This article is more than 1 year old

What should working in a university look like?

The pandemic enabled a more flexible, inclusive and connected university for staff. Sunday Blake and Mariella Brodersen consider how universities should take these values forward
This article is more than 1 year old

Mariella Brodersen is a Customer Success Director at Salesforce.

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

University IT is notoriously complex both to procure and operate.

Universities are almost like small cities regarding the breadth and depth of their IT requirements, supporting online learning, research, student engagement, facilities management, enrollment systems, campus events, HR, payroll, security – and all the rest! Between us, in our roles, we support institutions of all sizes across Europe. We have seen how frustrating it can be for staff when they face barriers to accessing specialist expertise and the knowledge they need to do their jobs with impact. This also rings true for the students they aim to serve.

During the height of the pandemic, “the new normal” was used to suggest that the pivot to emergency online and hybrid learning would have – albeit slightly adapted – a longer-term impact on the working practices of universities. And while the focus of many of these predictions and conversations was initially on the learning experience for students, we also saw fundamental changes across staff working practices.

The pandemic has catalysed the initial series of rapid changes in university employee culture, and now institutions see the value in hybrid working. They are rethinking their operations and adopting new approaches to drive employee engagement and efficiency. This includes how their facilities can operate more sustainably, but also how they can work differently while supporting their staff’s wellbeing.

Flexible and inclusive

Remote working is now embraced as meaningful progress towards inclusivity and flexibility. Many institutions have started optimising parts of their estates to support this. This can include allowing space for hot desking – allocating desks to workers when required rather than giving each worker their own desk – adding more computing space and power to support remote working or even letting under-used space out to corporate partners, beneficial third parties, or community groups. Some institutions are increasingly open to making the staff experience more flexible, more accessible, and – many would argue – more enjoyable.

This is important. Across the broader economy, we have seen employees re-evaluating their lives and work-life balance and either moving on or into different areas – in newspaper shorthand, this is the “great resignation.” Higher education leaders have noticed this, too, with increased numbers of staff setting higher expectations of their employers and seeking out alternative careers that more closely align with their re-evaluated needs and interests. The current annual staff turnover rate across higher education is 15 per cent. So, if we are to retain the large pools of talent within the sector, leaders within universities must meet the new normal expectations staff have of their workplace. Service has to transform to stay competitive.

Cross-sector and collaborative

This is vital to bear in mind when thinking about academic staff. For the latter, these changed attitudes and expectations mirror UKRI’s recent five-year strategy, which seeks to support cross-sector mobility, remove barriers to collaboration and connectivity across sectors, and enhance existing associations of this sort. If universities want to work smoothly with the private sector, retain those who have migrated from it, and also secure funding from industry, they will need to consider whether they can offer the organisational efficiency that such collaborators are accustomed to.

The challenge facing higher education leaders almost three years after the pandemic arrived in the UK is that the initial response – understandably – took a make-do-and-mend approach to IT and collaborative working. Adaptations were needed almost overnight with quick measures to respond to remote working, learning, and teaching. However, these measures, adopted at pace during the early months of lockdown, simply won’t cut it anymore. Technology has significantly transformed expectations. Students, staff, and partners now arrive at universities awaiting a more polished, focused and streamlined experience. Institutions are expected to take the best from both worlds – the best of the ways they had to work during the pandemic and the best of what worked pre-pandemic – and synthesise the two.

Connected and Connecting

For the staff – hybrid and asynchronous communication are widely recognised as enhancing the working experience. The rise of online and blended conferences is a key example of cutting unnecessary travel and expenses and providing delegates with interactive platforms and digital networking opportunities to return to after the event.

While pivoting to online was a side effect of the lockdown, the hybrid and asynchronous model can also ameliorate issues that will arise in other areas. In an increasingly porous sector where staff are seconded, placed within disparate and remote teams, or added multi-national remote research collaborations, it is vital for the success of these teams to have enhanced technology in place to support communications or risk team communication breakdown. The introduction of online communities, automated marketing journeys, or chatbots for query resolution can be considerations for improving onboarding experiences and helping to reduce once manual or in-person tasks.

When everyone was physically in the office all the time – while recognising the access difficulties caused for many – there would be an osmosis effect of learning from one another within a busy departmental office. As a new staff member, you could absorb knowledge from those around you as and when issues arose and learn from others who just happened to be within earshot. Now, even in a remote working world, there is an expectation of an organic mode of learning. The absence of this can be particularly demoralising if the ad-hoc systems around you are insufficiently robust or the other departments or teams you are trying to collaborate with are using a legacy IT system different from your own department.

The universities that will thrive in this changed context will be, in part, those who can remedy this underlying digital knowledge gap and turn inherited and patched structural weaknesses into effective systems, operating with clarity and with robust support for all staff who need to use them. The last thing they want is to be constantly bedevilled by problems, cases, and workstreams, which take a disproportionate amount of time to solve in situations where they do not have access to the tools or mechanisms to solve them.

Staff want to do their jobs efficiently and well, and to receive the recognition they deserve (behind-the-scenes problem untangling is rarely officially recorded!). And by utilising the knowledge and sophistication available to universities through collaboration with software, analytics, automation and applications-focused companies, they will support a better staff experience and student experience.

Accessible to all

Recent research that was carried out on student belonging and inclusion showed that students expect a joined-up university experience. They expect their personal tutor to know how to get accommodation problems sorted or imagine that their mental health counsellor can arrange the paperwork required for any extenuating circumstances. These are not unreasonable expectations, given that the standard university welcome typically includes the collective declaration that “we’re here to help.” However, the caveat – “but only with the bits we are responsible for” – isn’t apparent to students and causes problems.

A disparate collection of email interactions, forms, web platforms, sign-ins, gateways, portals, and apps do not make for a great learner experience. The more the work is simply pushed onto the end user (i.e. the student), the more they will take the path of least resistance and simply email the last member of staff they found helpful – whether that staff member is central to, or even in, the department they need.

Introducing digital capabilities that streamline these operations would increase the availability of direct student support contacts for those with complex or sensitive problems. These problems genuinely need care and time from experienced staff. This rebalancing is more rewarding for both parties, helps drive staff and student retention, and enables students with ongoing complex needs to successfully complete their studies. If highly trained and caring staff teams continue to sacrifice their time trying to find out how to renew an overdue library book, then the more complex cases risk being left dangerously long waiting for support.

Therefore, universities need to tackle disjointed digital systems and throwing a digital lasso around standard university systems such as the VLE, library, accommodation, finance, and wellbeing is difficult but imperative – both for staff and student success. This means not only creating avenues for access to resources but also channels for monitoring utilisation of these resources and the improved experiences achieved as a result. After all, in the absence of a clear and unified approach, each department will be free to continue to self-define its own student and staff experience.

Reimagining the working experience for our post-pandemic work environment may appear complex, but it can be done; with the right external partners and the right specialised tools, leadership across the sector will see the benefits for students, staff, and their institutions as a whole.

At Salesforce, we are partnering with universities and pushing ourselves beyond conventional thinking to build innovative tools and solutions that are inclusive, accessible and generative and that drive sustainable learner and institution success from anywhere.

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