Q&A with Remote Work Champion Lacey Rhea
On February 10, the Delaware Valley Chapter of SRA International (DVSRAI) held a Chapter Chat entitled “Remote Work, To Have or Have Not.” This was a guided discussion on remote work in research administration featuring a conversation between the Delaware Valley Chapter and research administration leader Lacey Rhea. Lacey became a standout in the field when she spoke up about career choices that she made based on changes—or lack thereof—in her work environment during the pandemic. In 2021 she posted a “manifesto” of sorts on the benefits of remote work in research administration and the importance for leadership to accommodate a myriad of work styles in their working environments that would best suit their employees. In the listserv message she challenged all levels of research administration to examine their policies for remote work and hybrid or flexible work arrangements that accommodate the worker. She challenged the status quo and since then has become a champion for remote work and alternative work arrangements, specifically within the research administration landscape.
We hope you will be as engaged by this Q&A as our DVSRAI chapter chat participants:
Patrice: I first encountered you from a post on the RESEARCH ADM L list serv. Not only did I encounter you, but others saw your post. Can you please give us some background for your post on remote work in research administration and how your advocacy in this area began?
Lacey: My story at that time was really not unique, right? I had been doing this work remotely for almost 14 months, my team was thriving, and I had found a balance that I truly didn’t think was attainable as a professional woman. I felt this tightness in my chest and churning in my belly at the thought of having to go back into the office. I loved my department and my job so much, but I ultimately decided that the balance I had found in remote work was worth preserving above all else – that was my priority. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to continue working remotely for my current employer, that made my decision for me and I found someone who would let me continue doing great work in a way that worked best for me. The experience of all of that was so powerful and full of emotion, I knew I wasn’t the only person feeling this way. The listserv seemed like the best way to reach as many of my colleagues as possible to share some of my story and to say ‘hey, that feeling in your gut is valid, listen to it, you can do it, and it will be ok’. And it turns out I was right because I got about 70 responses in the following week or so and am still getting emails from people that say ‘I just transferred to a fully remote position!’. It makes my heart feel so full.
Patrice: We were thrust into this world of remote work due to the pandemic. As a result, going forward how do you believe we should consider remote work?
Lacey: Someone recently asked me if I thought remote work was the future of our profession and my answer was no, it’s the present. It’s already happened. And institutions who refuse to accept this will fall behind. From a recruiting standpoint, I believe our profession is in crisis. We haven’t done a great job overall of bringing new people into the field – the age-old joke that no one wanted to be a research administrator when they grew up has lost its humor as we struggle to fill open positions and juggle the workloads that come with increased responsibility and staffing shortages. Remote work is just one necessary piece of a larger puzzle that we have to come together and solve as a community of professionals. Enough institutions have embraced remote work at this point that it is an essential component of any competitive recruitment package. But it isn’t enough. In a recent recruitment, I made three offers in one week and got three rejections – all of them to competing offers, also remote. Employers have to start giving research administration the respect it has always deserved – and that means better pay, better working conditions, and a solid seat at the leadership table.
Patrice: Many people are now dealing with the “return or not to return” scenario. This question is two-fold: we have talked about what you have seen as a leader that might be influencing a push to return or to not consider alternate working arrangements. As a leader, what have you seen influence the environments that embrace it and ones that don’t?
Lacey: I would love to say that those who have embraced it are doing it because it makes for a happier workforce…and I’m sure that factors in for some…but I think the reality is much more cynical and can be summed up by the bottom line. Is there a financial benefit to embracing remote work? Napkin math tells me that the answer is yes in all cases, but some leaders have a really hard time looking at less tangible costs like turnover and the audit risks that come with staffing shortages. I think some state institutions are plagued right now with political pressure saying ‘get your people back to campus’. The state government wants people out and about spending money, and as the entity funding these institutions, there’s a clear conflict of interest here. There are headlines right now dealing with this very issue on the faculty side. These institutions are placed in a really tough spot – having to choose between what I think they ultimately believe is the right choice for their workforce and what they’re being pressured to do in order to maintain a positive relationship with the people who hold the purse strings. And then there’s your standard power and control, which I think is really at the root of any institution who is forcing their people back despite being successful in a remote environment for so long.
Patrice: Any advice you want to give other leaders and or staff who would like to appeal for remote work.
Lacey: Show your math. And by that, I mean back up every argument you make with data. Prove that productivity increased, make your employee accountability plans bullet proof. Have you lost employees to remote positions? Track that. Only have 2 viable candidates in your pool? Track that too. Save every remote position you see out there and show them that this is happening nationwide. Focus on how they win by letting you remain remote. And if none of that works, find another job and be sure they know why you’re leaving. There’s a shared google sheet on remote-friendly institutions out there right now that the community is maintaining, full of jobs just waiting to grab up the people these institutions are ignoring.
During the discussion Lacey empowered managers and staff to think in a more dynamic way about work arrangements for staff, underscoring that when forced into a fully remote environment as many of us have been, research administrators delivered. Many research admin offices often exceeded goals and found new and innovative ways to support investigators’ needs. Lacey challenged all of us as staff and leaders to reflect on how work arrangements can be motivating and empowering to a team. She challenged us to consider how the pandemic allowed many people who had multiple family priorities to facilitate a work-life balance to which they had become accustomed. She challenged leaders to think outside the box when looking at return-to-work plans and the necessity of in-office staffing, if at all.
Many in attendance shared their gratitude for the work that Lacey has done and for her being a voice in the research administration field. At the close of the session she left us with practical advice and a link to a list that she has started with others that outline research administration offices that allow some type of remote work option. All in all, this was an empowering session and the Delaware Valley Chapter leadership hopes that flexible work options will be made possible whenever appropriate.
Lacey Rhea can be reached at laceyrheaRA@gmail.com.
Authored by Dr. Patrice Martin, Manager Client Services