indoor spaces.

Russell Furr, associate vice provost for Environmental Health and Safety, said N95 and KN95 masks are offered for anyone who wants them.

While he noted during the question-and-answer period that there’s no independent way to verify what percent of staff has been vaccinated, there has been a large number of staff who have come to campus in recent months, and he “hasn’t seen anything that makes it seem drastically different than the vast majority who have submitted information to Health Check.”

As noted on the COVID Dashboard on the Health Alerts website,  since the inclusion of the vaccination question into Health Check starting May 2021, more than 90% of all users submitting have indicated being vaccinated.

Some of the most important things employees can do for their safety and others is to wear a mask if they feel uncomfortable in the workplace, make sure they’re fully vaccinated, and if unable to be vaccinated, use optional testing, Zacharias said.

Those on-site will need to be understanding and patient with each other while respecting each other’s health decisions and privacy, Drell said.

It’s critically important that anyone experiencing COVID-like symptoms, however mild, get tested to reduce the likelihood of unknowingly exposing others to the virus, Maldonado added.

Returning to on-site work will be a big transition, Tessier-Lavigne said. He encouraged employees to use wellness resources available through BeWell and the Faculty Staff Help Center.

“None of us have escaped the effects of the pandemic,” he said. “And while I believe the vaccines have put the worst of it behind us here in the Bay Area, we are continuing to manage risks, like the rise of the Delta variant. We will need to remain vigilant as we plan for the fall and beyond.”