Leaders across campuses face a golden opportunity to reexamine where and how people work, to redesign the employment experience and to reconnect strategy to operations.

Authors: Erik Henry Smetana Ronnie Charles


Leaders across colleges and universities nationwide worked tirelessly over the last two years to address the needs of students, faculty and staff, alumni and other stakeholders. The pandemic affected institutions on a variety of fronts, ranging from financial to enrollment, to engagement and retention of faculty and staff. The process of delivering education and the ways in which campus communities came together shifted significantly, challenging the very identity for many institutions.

After faculty, staff and students left campus for anywhere from a couple of months to multiple semesters, many teachers and students have returned to classrooms. As aspects of the campus experience resemble a version of "normal," higher education leaders face the opportunity to think holistically and strategically about the way forward. While they embrace institutional legacies, leaders now may look to new directions for better organizational wellbeing.

Several areas present opportunities, including:

  • Leveraging the shifting workforce landscape
  • Rethinking the people experience
  • Connecting strategy to operations in support of faculty, staff and students

Leveraging the shifting workforce landscape

As competition to recruit, retain and reward talent intensifies across higher education, proactive colleges and universities may benefit from developing and implementing several initiatives:

  • Future of work. How are institutions balancing increasing demands for work flexibility when their brands and core services are entrenched in the idea of a campus-based community? How might the shift toward hybrid or remote work locations affect the ability for colleges and universities to fulfill their missions of teaching, service and research?
  • The retirement cliff. Higher education faces a sharp drop as those in administrative and other leadership roles approach retirement. Some data suggests nearly one-third of higher education staff are older than 55. This situation, coupled with the fact that many institutions lack strong succession planning and leadership development programs, presents an impending challenge.
  • Recruitment and retention of talent. Having long leveraged above-average benefits, colleges and universities increasingly find that offerings once considered market leading now are viewed as average, at best. Institution leaders must rethink compensation and career pathways, knowing they now compete for talent with employers across all industries. School leaders must consider the mix of their labor market (local vs. regional vs. national) and how to develop a talent strategy, especially for non-student facing roles.

Rethinking the people experience

Faculty, staff and students shape the culture of institutions that, in many cases, serve as major employers in a community. Campus leaders must examine their strategic people investments, recognizing that they may spend two-thirds or more of their operating budgets on wages and benefits. Key considerations should include:

  • Career and compensation frameworks. Schools are revisiting legacy compensation and classification structures based on feeding a payroll system. Now they are developing frameworks that serve as the foundation for careers. Such plans offer transparency, resources and tools to clarify how employees can move within the institution for career growth.
  • Benefits, perquisites and more. For many institutions, wages and benefits represent 65% to 80% of the operating budget — diverting dollars into non-mission-focused purposes that might otherwise serve students. The post-pandemic landscape challenges campus leaders to rethink their benefits strategies to balance the needs of faculty and staff with the demands of an evolving workforce and the increasing cost of services.
  • Equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging (EDIB). While many campuses long have addressed aspects of this topic, such offices or services often serve compliance or focus primarily on students. The past several years have seen schools shift these functions from tactical efforts to strategic and operational priorities. Examples range from supply chain, to recruitment and search, to employee learning and engagement, to performance competencies and internal labor movement mapping.

Connecting strategy to operations in support of faculty, staff and students

  • Leveraging data and people analytics. While brilliant researchers collect, analyze and leverage data on a host of topics, few institutions invest in workforce intelligence. From HR information systems to enterprise resource planning technology, leaders can reimagine the development of people, teams and strategies to support operational and strategic decision making.
  • Effectiveness and efficiencies. Institutions face financial challenges from reduced appropriations to declining enrollment. Now is the time for college and university leaders to understand better the makeup of their workforces, the work performed, and where and how employees can do the work better. In other words, facing the post-pandemic future with confidence requires examination of people-linked investments, administrative efficiency, centers of service and expertise, and workforce return on investment.
  • The value of value propositions. As schools compete more fiercely for students, faculty and staff, leaders understand the need to clearly articulate their value for internal and external audiences. Schools must support their positioning, whether culturally or financially, as an employer and an educator of choice. Leaders must effectively balance the demands of their schools' strategic and operational imperatives alongside their employer value propositions for faculty and staff.

While colleges and universities face significant challenges, this post-pandemic moment offers valuable opportunity to address compensation, benefits and people strategy with holistic approaches, while honoring legacy and culture.

We are mindful that many campuses claim a rich history of 150 years or more. Leaders must reexamine where and how people work, redesign the employment experience and reconnect strategy to operations to face the next 150 years with confidence.

Gallagher can support you

Gallagher offers consulting and risk management services to support higher education institutions with comprehensive solutions that protect your people, property and profits. Our experienced consultants support workforce design, compensation, classification and strategic program implementation. We also provide risk management, property and casualty insurance, student health and accident insurance, and alternative risk solutions. Your team will combine effective risk management strategies with creative financing solutions to optimize your institution's total cost of risk.

Contact Gallagher for consultation to support your organization's overall wellbeing.

Learn more about Gallagher's Higher Education and Consulting practice.


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This material was created to provide accurate and reliable information on the subjects covered but should not be regarded as a complete analysis of these subjects. It is not intended to provide specific legal, tax or other professional advice. The services of an appropriate professional should be sought regarding your individual situation.

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