The last 12 months have brought unique challenges for students and their lecturers and tutors, as the learning process has moved largely online to minimise the spread of a pandemic barely imaginable at 2020’s start.
Universities’ human resources departments have seen attendant challenges. Managers, almost overnight, were faced with the prospect of ensuring personnel were fulfilling their roles from home while coping with a drastically altered work/life balance, employment uncertainty and the lack of mood-boosting workplace bonhomie.
This adjustment was completely involuntary, but with a vaccine hopefully heralding a new, ‘new normal’ for 2021, university HR departments should review their handling of remote working thus far to ensure the best outcomes for their staff and universities in the new year.
Adapt and survive
Given the lack of any comparable pandemic in modern times, a major issue was how long the necessary remote working disruption would last. “None of us had any idea of how much time we’d need to spend in that new situation,” said Naina Patel, Universities Human Resources vice-chair and HR director at University of Arts, London.
Naina saw the need to “adapt endlessly as the latest news came in” as being a major challenge. “Senior leaders in our universities are immensely grateful to their staff teams for the resilience and flexibility shown,” said Naina.
This ranged from estates teams keeping campuses open to academic teams maintaining learning and research (even if in heavily adapted formats) to HR teams who have had to do three years’ worth of workforce planning in six months.
One size doesn’t fit all
Naina stresses the need to treat staff as individuals. “For every lecturer confident the move to online working has gone smoothly there is a member of the professional services team struggling.”
Now more than ever, blanket answers to deeply individual circumstances work less well.
A myriad of factors has meant this crisis has not been experienced equally, including individual health and family risk factors, tech confidence and home digital provision, accommodation suitability for working from home, and caring responsibilities distributed unfairly across the generations.
Naina saw the Black Lives Matter protests as fuelled by many things, including the sense that the coronavirus had hit BAME communities disproportionately, “In part because of overrepresentation in public-facing roles.”
To an extent this has also been what Naina identifies as a “gendered crisis” with women likely to carry a disproportionate weight of family care responsibilities.
Show your support
The difficulty in 2020 was not managing remotely as such – many people in many kinds of organisations had long done that successfully – but was more in terms of ensuring team members were supported in their own individual circumstances and ensuring fair and tailored responses were available whenever possible for a huge proportion of the staff team. This was a wholly new challenge, according to Naina.
“‘Do the best you can’ was a mantra for many at the start of the pandemic, though that isn’t sustainable indefinitely,” said Naina. It is, however, a ‘high-trust behaviour’, one that will have paid off in many ways which are not necessarily immediately visible.
Human resources – in Staffs!
March’s first lockdown saw the rapid mobilisation of remote working for the majority of Staffordshire University’s 1,500 staff while some campus operations were maintained for those remaining onsite.
“Keeping two-way communications going and ensuring staff were well informed during the pandemic was very important to us,” said Paula Cottrell, the university’s director of human resources and organisational development.
We are already seeing signs of stress and burnout across the sector and increased uncertainty, coupled with a continuing high workload and potential redundancies will only make this worse
– Emma Parry
The university used a range of communication platforms, including staff news bulletins, an employee engagement app and VC Connect sessions giving staff the chance to go online for a formal presentation by the university’s vice-chancellor and chief executive, Liz Barnes CBE DL.
Open, weekly communications with trade unions ensured strong partnership working while during June, July and August the university developed and ran pulse surveys asking for staff feedback on areas known to be important such as health and wellbeing, remote working and returning to campus. “The outcomes helped to inform how we managed the return to campus at the beginning of September and other programmes of work,” said Paula.
Well, well, wellbeing
Mental health and wellbeing were an immediate focus for the university during lockdown, whether staff were furloughed, working from home or still working on campus.
A range of resources to support staff was developed which was publicised on the university’s intranet, encouraging managers to have regular check-ins with their teams, putting wellbeing at the heart of conversations.
Learning from the pandemic, the university developed its wellbeing strategy with its focus on resilience, new approaches to curriculum delivery, communications, culture, and health and wellbeing activities.
Following the easing of the first lockdown, the university’s priority was getting staff back onto campus and putting in place safe working practices for the new academic year, achieved through cross-cutting workstreams put in place to support the transition.
Blend it like Stafford
One of the first outcomes of the university’s people strategy (part of the university’s 2030 ambitions, as laid out in its ‘Towards 2030 Strategy’) has been the introduction of a blended working framework. “We had already considered how this would work as part of the strategy,” said Paula, “But the pandemic accelerated our thoughts on this.”
Blended working, with the flexibility to work remotely, has established different ways of working and communicating yet providing consistency and support to all team members.
Adapting to the constantly changing environment since March, while supporting staff practically and emotionally, has required immense agility from staff working in human resources at Staffordshire University.
“As we move forward, managing a new normal with flexibility, safety and empathy, while playing a pivotal role in achieving the university’s long-term people ambitions, makes human resources in HE an exciting and rewarding place to work,” said Paula.
For every lecturer confident the move to online working has gone smoothly there is a member of the professional services team struggling – Naina Patel
Reward output, not visibility
The pandemic saw many people forced to work from home. For Emma Parry, head of the ‘Changing World of Work’ group at Cranfield School of Management, there will be a need to recognise, as we emerge from the pandemic, that while we will undoubtedly see more people choosing to work from home, others will prefer office-working if safe to do so.
HR needs, then, to manage this hybrid way of working to ensure those preferring to work from home receive the same opportunities and support, and that both productivity and wellbeing are maintained across the workforce.
“This means ensuring systems such as those for performance management and talent management are equitable across groups and reward outputs rather than visibility,” said Emma.
Additionally, HR must develop line managers to effectively manage a team under these conditions and to monitor inclusion in relation not only to traditional dimensions such as gender and ethnicity but also to those working at home versus those in the office.
Emma sees 2021 as being a year of considerable uncertainty for university employees brought by factors such as continuing to deal with Covid-19, Brexit-related challenges and a deep and potentially long-lasting economic downturn.
“For me, therefore, the priority for 2021 has to be in managing employee wellbeing and mental health,” she said.
While there will be practical issues relating to immigration, health and safety and union consultation, in Emma’s opinion there needs to be greater focus on addressing the impacts of these external events on employee wellbeing.
“We are already seeing signs of stress and burnout across the sector and increased uncertainty, coupled with a continuing high workload and potential redundancies will only make this worse.”
According to Emma, HR departments must think now about how they can maintain frequent and open communication with employees, help manage employee workload and provide support systems across their university to help people manage their own wellbeing through 2021.
See CIPD for more
The website of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development offers much invaluable information for university HR professionals looking to negotiate 2021’s new normal.
A dedicated coronavirus hub is updated regularly to accommodate changes brought by the pandemic, such as the extension to the furlough scheme, with a recommendation to look out for any further developments contained within the budget scheduled for 3 March 2021. The hub has a useful FAQs section and guides to mental health support, redundancy and furlough.
A web page provides guidance on Brexit, immigration and employment law.
The end of an old year and the start of a new one always gives universities’ HR departments a chance to take stock of previous performance with a view to future improvement.
Few years will have ever been seen out with greater gusto than 2020, but the pinning up of a fresh year planner does not mean the challenges of this unparalleled pandemic have been left behind.
Thankfully, help is at hand; not least through the sharing of best practice and advice from experts in management and management bodies.
These may still be uncharted waters but there’s no need for HR in HE to be all at sea.
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