Them and us – the challenge of managing across multi-site campuses
Alison Levey | Director of Student and Academic Services, Aston University
For the majority of my time working in universities I have worked on multi-site campuses. It is a rare university that has only one campus and it is therefore a common experience for University managers and a challenge to have to work and manage across more than one site. In this article I want to share my experience and advice about working and managing across sites.
Firstly it is an known truth that the grass is greener over there, where-ever over there happens to be. If you are on the main campus then you long for the freedom of the other campuses where they can do whatever they like as they are not under the watchful eye as we are. If you are based on the ‘other’ campus/es, then they are so much better off because of the resources they have and they are not ignored and excluded as we are. It is difficult enough if it is complete departments on the other site, and if you split a department across a site then multiply these beliefs and cynicisms by 1000.
Does it matter? You need to consider carefully the student experience at the different locations. Be in no doubt, if the staff are not feeling happy this will leak down to the students. Does Welcome/Freshers’ Week mainly happen at the main campus? Do you have students who feel that where they are based they are grateful for any crumb of attention they receive? If the students are picking up on the multi-site issues then you have more than just some staff cynicism on your hands. When you reflect on how precious time is: none of us have enough and spending time having to deal with a hot-spot of management issues in one area takes away from time that could be spent more positively for the good of all.
Are these beliefs deluded paranoia? There can be an element of truth in them, even if that element of truth is created by the paranoia/cynicism (a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’). So what can be done to try and alleviate these feelings particularly if you are a manager with staff on both sites?
It is important to think about whether the staff feel appreciated. How often do meetings happen on another campus? This is not as easy solution as it may sound as busy diaries do not allow for considerable amounts of travel time without careful planning. That careful planning though is well worth the effort. The phrase ‘no we will come to you this time’ buys a huge amount of goodwill. It also buys you knowledge of what is really happening on that site. You should think through how practical would it be for you to work for a routine period of time at another site? To be a visible presence really matters; it enables you to ‘know’ the lay of the land and the issues that come with it. The shared
experience of local knowledge truly matters and will help you be a better manager as you can speak with experience when issues are being discussed. You might know that car park 2b floods in spring. You might know that the light in main reception is dim even with electric lighting and it makes a poor first impression. If you never go there you might not realise what this means as a daily experience. When you see it you then understand fully the ramifications. What actually matters most of all is that you will be routinely wandering the corridors, you will be using the shared kitchen, you will be pass people in the corridor who (will eventually) smile and say hello to you; you might even share a passing comment and a laugh. You will be a real person not ‘that person over there who does not know who we are or understand what it is like here’.
‘Oh this is lovely’ I hear you say, ‘have you any idea how busy I am?’ Yes of course, we are all busy, but that carved out morning or afternoon or even full day a week spent in the other office can save you so much other time that you would have spent trying to resolve things from a distance. It might also give you that quiet office where you can have a bit of free head space to focus on that think you need to focus on.
‘But we have video calls’ (Facetime/Skype etc) you say, ‘we do not need to physically be anywhere’. This is very true and video calls are incredibly useful; but they are second best to being there.
Of course, not all other campuses are on the same continent. This is patently more difficult to deal with. Obviously a weekly or monthly visit is unlikely to be possible. I would still argue that visiting does matter and should happen. Exchange visits where groups visit from other campuses to each other is very helpful for building relationships and for getting that shared understanding of what it is like to work in the different locations. Video calls are vital as being able to see people and talk to them properly is far more effective than email correspondence. Email is the curse of university life, it is quick, easy and impersonal. You can confuse, miscommunicate, misinterpret and offend people very easily. But that, as they say, is whole other blog post……
In short, what is the advice I am giving you here? I think it is summed up as ‘be a person, not a name on the end of an email’. Manage your staff across the sites as you manage the ones closest to you. Know their routines and their cultures, do not dismiss their experiences but also do not pander to the ‘we’re different’ trope. Difference that can be justified is important to recognise and support; difference because ‘that’s the way we have always done it’ may need to be investigated and challenged.
I end by stating the elephant in the room, I am based at Aston University and we are a single site campus. You would think this would make all this advice irrelevant to my current role. I am sure I am not alone in believing that sometimes just being in a different office can be like being on another campus especially if that office is on another floor. We all have our tribes and cultures and they differ between the smallest of distances. You forget this at your peril.