University staff have moved mountains during Covid-19

Chair-elect of UHR, Joanne Marshall, reflects on the toll Covid-19 has taken on university staff - and the questions yet to be answered.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis I’ve been representing UHR and its membership of university HR directors and teams in conversations across the sector including the UUK-led government consultations.

That’s been a privilege, though of course for me personally it has also been an extra plate to keep spinning. As well as making sure the HE/HR voice is heard, it’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from others and catch colleagues in the very act of “stepping up to the challenge”.

As we come to the end of an exhausting term my overwhelming feeling is of sincere gratitude for so many things about our shared coronavirus response so far – from my team, from the wider university community at Bradford, and from the sector response more broadly.

People have moved mountains. Our teams have shown agility, flexibility, creativity, and sheer dogged drive and determination. Many of our colleagues – in estates, as just one example among many – are maxed out in terms of what they can give. People are tired and need whatever kind of summer break they can grab, even in the midst of a huge continuing workload. The ongoing effort from so many people in our universities has been extraordinary.

From crisis to questions

The initial mobilisation phase of our effort is over, and we are moving on past initial crisis thinking and towards recovery. But little is as it was. What exactly is the new university offer? What are our plans for dealing with further local lockdowns of the Leicester variety? How do we plan to support our students and our staff through the new mix of blended operations, with bespoke mixtures of home and campus work for many?

How can we continue to evolve our research and teaching programmes in ways that deliver the flexibility, technological ambition and value that our students demand? Given the importance and urgency of business-as-usual issues – from pay and pensions to diversity – how do we find the thinking space that we need?

We’re asking big big questions at a point of near burnout for some colleagues, including those at a senior level: there’s a real and ongoing wellbeing challenge. Staff have embraced change, understanding their personal and professional role in this public health emergency.

But more change is inevitably coming. How endlessly agile and flexible can our teams be? There are enormous practical considerations to be overcome, and they have a HR aspect. If blended learning involves both home and campus work, but classes must be smaller to allow for social distancing, does that mean the working day will be extended into the evenings? Or start at 6am? What does that look like in terms of contracts?

A changing support environment

Of course we have to deliver the educational value we’ve promised, and the OfS is rightly keen for us to be clear about the offer we are making to students. It’s a key part of the HR role to support our colleagues through this complexity, and as part of this, to help future-proof decisions to be made.

In the face of the challenge one thing we can be good at is the “taking the temperature” task – helping the institution understand how the staff team is coping, and the kind of interventions that will help.

Our teams face very mixed situations. For every academic who has merrily adopted Zoom and Teams and is 100 per cent certain nothing has been lost from the quality of her teaching, there is another colleague swamped by the task of home schooling (and women are carrying far more of the weight of this and so many other home-based tasks), desperate for the return of a recognisable routine and feeling isolated from her colleagues, from information and from the chance to influence decisions.

We’ve all done work in this area to keep our teams informed. At Bradford we’ve done live team talks and Q&As with senior staff, involving up to 1000 people. That’s given us a chance not only to share timely and vital information but to celebrate the achievements of the team during lockdown too – in our case our involvement in research and manufacture of PPE visors, but you’ll have your own equivalents.

And in HR we’ve been very busy with tailored support for every faculty, helping them think through issues like risk assessments connected with an autumn return to campus, and how to support those shielding or with other similar personal and family commitments. We need to turn our genuine feelings of appreciation and gratitude for the efforts our teams have made into tangible benefits – additional holiday days? – that in some way reflect the idea that so many have gone above and beyond in this crisis.

But this whole period can’t just be about fire-fighting. The background question for some is whether they can continue to operate viably through and after the crisis. That question needs space and it provides an opportunity for change if we are able to take it. Our answers need to include sustainability as well as financial viability.

It’s exciting as well as hugely challenging to have to find the right answers at the pace that is needed. It can feel like we’re trying to do two years’ work in six months – but this isn’t going away, is it? Still the plates keep spinning.

One simple suggestion for all is to polish up your network. For me that includes UHR of course, but also colleagues across other public service roles including the NHS. This might be a time of maximum challenge, but it is also a period when people are prepared to share ideas and co-operate across and beyond the sector in an unprecedented way, and your network connects you to other people in identical situations asking and answering identical questions. Another real thing to be thankful for.

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