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Professional services staff working through pandemia

What about professional services staff? Richard Watermeyer, Tom Crick and Cathryn Knight take steps to amplify the voices of a “massive minority” of colleagues on their experiences during the pandemic
This article is more than 1 year old

Professor of Higher Education and Co-Director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations at the University of Bristol

Tom Crick is Professor of Digital Education and Policy and Deputy Pro-vice Chancellor (Civic Mission) at Swansea University

Cathryn Knight is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol

The impact of the pandemic on the global higher education community needs no introduction.

Its disruptive influence has been felt universally if unevenly. With many international colleagues we have studied and documented the disruption to academic lives in a variety of international settings including the UK, Ireland, Australia and South Africa.

Yet like many researchers, we have been guilty of privileging a focus on academics and failing to consider the impact of COVID-19 on other types of university staff. Recognising this oversight, we launched an online survey of professional services staff (PSS) working across UK universities towards the end of 2021.

A massive minority

Where our previous Covid-related surveys of academics garnered generous responses the strength of response to our PSS survey was overwhelming with almost 5000 completed surveys.

The magnitude of this response we found explained by a commensurate frequency of comments from respondents that the survey had provided them – a “massive minority” population frequently neglected or else ignored – with their first opportunity to articulate and have heard their lived experiences of institutional life under Covid.

Given that PSS account for almost 50% of the entire staff of the UK higher education sector, a failure to give equal status to their experience of working life under COVID represents a significant limitation to understanding disruption and change to the UK’s higher education system brought about by the pandemic.

In our survey, we found many differences with the accounts provided by UK academics and their experience of institutional life under Covid-19, and as specific to a transition to remote working as a consequence of campus closures.

Perhaps the most striking difference is in how PSS differed from academics in their appraisal of university leadership during the pandemic. While academic survey respondents were overwhelmingly negative, our PSS respondents were much more sympathetic and upbeat in their assessment of how senior institutional leaders had responded to COVID’s numerous challenges.

Differences of opinion didn’t end there. Where academics we surveyed spoke of massive work intensification, which they associated with the deterioration of their mental and physical wellbeing, our PSS survey respondents stated that their role had become more demanding, but for the most part had not resulted in longer working hours.

Instead, just short of 50 percent of our respondents stated that remote online working had made them more productive and afforded them greater ownership of their work. Relatedly, while a small majority of PSS respondents spoke of negative impacts to their mental and physical health, just over 20 percent stated that a transition to remote online working had actually benefitted their mental and physical health.

Relational dynamics of online working

In more explicitly positive terms, survey respondents spoke of how online working had provided a window onto each other’s personal lives, which had in turn engendered stronger, closer, more open and empathetic relationships.

Online working was thus discussed as a “tool of conviviality”, breaking down barriers present in relationships developed and managed on-campus and also facilitating more fluent inter-institutional relationships involving staff in other universities.

Moving online was relatedly seen by respondents to have both a humanising and socialising effect – the opposite of many popular accounts of tele-working which describe workers operating in social isolation. Many of the survey respondents spoke of how moving online had improved collegiality within their teams and had fostered a collective resilience to the crisis conditions being experienced within their universities.

Some also suggested that a transition to online working had opened up new opportunities to work with academics and more frequent invitation to participate in academic fora never previously experienced offline and in-person contexts. Respondents considered how moving online was also helping to loosen and level out staff hierarchies in universities and remediate the lower status typically attributed to PSS by academics.

Yet at the same time, a good number of respondents raised concerns of how remote working placed a further strain on an already difficult and often fractured relationship with academics. Some reported that online working was resulting in an increased prevalence of incivility and micro or be that “cyber” aggressions directed at PSS from academics.

Online connectivity was associated with increased demands being made by academics and frustration when PSS, already struggling to manage excessive workloads, were unable to meet these. So, while in some cases respondents discussed online working as having improved the status of PSS in universities, for others, it had hardened a derogative view of their role as service-providers, or as in service to academics.

On balance, however, more than 70 percent of respondents stated their preference for blended working practice. A return to pre-pandemic working conditions was for most rejected with only 11 percent of respondents desiring a return to campus-only working.

Moving beyond pandemia

As we set out by saying, the pandemic or what we have elsewhere termed pandemia has been variously experienced across the diverse membership of university staff communities, yet many voices have been neglected. Moving beyond pandemia necessitates a more inclusive approach to tackling the challenges faced not just by academics but the other half of universities, whose adaptability and resilience to crisis conditions appears comparatively stronger.

The lives of PSS must accordingly be given equal weighting to those of academics in the process of universities’ embrace of a high-flex world and in fulfilling an aspiration of their becoming more human-centric, compassionate and equitable places of work.

Fuller understanding of online working relationships, particularly involving PSS and academics, and how these might be better managed is urgent. There is clearly a need for academics to become better educated in the work challenges and constraints faced by PSS; more realistic in terms of their expectations and what they might reasonably demand; and more humble in their approach and subsequent interactions.

There is manifest potential, provided by online connectivity and working practice, for the greater involvement of PSS and the benefit of their various expertise in academics’ work, which offers one way of increasing academics’ awareness of what they do and concurrently PSS’ institutional profile and corresponding recognition (and reward).

There is also profound opportunity for a “great reset” of higher education that will neutralise concerns of a “great resignation” attributed to the unsustainability of ever intensifying work demands, impoverished work conditions and a poverty of empathetic leadership, which prioritises an ethics of care within univerisites and which draws off the invigorations of collegiality supercharged by pandemia.

6 responses to “Professional services staff working through pandemia

  1. There’s bound to be a mixed picture, but the findings are I think fairly bleak, and I’m not sure that fully comes out in this article. The linked research indicates that 55% of PSS staff had experienced a negative impact on their mental health, which far outweighs the minority (20%) who experienced benefits. 66% said that their role had been made more demanding. Far more respondents indicated that their immediate working relationships had deteriorated (31%) than had improved (22%). Similarly more staff experienced a deterioration in relationships with academics than an improvement.

    Certainly in my own institution (and from our own staff survey), the negative has far outweighed the positive – some colleagues enjoy the extra autonomy of home working and lack of commute, but workloads and stress have significantly increased, and colleagues with caring responsibilities have particularly badly affected.

  2. Is there a link between the way academics reported an intensification of their work and deteriorating mental health as a result, and the experiences of PPS colleagues who found that “Online connectivity was associated with increased demands being made by academics and frustration when PSS, already struggling to manage excessive workloads, were unable to meet these”? I’m struck by the finding that “PSS survey respondents stated that their role had become more demanding, but for the most part had not resulted in longer working hours”. That doesn’t seem to have been the case for academic staff, who reportedly put in lots of extra hours. Does that explain the friction between the two sides, as both experienced excessive workloads, but one side was working fewer hours than the other, leading to mismatched expectations and exhaustion and frustration on the side of the academic colleagues? The conclusion I draw is that work needs to be done to bring those two sides of HE staff in line with one another in terms of expectations regarding working hours and workload more generally, to create a better work culture for all.

    1. That’s an interesting comment. The article notes that just over 50% of PSS staff did not experience additional hours, but doesn’t say how many did – presumably this could well have been 40%+ (and I suspect that would have been much higher had the survey run in 2020 or early 2021). It’d be interesting also to see a breakdown of results by staff seniority / grade. Lower grade PSS staff would not generally be expected to work out of hours (both by culture and contract) – so the comparison isn’t necessarily like for like.

  3. Interesting! Have you seen this report from WHEN: Women’s Higher Education Network looking at the unpaid labour and gendered divisions in cohabiting dual career professional services workers during the pandemic? It’s a complementary picture to your piece and May shed light on some interesting dynamics affected by parenthood

  4. I think one of thing that professional services staff are now experiencing is that they were leant on heavily by senior management during the pandemic and maybe given freedoms that they had not previously experienced – but usually providing astounding results at very short notice. For some (eg learning technologists), they were able to implement things that they had wanted to do for years but always been held back. The clamp down on their freedoms to develop the university or college – and to demonstrate their professional judgement is one thing that is driving the great resignation. You respected us during the pandemic- what has changed that you can ignore our advice and professionalism now?

  5. Interesting research that aligns with some of the findings in Jisc’s annual reports on the digital experiences of professional services staff, teaching staff, students and researchers

    Four main areas of interest from the 2021 professional services staff survey which focused on working online and remotely were:
    * The potential for digital to improve productivity and working practices (subject to establishing clear policies and protocols for homeworking; managers understanding the benefits of doing so; effective communication and guidance on protocols and ettiquette; and widely accessible support and training.
    * Having the right tools for the job (availability of equipment, devices, software and appropriate working spaces).
    * Support to resolve technical issues in a timely way.
    * Wellbeing – some felt working from home brought significant benefits, others felt lonely and isolated and said it was an intrusion of their personal space – “I feel I am living at work.”

    What stood out most from the equivalent teaching staff report was the double impact on stress – when responding to questions about their digital experiences, academics commented first on their concerns for their students welfare and experience before commenting on their own.

    We are about to publish our 2022 student experience insights survey based on 44,000 respondents experiences (6 September) and reports on teaching staff, PSS and researchers will follow later this year/early next).

    Thanks also for the links to other research – really interesting and appreciate the sharing.

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