Manuel Cuevas-Trisan.

Manuel Cuevas-Trisán discusses new initiatives Harvard Human Resources is considering to adapt to changes in the workplace.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

A new era of work

8 min read

Harvard’s HR leader explains how University plans to ensure flexibility and compete for top talent while maintaining vibrant campus

Traditional ideas of where and how we work are being reconsidered nationwide, and no group of employees is grappling with the changes more acutely than human resources departments. Under its first year of guidance from Manuel Cuevas-Trisán, Harvard Human Resources is considering new policies and initiatives to adapt to changes in the workplace, including retention and recruitment challenges in a remote-work environment. The Gazette sat down with Cuevas-Trisán to get his thoughts on initiatives meant to address employee burnout, recruitment, and the challenge of providing broad guidance to a decentralized campus community.


Manuel Cuevas-Trisán

GAZETTE: Over the summer, HHR introduced the new Guiding Principles of Dynamic Work for Harvard Staff. If you could just talk about what they are and why they’re important?

MANUEL CUEVAS-TRISÁN: The work that led to the Guiding Principles of Dynamic Work for Harvard Staff actually started even before I began at Harvard, shortly after the pivot toward remote work due to COVID. The Guiding Principles are an attempt to articulate — though I am not particularly fond of the phrase — what the “future of work” will look like at Harvard. We intentionally framed our perspective through principles, rather than an overly prescriptive policy lens, and our focus areas are:

  • Dynamic and evolving workplace
  • Intentional presence
  • Outcomes-based performance
  • Equity
  • Flexibility
  • Well-being

Looking back at March of 2020, employers had no choice but to provide remote options to continue operating in a pandemic environment. Today, as we emerge from the pandemic with greater knowledge and experience, we have choices as to how we build upon the two years of work habits that have been altered during that time. A statement of principles offers Schools and units a flexible framework that accounts for the different ways in which our staff delivers support and services and accommodates the differences in the cultures and operations at each of our Schools. The Guiding Principles also acknowledge that we are operating in a highly competitive talent market and that concepts of work, the worker, and the workplace have evolved after 2½ years of a collective experience of remote work.

This acknowledgment must be balanced with the fact that at its core Harvard is a residential campus teeming with intellectual vibrancy, research, teaching, learning, and discovery. It is also an integral part of the economic and cultural fabric of Cambridge and Greater Boston. Convening for learning, researching, and collaborating, as well as for supporting the communities in which we operate, is in the DNA of the Harvard experience. We want to balance that reality along with the fact that this is also a 21st-century workplace that must compete for talent that demands greater sense of agency in how they work. The institutional stance in the Guiding Principles makes us more competitive and attractive as an employer, without sacrificing our core identity as a residential campus.

GAZETTE: Given the differences in size, operations, and cultures among the Schools, how did you go about coming up with principles that apply institution-wide? It’s obvious that the pandemic brought a dramatic shift to the workforce in terms of remote work. How did that reality factor into these initiatives?

CUEVAS-TRISÁN: Think about what has happened since March of 2020: A vast majority of the workforce (our own and across all sectors of the economy) has been working entirely remotely or on a hybrid basis. Our habits have changed, and expectations have changed. We’ve tried to ascertain which new habits can be incorporated to the way we collaborate, which can be modified, and which are incompatible with our mission. The question then is: How are we going to do this in a way that allows Harvard to leverage the best of the hybrid and remote work experience, but also preserve and enhance the value of a campus residential experience?

Harvard Human Resources worked closely with administrators, with employees who have provided input along the way, with academic leaders across the University, with the Academic Council, and with the Administrative Council to ensure the Guiding Principles reflect the perspectives of the entire community. I think the community at large and certainly leadership in the University agreed that operating from a set of principles allows us to set minimum standards that every School and unit can rally around. Within the bounds of those broad principles, everyone can adjust and operate with the autonomy that they’re accustomed to and in a way that addresses the uniqueness of their respective workforces.

GAZETTE: Over the course of the pandemic there was a lot of concern about exhaustion and the phenomenon of burnout. How is HHR recognizing and combatting the rise of worker burnout?

CUEVAS-TRISÁN: Burnout is a real phenomenon. It was experienced across American workplaces prior to the pandemic and was exacerbated by the uncertainties — economic, public health, personal isolation, among other disruptions — of the pandemic. We looked at our own data indicators of burnout and, with the support of both senior academic and administrative leaders, launched the Recharge Harvard campaign. That may sound like something that is associated only with making use of vacation time, but everything that we’re doing in the benefits space is about achieving a more optimal integration between our work and your personal lives. It’s also about recognizing that burnout is not about individual factors in isolation, but about the organizational context and the systems of support for individual members of our community. As such, Recharge Harvard is a first step to encourage a culture of well-being by setting a different tone, to change the habit of treating all work with the same urgency. Bear in mind that we operated in “crisis mode” for over two years. Recharge Harvard seeks to establish a different tone from the top. It encourages leaders and their teams to distinguish what’s mission-critical versus what may be important but can and should wait. It provides structure to collaborate in the organization, design, and execution of duties in ways that help each of us stay energized by our work, increase our sense of efficacy, and also enjoy the time that we’ve earned.

GAZETTE: HHR just announced an expansion of what could be labeled “inclusive benefits.” What was the motivation behind these updates?

CUEVAS-TRISÁN: Harvard already has a robust benefits infrastructure for our entire workforce, from caretaking to total rewards, medical, educational, and professional development benefits. But we have been actively monitoring the benefits market, benchmarking other institutions, and listening to our staff and faculty — primarily, though not exclusively, through various affinity groups. Through that process of analysis and active listening, we identified opportunities to enhance the design and coverage of our benefits through a lens of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

In early July, we announced the expansion of our childcare scholarship programs. The change broadens the range of eligibility based on income and we’ve increased the cap so more people have access to those programs. As part of that enhancement, we’ve increased the funding the University provides to reimburse people for childcare expenses.

For the 2023 benefit year, we are also adding hair transplantation and electrolysis to the range of existing medical benefits. I think these enhancements reflect a commitment to be inclusive of all families and identities, and a step forward in fostering and continuously investing in our diverse workforce.

We’re pleased to have announced second-parent adoption benefits to include stepparents. Employees in married partnerships, regardless of gender or gender identity, can now apply to the program for the legal adoption of their partner’s child. This change is particularly important for LGBTQ+ couples but benefits all stepparents. And we’re enhancing our infertility benefit to eliminate some barriers for same-sex partners and single women.

GAZETTE: Reflect on your time here at Harvard, now that you’ve been in the role for over a year. As you look ahead to the future, anything else on the horizon?

CUEVAS-TRISÁN: Well, this has been a very intense first year and I feel I am still progressing in my “Harvard learning curve.” My team and I are committed to making Harvard the best and most attractive talent platform for both our current and future workforce. We have a lot to offer as an employer, but we have opportunities for improvement, too, including how we communicate the value of working at Harvard. I look at the Harvard staff and its extraordinary range of talent, the quality of our workforce, as a great source of wealth for the University. But talent needs to be cultivated, developed, and shared.

Looking ahead, you can expect enhanced professional development programs for our employees through our Center for Workplace Development, a greater emphasis on diversification of our talent pools, continuing emphasis on the promotion of mental health for our staff, a thoughtful use of workforce data to improve our investment in our people, and expanding collaborations with key partners like OEDIB, HR deans at each of the Schools, HUHS, and our various identity-based affinity groups.

From where I sit, there has never been a more exciting time to be in higher education, especially as a human resources leader. Going forward, optimism is the operative word for me.