From culture shock to culture shift – changing working practice in HE

Covid-19 brought a largely unwelcome shift to university staff's working practice - but might there be long term positive impacts? Joel Arber wonders whether the pandemic could bring an end to the "tyranny of the clock".

Universities are large and complex organisations. But higher education has lagged behind other complex sectors such as local government and the NHS in terms of implementing major change programmes.

This is for a number of reasons, notably including academic autonomy and devolved decision-making. But at the top of the list are cumbersome governance structures that slow down approvals, and the absence of a burning platform. Covid-19 has provided the fuel and lit the match. As we explore further in our recent report Harnessing the Winds of Change, the sector has responded with remarkable alacrity and pragmatism.

Social animals, digital immigrants

Universities are inherently social: “We are a community of communities”, as the marketing director at a research intensive university told us. Yet as entities that thrive on academic collaboration, socialisation, and in most cases a strong sense of place, necessity has dictated personal physical isolation – at least for now.

Wherever possible, colleagues across the academy have moved their working lives online. The reluctant have been forced to change – sometimes quite creatively. For example, in response to more than 200 office-based staff asserting that they had to work from the office and were unable to work from home, one university facilitated this by enabling them to work from the university library while the rest of the campus was closed for office working. When presented with this option, all but 19 staff members found that home working was feasible after all.

Many university IT directors and change leaders are celebrating that they have finally got the traction they needed to roll out software adoption by staff. But this doesn’t mean “job done”.

Overcoming digital inequalities has been an unforeseen problem for many, as one registrar explained: “We identified a much larger group of both staff and students than we expected who are digitally deprived in their own homes making remote working and remote learning very difficult.”

And there is still plenty to remind us that culture change is a slow, iterative process. One chief operating officer captured this challenge: “Some of our lecturers can’t wait to get back on campus, back to their old rooms, and go back to doing things as they’ve always done them. That can’t happen. Teaching online – that will remain in place. But we are going to need to help those people get better, get comfortable with it…so they don’t want to go back to how things used to be.”

Deliverables, not desk-time

As historian Eric Hobsbawm famously commented, “Industry brings the tyranny of the clock.” This time-tied approach to work remains core to many university workers in 2020 even though its relevance is better suited to the first industrial revolution than Industry 4.0. Yet presenteeism and hours worked remain pervasive and are still incentivised in many universities through outmoded mechanisms such as time-off-in-lieu.

The home office setting adds contextual complication to the concept of working “core hours”. It similarly presents challenges for managers, unable to oversee a presenteeism model within this context. As a sector, higher education has failed to get its head around the reality that outputs are a more relevant measure than hours. This has to be done on the basis of trust – a word overused in universities’ value sets, but one that needs to be actively deployed between employer and employee in the future of work.

Adjusting to the more flexible working patterns required by staff during this lockdown presents an excellent opportunity for universities to make the leap. Their employees can then focus their energies on delivering what is needed, not on clock-watching.

The shift to working from home has also made a positive impact on university meeting culture. Many universities are seeing online meetings as being more effective. They are typically shorter and more intense: attendees have to focus and make decisions. Others specifically referenced that it has cut out some of the politics and posturing – with less scope for people feeling they need to be seen to be making a point.

What began as a crisis response is now reshaping working practices across UK HE. This, in turn, is driving universities to rethink both the services they provide and their academic portfolios. How the sector handles these challenges will leave a legacy that impacts university cultures and reputations as well as their financial sustainability for years to come.

What a catalyst you turned out to be

Covid-19 has seen the higher education sector respond well under pressure. It has showcased the importance of our universities as generators of knowledge, original research, new thinking, and educators. And it has shown that these often lumbering organisations can be decisive and fast-moving.

In speaking with a range of university leaders we have discovered that for many, whilst recognising the importance of balancing the books, their university decision-making was driven by a moral obligation to do the right thing for staff and students. As one chief operating officer put it, their approach reflected the reality that, “What we do now will be remembered for a long time…we will be judged on the decisions we make.”

Though some doom-mongers predict dark days for university finances, the unintended positive consequences of the sectoral response are there to show us all how we turn the challenges we face into opportunities. Looking at how the sector has adapted has demonstrated that it is more open to change and different ways of working; it employs resilient, effective teams of people; it can think fast and make decisions quickly within governance structures that have proved to be less rigid than one might have imagined.

It has taken a global pandemic to shake up higher education in the UK – but shake it up it has. It also begs a key question: Why try to revert to business as usual when a once in a lifetime opportunity exists to make fundamental improvements to the fabric of HE?

2 responses to “From culture shock to culture shift – changing working practice in HE

  1. A Chief Operating Operating Officer who says teaching must stay online. Clearly someone with a deep knowledge of pedagogy and learning whose opinion on such things you’d trust.

  2. I made a comment on a previous post that necessity was the mother of all invention and I believe this to true in this case. I have worked in a college where ‘trust’ was an issue; they were very much into presenteeism. However, being productive is key and this can be equally if not better achieved, at home. I understand that skills, technology and confidence plays a huge part in the success of this but it is achievable, if we are all willing to engage in it… employers, staff and students. I’m unsure what the future holds in terms of extended home working for staff, but I do believe that face to face interaction must not be lost in the process, particularly when we consider the mature learner. Online material and delivery is probably taken to be the younger student, but we mustn’t forget that older learners are likely to be less familiar with technology.

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