By Jakob McWhinney, Voice of San Diego
Photo by Ariana Dresler, Voice of San Diego
October 1, 2023 (San Diego) -- For many workers, the pandemic upended the concept of the commute. Instead of getting in their cars and sitting in traffic to make it to the office, they went from their bed to their couch or dining room table. They curated office spaces in the corner of their living room, purchased a computer monitor for their laptop and maybe even upgraded their Wi-Fi.
That was especially true at San Diego Unified. Employees say that despite broad support for, and positive feedback about, San Diego Unified’s remote work pilot program, the district went back on assurances it would develop a permanent hybrid work policy.
While the district’s teachers returned to in-person instruction nearly two years ago after a grueling negotiation process, many San Diego Unified employees, especially in its central office, continued to work remotely.
Those workers included staff in the district’s technical and professional services departments like communications and IT, among others. But two months ago, district officials announced they expected all central office staff would return to in-person work by mid-August. District officials could not provide Voice of San Diego an estimate of how many employees this policy would affect.
The move came in concert with businesses across the country urging their employees to return to the office. But it blindsided district staff who said that while they understood the remote work policy was a pilot program, the district’s leadership had consistently assured them a permanent policy was in the works.
They say the decision defied a commitment the district gave them and was made despite surveys that showed many valued the program. Staff’s frustrations seem to echo other district decisions that have sparked pushback – from the abrupt closing of iHigh virtual academy that took parents and teachers by surprise, to the quiet purge of area superintendents that shocked many of the stakeholders who worked with them.
In a July 18 letter to staff, district leaders wrote “While we have explored a permanent remote work policy, San Diego Unified has not adopted such a policy.” In the letter, officials wrote they expected all staff to be working from the office again by Aug. 16. “We believe that being in person creates a space for meaningful connection, collaboration, and a sense of belonging and togetherness among teams,” they wrote.
Despite the district’s remote pilot program having officially ended at the end of July 2022, many central office staff had continued to work remotely under the impression that the district would roll out a new hybrid policy soon. So, the call back to the office, labeled a final notice, took many by surprise.
The Administrators Association of San Diego City Schools, which represents San Diego Unified’s classified and certificated supervisors, wrote in a response that it had received a draft of a new hybrid work policy nearly a year earlier. It had requested what it called “minor changes” but had never heard back from the district.
“AASD does not support or agree with the district decision to force … members to return to the district work place,” the letter read.
The union wrote that the district hired some employees with the understanding that their position would be remote permanently. Others had purchased homes outside the district boundaries under the impression that remote work was permanent.
The AASD’s letter proposed changes to the district’s return-to-office policy. These included a delayed return to office timeline, Wi-Fi upgrades to district facilities and installation of air conditioning in offices that lacked the amenity. They also requested employees have a way to complain if their workplace were to have vermin, bugs like fleas or mold. AASD claimed in the letter that under the remote work pilot program, employees had been required to purchase everything from ergonomic furniture to fire extinguishers. The union requested that the district reimburse staff being expected to return to the office for those purchases.
A Sept. 11 email to district leaders cosigned by nearly 300 San Diego Unified employees urged San Diego Unified to reconsider its axing of the remote work program.
“The Central Office Staff is writing to remind you of a commitment. A commitment that the district made to staff and to the environment … of a remote/hybrid work policy,” the email read.
A survey completed by hundreds of staff and managers indicated support for remote work options. Of the 89 managers surveyed, 74 reported that they’d had generally positive experiences with remote work with many saying it improved morale, increased productivity, efficiency and flexibility, aided employees’ work-life balance and that work quality was not impacted.
“It was one of the most effective ways I’ve seen to reward/incentivize productivity,” one manager wrote.
Those who opposed or critiqued the program wrote that it created divisions in staff and that in-office time needed to be better coordinated.
In the Sept. 11 email, staff argued that the remote work program improved employee health and wellness, reduced demand for district office space and optimized the use of district facilities and enhanced the opportunities and working experience of those with mobility restrictions.
The letter also underlined another frustration employees had with remote work’s nixing: At the same time the district was committing itself to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, it was demanding that hundreds of workers begin commuting again. An inventory of the district’s 2015 greenhouse gas emissions showed that 26 percent of its emissions footprint came from employees traveling to and from school and even listed reducing staff commutes as a strategy to reduce its overall greenhouse gas output.
In a Sept. 25 response San Diego Unified’s Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Drew Rowlands wrote that while the district has formalized a temporary remote work program with the AASD, it wasn’t moving forward with a full remote work program because it “produces a lack of team cohesion, silos, and a disconnect among staff.”
“In a post-pandemic context, a regular remote work schedule is not possible, especially when nearly all staff are working from their assigned location – whether in the classroom or at the office,” Rowlands wrote.
Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.
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