Staff members are disappointed with the deans’ decision and are taking matters into their own hands.
At the President’s welcome last week, unions representing staff members of Concordia joined the festivities to present Graham Carr with a petition signed by 613 members. The petition asked him to reconsider the decision to request Concordia staff return to in-person work four days a week.
This decision was announced in June. Before then, the hybrid work model had varied between departments, but many staff members said they enjoyed the flexibility and that it was a healthy and effective system.
Beata Tararuj, graduate program coordinator for the electrical and computer engineering department, created the petitions against the return to four in-person workdays. She did not hear about the decision from her dean, but from one of her colleagues.
“The number of emails that I started getting, it was like an email after email after email, after email, after email, and everybody was so not happy. Everybody was miserable. Everybody was disappointed. We felt like somebody stabbed us in our back,” Tararuj said.
Her first petition was sent to all faculties at the university, collecting 250 votes. A second petition was later sent out when the unions were able to make their votes, which now has a total of 613 votes.
“When a student comes with a problem, I am there to listen,” said Tararuj. “I’m here to navigate through the Concordia system. I’m here to make sure that these people are well taken care of. So I was thinking to myself, I fight for students on a regular basis. Why won’t I fight for myself?”
Since the pandemic, people have started to adapt to the new normal of hybrid work. Concordia University is still trying to define what this vision is going to look like.
In 2021, Concordia requested its staff return to in-person work two days a week. In 2022, that number went up to three days a week. And now, staff has been asked to return to campus four days a week.
Sigmund Lam, vice president negotiations of the Concordia University Professional Employees Union (CUPEU), worries that Concordia staff may be expected to return to full-time in-person work next year—a fear that was echoed by other union members.
So where is this decision of increased workdays coming from? In an email, Vannina Maestracci, Concordia’s spokesperson, explained that it “prioritizes services and supports Concordia’s core activities: teaching, research and knowledge creation, and the student experience.”
Maestracci also wrote that this decision was taken “to achieve the vision of a vibrant campus experience and ensure fairness.” The fairness refers to the idea of having a uniform standard for all staff (four days in-person per week) instead of letting departments decide on their own guidelines.
The four faculty deans denied our request for an interview. When approached at the welcome event on Sept. 7, president Carr refused to comment on the decision or the petition.
Many staff members have said they wish the deans had given more explanations for this decision. Shoshana Kalfon, advisor and president of CUPEU, said she wants to see the data supporting this return to in-person work.
“They have all these keywords, the word of the day. ‘We want a vibrant campus.’ Was it not? And is it required that everybody be on campus all the time for that to exist?” she said.
To her, the hybrid work model is all about giving staff choices. Some may decide to work from home two days a week, and some may decide to be on campus every day.
“I don’t know if it’s that [the administration] doesn’t want us to have the opportunity to make a decision, to make a choice—and that, to me, comes down to control.” she said.
Lam explained that staff often end up doing more productive work when they work from home. “Quite often, people in the office are interrupted constantly,” he said.
“Unhappy employees are less productive,” he added. “And I believe the employees have lost trust in upper management’s ability to make decisions with regard to hybrid or flexible work. And loss of trust also causes a reduction in performance.”
Alycia Manning is the enrollment coordinator for the law and society program in the history department. Last semester, she worked in-person for three and a half days a week.
She said she valued “being at home and being able to just focus [on herself].” “You wake up, you can do a little workout in the morning, then you can do your laundry at lunchtime. It’s nice to be able to just have that, just a little bit of freedom,” she added.
Tararuj echoed that feeling, saying she needs a healthy work/life balance to stay present with her tasks and in every aspect of her life.
“This specific position [program coordinator], it’s a demanding position. There’s a lot of tasks, there’s a lot of students. I’m a high energy person and I like to give energy to my students,” she shared. “By the time I get home, I’m so dead. I’m so tired, I can’t even go to a park with my kids.”
Daniela Ferrer—who was, until recently, VP grievances and mobilization coordinator at Concordia University Support Staff Union (CUSSU)—is also worried that this decision will affect staff’s mental health.
“Concordia pays a lot of lip service to the importance of mental health, but they really don’t seem to be listening to workers when they tell them: ‘Hey, you know, working remotely has been incredibly beneficial to my mental health and this return to campus is causing a lot of anxiety,” Ferrer said.
“[The administration is] ignoring the fact that a lot of things changed during the pandemic and people’s priorities shifted,” said Ferrer. According to her, hybrid work has brought to light people’s “lost time”—time spent commuting, sitting at your desk when all the work is done, or waiting between meetings.
Elizabeth Xu is a woodshop technician in the fine arts department and already works four days a week from 9 to 5. She hopes President Carr will listen to what the university’s staff has to say.
“I hope that they can open their ears and open their hearts to the will of the people,” Xu said. “If the majority of the workers are saying that this [hybrid work] is something that’s better for them, I feel like it’s just the right thing to do from one human to another, to listen to their experiences and try and make accommodations where possible, especially if the work isn’t compromised.”