The 2020-21 academic year will go down as one of the most challenging times for higher education. The start of the new academic year has thankfully hailed some vague normality, even if Omicron currently has us all trepidatious.
But while that outward sense of familiarity has returned in part, does this reflect what’s going on inside the heads of staff? Are they returning to jobs and careers as before, or have things taken a turn?
Consultant Hugh Jones and I sought stories from colleagues working in the student and academic services profession to find out more. As the professionals who keep many of the sector’s wheels turning, it’s important to know what they are thinking.
We gathered their stories via a sector-wide survey we ran during August and September. And 608 stories later – from short tales to weighty tomes – a new narrative is emerging.
Overall, that narrative tells us that the pandemic experience is leading these professionals to set out new expectations and make new choices. Life and work cultures are changing. People are rebalancing priorities about how they work, where they work, what they do, and the values by which they want to do so.
For some people this means adjusting within their current role; for others it means looking at something new.
Here are the factors that people have shared with us that are changing and rebalancing their outlooks as they emerge from the pandemic experience.
It’s hybrid or the highway
Hybrid working was the main topic that people wanted to tell us about, perhaps not surprisingly with it being an unprecedented shift to working lives.
We heard a lot about the operational and cultural challenges that were still to be resolved. Equally striking was that many people said hybrid would need to be a norm in any future role: a new term and condition. Where this was not possible, people would move elsewhere.
From the start of 2021-22, the majority planned to spend between a third to just over a half of their working week on campus and the remainder working from home. Work-life balance was the primary reason for the hybrid requirement. Greater productivity was the second.
The comparison of a designated working space at home with no commute versus an open-plan office environment and unreliable transport was clear. However, not everyone was fortunate to have that home environment, leading to some concern that institutions needed to take care about how hybrid was embedded into organisational culture.
While Zoom has brought talking cats and the like, respondents confirmed that no one could conquer virtual replication of ad-hoc, occasionally eyebrow-raising, corridor conversations. The return of campus life was therefore welcomed to recapture those experiences – but on hybrid terms.
Let’s stick together?
HEIs are complex places, not least the working relationships between staff. With almost complete remote working and a worldwide crisis in tow during the height of the pandemic, relationships had the potential to disintegrate. Yet our data told us a different story.
The first indication was the type of skill development that respondents had undertaken since March 2020. Beyond the obvious reply about technology, the second highest rated activity was people-related skills – resilience, communication and supporting others.
We then saw this translated into practice. The data shows that, overall, relationships improved within teams, with other professional services and notably with academic staff.
Part of the reason was due to people pulling together during a crisis. But other reasons were new ways of communicating and that many people simply prioritised kinder ways of working.
Changing the working dynamics to a more supportive setting is a big shift for parts of the sector. How much of this was “of the moment” and how much is being translated into permanent ways of working is a big question.
Our guess is that approaches will vary across institutions but where practices are retained, it is a factor that will encourage people to want to stay.
Institutional leadership styles have become front-and centre for many staff. Stories ranged from unfailing praise of how their institution’s leadership team led during the crisis through to sheer resentment.
The next test was whether people had seen evidence of the senior team self-reflecting on their pandemic performance and how this then fed into future practice.
Two particular points stood out. The first was if a leadership team was strengthening its commitment to the wellbeing of staff. The second was whether an institution would build upon swifter decision-making observed during the height of the crisis as well as greater use of technology. An absence of one or the other would influence staff decisions about staying.
The political and media climate
We heard numerous references to the persistent negative media coverage of HE. Many staff achieved heroic acts during the pandemic against the odds.
Yet, the battering from mainstream media combined with government indecision is clearly affecting staff morale to the extent that some people wanted to leave the sector.
So where now?
Our survey stories contain a lot more information that we will share at other forums in due course. While our focus has been on the stories from the student and academic services profession, we would not be surprised if they mirror that of many other staff.
The pandemic experience has given people pause for thought and, for many, has fundamentally changed the working environment.
We need to keep listening to what staff have to say and at local, institutional, and sector levels support and adapt accordingly. This is not a short-term act but a long-term strategy.