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Human Resource Management

Back to School: Poole College Researchers Gauge NC State Faculty Perceptions During Return to Campus in 2021

A new study funded by the NC State Office of the Provost explores faculty perspectives on returning to in-person teaching during the pandemic and offers key insights into facilitating a successful transition back to on-campus instruction.

By Caroline Barnhill

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, there was a lot of talk about how students and parents felt about returning to in-person learning. But what about the faculty at universities across the country? Many were forced to make quick transitions to virtual classrooms in order to continue delivering high-caliber teaching to their students. However, as vaccines became more readily available and cases began to drop, a return to face-to-face instruction became inevitable. But how did the faculty feel about making the transition back to campus?

With support and funding from the NC State Office of the Provost, a team of researchers at Poole College of Management and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS) set out to find answers to these questions. 

During the fall semester of 2021, researchers focused on identifying key factors, which can be actively managed by the Provost’s Office, that facilitate high-level adaptation and resilience among faculty in the transition back to campus following the largely online hiatus. Their recently-published report is now available online. 

“NC State’s ‘Think and Do’ attitude inspired the study because it provided an opportunity to connect our research with practice, allowing us to inform leaders and make a positive impact on the University,” says project researcher Patrick Flynn, Poole College assistant professor of human resource management.

“The research team appreciates the support we have received from the Provost’s Office and the leaders we have spoken with across the University. Our hope is that the insights that the study produced around nature, trust repair, organization alignment, framing during change, and acknowledging feedback can be applied to workplaces across NC State and make an impact in practice broadly.”

Key Findings

  • Experience nature: Contact with nature prior to the return to campus generally reduced burnout experienced by faculty. NC State should encourage and provide opportunities for faculty to spend time outdoors.
  • Repair trust: Faculty’s willingness to be vulnerable with the colleges and/or university was extremely low heading back to campus. Accordingly, college and university leadership has a prime opportunity to identify sources of trust breach, develop strategies to address those deficits and enact trust repair strategies in a transparent manner. 
  • Align organization: When messaging is inconsistent, trust is compromised. Researchers suggest the university streamline and coordinate information, messaging and action from the university down to the individual level when possible.
  • Consider framing: During times of flux, prevention-focused – or loss-avoidant – framing is beneficial to sustaining work-related attitudes like job satisfaction. In difficult times, NC State should ensure messaging is realistic and focuses on and maintaining currently existing strengths and minimizing potential losses rather than focusing on opportunities for job expansion. 
  • Share feedback: People want to know that their voices are being heard, so acknowledging others’ voices and demonstrating understanding can be incredibly powerful. In order to build trust with faculty that may have been compromised in the wake of COVID disruptions, university leadership can share the study findings with the broader community of NC State faculty. 

Moving Forward

Along with Flynn, project researchers Roger Mayer, Poole College professor of leadership; Paul Mulvey, Poole College Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Human Resource Management; and Ian Siderits, CHASS Ph.D. student and primary instructor of psychology, have presented their findings to the provost and other university leaders.

“I’m grateful for the outstanding work of Dr. Flynn and his team on this study,” says Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Warwick Arden. “Just as we funded this research, the Provost’s Office will support the incorporation of the study’s findings into practice at NC State.” 

As part of that commitment, the provost is funding Angie Smith from the College of Education and Laura Nelson from the College of Veterinary Medicine to serve within the Office for Faculty Excellence to examine the issues brought to light by this report and develop resources or programming to improve faculty well-being.