Professional Staff Organization

Return to On-Site Work

Background | Overarching themes across the UW environment | Specific areas of concern | Conclusion

Executive Summary

The following report details the open-ended responses received from 1,969 professional staff in the PSO Board’s Return to On-site Work Survey conducted July 16 – August 1, 2021. We had previously submitted the quantitative results to UW leadership on August 12, 2021. While some staff have been working onsite and others are glad to return, many staff members shared broad concerns about health, safety, equity, and quality of life. The survey was conducted prior to the UW releasing more details about autumn quarter policies, and some professional staff concerns, particularly around masking and vaccination, have been addressed. However, many of their concerns still apply. 

Based on the full survey results (both quantitative as well as open-ended/qualitative), The PSO Board highlights the following as potential near-term courses of action to improve return-to-in-person-work experiences for professional staff:

    • University and unit policies need to center equity rather than equality. As should be expected, staff members’ pandemic experiences differ widely and policies should center the needs of those most vulnerable or marginalized.
    • Caregiving: HR policies, units, and supervisors should continue to provide flexibility for those who care for children, elderly, immunocompromised, and/or other vulnerable people within their homes. HR policies should provide more concrete guidance for how supervisors can support employee caregivers.
    • Disability and Accessibility: Units should commit to ensure continued digital accessibility of data and other materials provided during the last year and half. 
    • Safety: Units and the university as a whole should continue to provide every available support to ensure that staff, particularly those of marginalized identities, can work in an environment that is physically and psychologically safe (or safer). This includes requirements of training not only on COVID-19 protocols, but also on structural safety issues such as implicit bias, microaggressions, and other drivers of hostile workplace environments.
    • Scheduling: Units should continue to offer scheduling flexibility for staff to support needs and barriers due to caregiving, transportation, disability, safety and general quality of life. HR should continue to work with unit and UW leadership to refine hybrid and remote work policies, including support for managers leading hybrid teams.
    • Indoor Spaces: Although UW Facilities has shared some information about building ventilation, staff want concrete information about their individual workspaces. Although individual staff can contact their building coordinator and UW Facilities, UW should take the lead providing this information.
    • Transportation: To enable staff to avoid peak travel periods, UW should encourage units to support staggered and flexible scheduling. UW can also continue to share educational resources and tools for staff to help plan commutes and understand safety measures. UW should reassess the UPASS for affordability and equity.
    • Sick Leave Unit leaders and supervisors should support employees staying home while mildly ill or during COVID related guarantees (including supporting remote work).

    Although a start, these near-term solutions only address some of the concerns shared in the survey. In the full report, we provide more detail about professional staff concerns and potential longer-term courses of action to address underlying issues. 


    Over the course of spring quarter of 2021 the PSO Board received numerous emails from UW professional staff, voicing concerns, confusion, and requests for assistance regarding return to onsite/in-person work. In order to more systematically hear from and understand the needs of the 10,000 professional staff regarding this issue, we developed a survey to invite their thoughts. Our objectives were to provide a space for membership to share their experiences, needs and priorities; and to elevate those voices to UW leadership.

    The PSO Board formed a working group to develop and manage the survey. The survey consisted of 11 questions: 6 single- or multiple-choice, and 5 optional, open-ended questions. The survey was sent to the PSO listserv of 10,838 people on July 16, and was open through August 1, 2021. With the initial email and a reminder email sent on July 29, we received a total of 1,969 valid responses. 

    The survey was anonymous: no NETID was required, to give respondents confidence that they could answer freely. Survey takers did have to affirm that they were a professional staff member, but it is possible that someone who wasn’t professional staff took the survey, and/or that someone took the survey more than once. Because the survey took a “convenience sample”, response may be overrepresenting those who had concerns about returning to on-site work, as they might have been more motivated to take the survey than those who did not. We believe this to be an important indicator: hearing from almost 2,000 staff is significant, and merits the need to lift up their responses.

     Within the 1,969 survey entries were over 2,000 individual answers to the 5 open-ended questions: details about staff’s experiences and needs that required more time to process. Due to the timing of return to onsite work, the PSO Board working group decided to share analysis of the single- and multiple-choice survey responses with UW leadership as soon as possible, to allow for maximal possibility that the results would inform return to in-person work. while beginning analysis on the qualitative survey results. We presented the initial results on August 12. The full letter and analysis given to UW Leadership include the following points:

    • Most survey responses indicated working at Seattle campus (74.9%) and next largest group work at Harborview and UW Medical Center (15.3%). Over 5% of respondents indicated that they work in more than one work location.
    • As of late July, under half of respondents had already been working onsite. 44% had worked at least some time on site in June 2021, and 23.3% of all respondents worked at least one day a week in June.
    • Over two thirds of respondents (68.9%) had engaged in one-on-one conversations with their supervisor about returning to on-site work. One hundred respondents (4.6%) had not had any communications with their unit (individual or group).
    • Roughly 1,000—over half—of respondents indicated concern about onsite workplace safety with respect to COVID-19: including the safety of public transport, airflow of work area, and the lack of physical distancing at their workplace.
    • Eighty percent of respondents stated at least one non-COVID related concern about returning to on-site work, such as transportation (51.9%), inability to work desired remote or hybrid schedules (44.3%), or microaggressions or harassment while working (11.5%).
    • Over 40 respondents requested that the PSO follow up with them personally, which we did. 

    In response to our initial outreach to UW leadership, we received a response from President Cauce on August 31st thanking us for the initial results, acknowledging that the concerns our memberships shared align with those that they had heard from across the campus community, and making mention of some updates that were announced later that day in response to some of these concerns.

    Following on our initial report to UW leadership, we analyzed the open-ended questions. To do so, we created a “codebook” based on the COVID- and non-COVID-concern categories included in the survey’s multiple-choice questions, iterated and refined the codebook based on a test group of responses, and then coded the responses. Finally, the working group synthesized the responses and the themes, recognizing the intersection across all of the codes. We strove to identify overarching concerns within each theme as well as across the survey; near-term opportunities to address those concerns; any known changes to UW policy that have addressed these concerns since the survey was implemented; and any overarching structural challenges that related to each theme. Below we present our analysis of these themes of concerns.

    Overarching themes across the UW environment

    The results of the survey, like the voices of our professional staff community, included a wide range of experiences about the anticipation of return to onsite work, from excitement to calm to concern (as well as statements of having worked onsite throughout the pandemic). Additionally, as the survey was implemented in late July, many aspects of the return-to-onsite-work context have changed and continue to change: in each unit, across University of Washington, and with the pandemic more broadly. Importantly, while most of the guidance for return to onsite work is provided at the institutional level, the details that are most salient to each professional staff person’s situation are being decided at each campus, unit, and building and it varies widely. However, even given these dimensions of variability, the survey responses reflected strong cross-UW themes, and highlighted persistent, and sometimes structural, challenges. 

    It seems clear that existing structures may not be sufficient to operate in a global pandemic. For example, a staff member may be able to get an accommodation to work remotely due to being immunocompromised, but they cannot get an accommodation to work from home because they live with someone immunocompromised. Caregivers of children want continued flexibility until young children can get vaccinated, and due to facing inevitable school COVID exposures. Caregivers of adults are less certain about whether their telework needs will be met. In such times, compliance cannot and should not be more important than care.

    More importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and often magnified inequities at UW that long existed pre-COVID. For example, many professional staff have had to come in and worked onsite for partial or the entire pandemic without additional compensation and in some cases make far less than their fully remote coworkers. Many respondents indicated that they are required to take on greater risk due to the nature of their job and that they have not been recognized with additional financial compensation reflecting the risk that they are assuming by doing their jobs. Systems and policies to alleviate these inequities should not fall on the shoulders of the affected individuals. Staff, as well as faculty and students, need policies to center equity and justice rather than equality. 

    Staff want flexibility and grace to be centered. Transitioning back to work while navigating uncertainties of a shifting pandemic will take time. It is not a single instance of return to on-site work but a year of transition. And though dynamics will continue to shift, staff also want transparency and consistency in guidance, and for the institution to model trust. Many staff asked, “why now?” and emphasized that we’re not “back to normal.” The date for return to in-person work seems to be the only concrete constraint among a continuing, dynamic range of variables. Many staff find the protocols to be too rigid and not reflective of the needs of their position and the fact that they have been working remotely effectively for the last year and a half. There was a consistent theme that the back-to-campus initiative is being carried out inequitably and without clear reasoning. Many respondents said that without flexibility they will leave, and/or they know of others leaving or considering doing so. Of course, the more staff leave, the greater the pressure and workload on those who remain, and on university systems (HR, individual hiring units, managers, etc.).

    However, first and foremost, staff want safety and health to be centered. While some are willing or happy to return to onsite work, respondents want UW to address safety concerns directly, and to clearly communicate approaches. UW has control over much of the areas of concern. But staff still have many logistical questions and concerns that relate to the level of the unit, building, and/or campus. For example, how do they know the HVAC in their workspace has been recently checked/updated? Will their supervisor support them staying at home with mild symptoms? What PPE are provided? How will contact tracing happen? At the time, while UW was still finalizing these procedures, staff were unsure if and when to expect more guidance. These types of questions weigh on staff’s minds, and the resources and training made available by UW on these topics may not be trickling down quickly or effectively enough to prove accessible or useful for fully allaying these concerns. While some staff expressed confidence in their co-workers to keep each other safe, there is a recognition that clear guidance, and timely updates as circumstances evolve, are central to safety and health.

    The survey also highlighted the fact that the campus community is greater than the UW physical grounds. Staff, faculty, students, as well as childcare centers, contractors, vendors, families, neighbors, and visitors are typically flowing in and out of every facility that UW associates with. The risk and uncertainty associated with this porosity is difficult to manage.

    Perhaps the most salient overarching message is that, for the last year and half, remote staff have had to create their family’s risk calculus. They have decided who to see and what to do, and many (but not all) have also found comfort in working at home during a time of great upheaval. Now staff are being asked to cede a measure of control about their own safety, and that of their families, at a time when there’s still a huge amount of confusion about how to assess and navigate current risks outside the home. Many staff said they respected UW’s approach to keeping the community safe throughout the pandemic thus far. Yet, returning to onsite work during the emergence of the Delta variant has brought confusion, anxiety, doubt that the institution has staff’s best interests at heart, and, for some, a feeling that the university is signaling that they do not now trust staff to make decisions on how best to accomplish their jobs.

    Specific areas of concern

    The areas of concern discussed below are highly intersecting. Two themes that have largely been addressed since the survey was taken include masking and vaccination. 


    At the time the survey was conducted, the masking policy only applied to unvaccinated individuals. Since the completion of the survey, UW has enacted a stricter face-covering policy: masks are required indoors at all UW facilities as well as at outdoor events with 500+ attendees, regardless of vaccination status. The primary concerns shared by respondents are addressed by the change in policy. 

    A concern among respondents was that the prior policy had the potential to contribute to hostile workplaces for both those who are unvaccinated and those who chose to mask despite being vaccinated. This concern is related to some of the safety concerns that we heard more broadly. 

    In the near term, professional staff want UW to continue to implement face covering/PPE policies that reflect the current state of the ongoing pandemic and promote a culture of safety and well-being for all of the UW community. 


    Respondents expressed overwhelming support for a more strict vaccination policy, which has since been put in place. Many staff also expressed comfort with returning to work because of their own vaccination status. However, more could be done to address the ambiguity around the vaccination attestation process. Respondents expressed confusion about vaccination status visibility in Workday and UW systems. Additionally, individuals with health concerns unrelated to COVID-19 felt that they were put in situations where they were forced to disclose personal and medical information to supervisors/the UW as an employer that they wouldn’t otherwise disclose. 

    UW could provide more clarity about vaccination status documentation, verification systems, and sharing/disclosing vaccination status. A ‘one-pager’ could be a helpful resource to alleviate anxiety around this topic. 


    Due to Delta, worries about bringing the virus home from work (including public transportation) to unvaccinated children and elderly adults. Many professional staff that have children at home want to work from home until their children get vaccinated. (A breakthrough infection not only puts the parent’s child at risk for illness but means their child has to be excluded from childcare for at least 10 days.) These same parents also want flexibility with scheduling since child care remains precarious. Due to more strict illness protocols and COVID exclusions, children will be sent home even more than usual. If an adult gets a breakthrough infection, then young children will have to stay home for two weeks as well. For those staff that have eldely or immunocompromised relatives at home, they want to work from home until case counts are more under control. 

    In the near term, staff would like clearer acknowledgement of the uncertainty and stress facing caregivers. Units and HR policies should encourage continued flexibility for caregivers of all kinds–children, elderly, immunocompromised, or otherwise in need of consistent care–and provide more concrete guidance for supervisors on how they can support employees who are caregivers. Longer-term questions remain for how UW can better support caregivers in finding more affordable care, and how the work environment can better support caregivers.

    Disability and Accessibility

    Employees are worried about the increased exposure that returning to the office poses for those who are immunocompromised (themselves, or people in their household). This is a particular concern for those who work in facilities witn non-UW employees who are not subject to the vaccine mandate. Current accommodation structures do not account for household members, only the employee, and some staff who have sought accommodations have received passive or active pushback. Others are worried that the accommodations that have come with remote work will completely disappear, including access to information that had not been routinely provided onsite. And others are concerned about their colleagues with disabilities.

    Near term actions could include a commitment at the unit level to ensure digital accessibility to data and other materials. Long-term needs include more accessible buildings and infrastructure for those with disabilities. 


    Staff of marginalized identity locations, particularly staff with Black, Asian and Pacific Islander, and other racialized identities expressed concerns about microaggressions, bias, and harassment targeting them and their communities upon return to onsite work. Staff also want to know about the overall level of community safety around their worksites, including areas that have been much less populated during the pandemic and have potentially seen an uptick in property crimes. 

    To address these issues, staff call for continued provision of resources and incentive, for positive contributions in the UW’s capacity-building to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. These efforts could help to ensure that return to in-person work plans are based on the perspective of and offer safer spaces for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and is accessible and safer for those with marginalized identities.


    Broadly, staff expressed stress and anxiety about the reshuffling of everyone’s work locations and the resulting implications. While respondents expressed a range of preferences for remote, in-person, or hybrid work, many felt the UW policies seemed rushed, and arbitrarily interpreted across units with a lack of transparency or clear explanation. Staff mentioned that telework policies were inequitable and could be interpreted or implemented with bias. Staff expressed concerns with managing hybrid teams, and also perceptions that they aren’t trusted to manage their own time.

    In the short term, more time and more flexibility are desired in order to accommodate shifting needs and barriers due to caregiving, transportation, disability, safety and/or general quality of life. The forms for hybrid and flexible work should continue to be refined. Many staff said they did not have enough flexibility built in, for example to accommodate some staff’s need to vary their on-site work days week by week. Staff called for explicit considerations of workload implications on those working primarily onsite with a remote or hybrid team. Communication to professional staff could provide more resources for those managing hybrid teams, and more clearly state how return to in-person work is not about not trusting staff to do their work remotely.

    Structural challenges with work scheduling includes examining the metrics of “professionalism” and “success” within the workspaces to the extent that these metrics center and normalize dominant identity markers. Examples include timeliness, measures of productivity, etc. UW could take serious consideration of telework as an equity issue that promotes accessibility and affordability. 

    Indoor Spaces

    Respondents expressed significant concern about indoor workspaces – health and safety, as well as general quality and comfort. Staff want assurances about safety and health concerns related to indoor spaces and airflow in UW buildings especially when working in windowless spaces, open office plans, and/or older buildings. Many staff expressed dissatisfaction with the space itself such as the lack of privacy, open office floor plans, and depressing workspaces. Additionally, respondents expressed anxiety about non-UW access to indoor spaces, and how they would be managed with respect to COVID-19 safety protocols. These concerns are complicated for those who do not work in UW-owned or managed spaces. 

    While the UW Facilities team has shared many materials with the campus community about ventilation and COVID-19, a near-term support would be to provide more information to staff about their workspaces. While staff may contact their building coordinator to learn about their office’s protocols and equipment and opportunities for servicing, and may also reach out directly to the UW Facilities care team for more support, many do not know that this is the case. UW can take the lead in providing ventilation information. The main long-term challenge is upgrades to HVAC systems, and the capacity and resources to make those happen. Additionally, as the university continues to grow, quantity and quality of staff workspaces need to be prioritized, especially if staff are required to work on campus.


    A large portion of staff are deeply concerned about the safety of public transportation. Two general categories of concern were raised. The first concern is the perceived safety of public transportation. Many staff who typically take public transit are hesitant to do so due to anxiety about exposure to COVID, particularly those with children ineligible for the vaccine and/or immunocompromised household members. Pre-pandemic public transit going to/from the UW were often packed, and many expressed that they do not feel safe being in this environment. Some staff also expressed concern about physical safety getting to/from transit and/or campus.

    The second main concern expressed by staff is the cost, in both time and money, of commuting to campus. Regarding the financial cost, the expense of the UPASS (and its limitations, for example the exclusion of ferries), the cost of parking on/near campus, and the limitation of parking on/near campus all came up as significant barriers. 

    Time spent commuting is a serious concern that many respondents also expressed. Staff reported that the lack of commute over the past 1.5 years led to an improvement in their quality of life. Additionally, respondents expressed uncertainty about scheduling, route availability and density of ridership on public transit. Many expressed frustration of having to navigate these challenges when they have been successful and productive working from home. 

    The university has begun to acknowledge these concerns and suggest ways to mitigate them, sharing educational tools and resources for staff to plan their commute and learn about what transit resources are available to them. UW could also encourage supervisors to allow for staggered start times. More broadly: Professional staff pay more than other UW employees for UPASS. UW should assess options for reducing the cost of the pass; one potential solution is to look at a sliding scale relative to salary grades.

    Sick Leave

    Many staff cited cultural and policy impediments to taking the time needed for physical and mental health and wellness. Respondents also stated strong concerns that their co-workers might not take sick-leave when ill. Staff stated that bereavement leave is inadequate, and that shared leave is difficult to use and navigate. Some ways to address these issues include providing front-loaded sick leave for new employees, and allowing teleworking while ill. UW has put some resources together to address other issues regarding time off and other benefits. A longer-term challenge is to develop more policy and cultural support for taking sick leave and to ensure teams are properly staffed to not create extra pressure to work when ill.


    One of the most critical takeaways from the PSO Board working group’s analysis of survey responses is that many staff are feeling that they are being put in an impossible position. Respondents indicated, in large numbers, that they have gone above and beyond (and many reported feeling like they have been more productive than ever while working from home!) during the pandemic, and that the rush to return to campus amidst the surging of infections and the constantly-changing makeup of the disease is confusing, disheartening, and is sewing distrust in UW leadership’s willingness or capacity to equitably care for the collective risks, priorities and needs of the professional staff community. Broader discussions about this topic resonate strongly with this takeaway.

    Secondly, it is clear that many of the concerns regarding return to in-person work are long-term structural issues that create inflexible, inaccessible, and inequitable experiences for professional staff across the UW environment. 

    The PSO Board working group on the survey about return to in-person work is sharing these results with our membership, UW leadership, and the public with the sincere hope that the university not only considers, but also will act to address these concerns: for short-term alleviation of key barriers to job success and satisfaction, and for long-term structural equity and support for professional staff. 

    Most importantly, we deeply appreciate hearing from all professional staff who shared your voices through this survey, as well as through email and other means. Your perspectives guide us in better advocating for all professional staff across the University of Washington–during this time of uncertainty and transition, and beyond.