Alison has worked as a senior manager in HE for nearly 20 years, with considerable experience covering both pre- and post-1992 institutions.
I feel fairly safe in making the generalisation that the pandemic has created a period of swift change for us all. We have had to negotiate so much loss and illness in our families, friends and communities. We have had to adapt overnight to new restrictions, new ways of working, what we are allowed to do today, tomorrow, next week….. We have also learned those new phrases, those phrases that I am hopeful it is not just me who shudders at the sound of them yet struggles to find a better way of putting it. The new normal – enough said!
Now we are talking about returning to campus and dynamic working (aka hybrid/flexible working). Returning to campus is in itself an obtuse phrase as many teams of staff have been on campus throughout the pandemic. There are also complexities of talking about dynamic working as for many staff it will not be an option due to the nature of their roles. I am hearing a lot about ‘fairness’ at the moment, but we are dealing with a situation where fairness is not a relevant concept, this is about the role and what is required from it.
In full sight of these sensitivities, dynamic working is being embraced as the way forward and maybe being a glint of silver lining from such a terrible time. Working groups are being set up and we all grapple with what that means for us and the teams we manage.
Whilst some staff are queueing up for what they enjoy as the normality of being in the office again: some staff seem convinced they will only come on to campus every now again ‘maybe once a week’, I hear, ‘maybe a couple of days a month’. We scratch our heads and wonder what this means for teamwork and for team building usually to be rebuffed with ‘but it has worked ok for the last year’. To which I ask – ‘has it?’
Do not get me wrong, I find the idea of not being on campus every day as attractive as I think many of us do, but I also think as a line manager I ought to be routinely present to support my staff who are on campus. When I think through the logistics I am become less sure how much difference I might see personally.
I think about how things have worked in the last year and they worked by and large very well.
Some services that are student facing: the advisory services particularly around sensitive issues have been less well used than usual and not because the demand disappeared. The Counselling and Wellbeing Services, who were all up and running using Microsoft Teams throughout, have not had the take up we would expect in a usual year never mind one involving a pandemic. We know that the technology is not the problem; we think that finding private space to have a conversation can be a challenge within the domestic home. With little or no opportunity to go elsewhere to find privacy this has created barriers for many of our students.
We have inducted new staff to our teams in the last twelve months. This has worked well except when you find that a connection isn’t happening because there is no-one around to notice. You do not overhear what else is happening in the open plan office, you do not have that chance conversation in the kitchen, we are existing in our home-silos in blissful ignorance of what we do not know.
At the moment though we are trying to retrofit dynamic working on services that only know pre-pandemic and pandemic working.
So, what are you saying? I hear you ask impatiently, are you saying we will turn back the calendar to 2019 and carry on as if nothing has happened?
No, I am not, that would be foolish: we know that some students have been very glad to have more access to different modes of communication and it has made some services more accessible. There are things that we must not lose as we go forward. At the moment though we are trying to retrofit dynamic working on services that only know pre-pandemic and pandemic working. We do not know what our post-pandemic customers (students and staff from other departments) are going to want from us and I am pretty certain they do not know yet themselves either. They may think they will be rushing back, but when the day comes will they? They may think they will want to always be at home, but will that be feasible? The biggest question of all is not around the statement ‘but we know we can do this’ because we have been doing this with no other choice. Once choice comes into the equation then we are in a wide-open space clutching at passing straws to give us a clue as to what that ‘new normal’ (shudders at the phrase) will be.
Stating the issues is easy, looking for solutions will not be. Whilst having our discussions around what dynamic working could look like my area has included our Students’ Union in forming the questions we are going to try and frame what our dynamic working might look like. Whilst dynamic working will give us all personally some benefits, I am sure, we have to remember that our services are not for our benefit but for our students and internal departments. We need to know what they (think) they will expect/want.
I am also not saying we should do nothing and just wait for some light bulb moment to give us the answers we seek. For me the key to all of this is understanding how flexible we will have to be, and always keeping in mind that our services, to borrow a phrase, are about them not us.
I cannot tell you what campus will look like in September, but I know that if we have learned nothing else in the last year it is how to respond quickly when we have to. The challenge for us now is to make the right choices and be prepared to turn on a penny, amend, revise and proceed.
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