The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Using Data and Empathy to Drive Decisions About COVID-19 Workforce Reductions

The higher ed workforce has been hit hard due to COVID-19-related causes. According to a recent article by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 650,000 higher ed jobs were lost last year. With potential budget reductions on the horizon, this number is sure to climb. While workforce reductions may be necessary for some institutions to stay afloat, higher ed leaders can employ strategies to handle them appropriately and with empathy.

CUPA-HR, in cooperation with NACUBO, recently hosted a webinar that explored HR strategies for managing the crisis, using data to drive decisions, and maintaining a long-term view when making short-term decisions. Below, we’ve highlighted how two chief HR officers are utilizing data and empathy to take action across several HR functions.

Workforce Reductions

  • Gather data: Determine what percentage of staff positions are currently utilized to drive workforce reduction decisions. Focus on workforce planning categories of positions (strategic, core, currently utilized) as part of the ongoing budget process.
  • Act with empathy: Take appropriate steps to retain key talent and maintain a consistent approach to individual flexibility when it comes to remote work and family care. Create a low-risk environment through frequent COVID-19 testing and follow health and safety guidelines.

Partner With Other Leaders

  • Gather data: Engage and partner with shared governance committees to develop a multi-year plan to streamline the cost of health benefits, pension and retiree health programs and other potential employment actions.
  • Act with empathy: Be transparent and have open communication with the entire campus community. Host town halls for data sharing, voicing and addressing concerns.

Residential Learning and Safety 

  • Gather data: Utilize data to build a hybrid instructional model.
    Act with empathy: Recognize that the host community relies on students being in-residence to maintain local businesses and employment. Enhance student testing protocol to once per week, determine quarantine capacity, and maintain frequent testing for high-contact faculty and staff.


As you make these short-term decisions, keep the long-term vision of your institution at the forefront. Understand the strategic vision and communicate it constantly; keep the key priorities and objectives up front for alignment and relevance (people, diversity, etc.); and demonstrate flexibility, rapid adjustment and collaboration during these evolving times.

Related resources:

Slides and Resources From the Webinar “How to Use Data and Empathy to Handle COVID-19 Workforce Reductions

CUPA-HR DataOnDemand How-To Guide – Benchmarking for Faculty and Staff Size

CUPA-HR Research