The end in sight? Managing staff return to campus

By Roshan Israni, UCEA Deputy Chief Executive
21 April 2021

Just over a month ago we had a quandary on our hands on how to respond to our members’ requests for guidance on how to manage staff anxieties about returning to campus. Quite how ambitious the project would be, we didn’t really appreciate until the project scoping was underway, which identified that the issues to be covered would be far broader. Timing was critical and the team did well to pull together vital information to develop a comprehensive resource for members on managing staff returns to campus, launched last week (15 April).

The past year has of course disrupted the way we all work and changed the world of work for the foreseeable future and potentially forever. Inconsistencies in impact for different people soon became clear: the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have been traumatic for some, uncomfortable for many and disturbing for others but some have appreciated it for various reasons. But the experiences of last year have also paved the way for reflection on the opportunities for the future. And that was the underlying theme shaping our guidance – to use reflection to help identify opportunities for the future.

Staff for students

Students in HE have attracted so much public attention, and rightly so - students are at the heart of what universities do. We know that universities understand that student needs and expectations should inform any organisational and work redesign activity when considering future ways of working and work patterns. Many universities, for example, have expressed their intention to continue to develop and enhance their online learning and teaching provision in light of positive feedback from students, but most are looking at a new blend of on-campus and off-campus delivery. This guidance reminds us that staff play a fundamental role in supporting students, delivering education and research, maintaining safe environments, and mitigating the impacts of Covid-19 on the student population; and the importance of managing the safe return of staff to campus.

A snapshot of the guidance 

Rather than summarise the content in a blog, my only advice to UCEA members is to read it - there is bound to be a chapter that covers your current thinking and work! The guidance offers thought leadership on a range of themes, including the need to examine the return of staff back on campus from a psychological transition lens as well as a physical lens of health and safety, understanding the seismic change that everyone has undergone, how good change management principles can help and the key role that leaders and managers can play to help that safe return. It covers specific guidance for each of the areas: psychological transition, change management, hybrid working, line management, leadership, health and safety and legal issues. 

Simple solutions to complex issues

The guidance contains rich information, useful examples and case studies which help reiterate the key principles and bring these to life. What was really interesting as the project went along was the emergence of common themes irrespective of size or shape of a university and irrespective of which nation they operated in – all pointing to some key take-aways. Communication with staff is one such example, recognising the need to communicate, even if there is little to say. This includes efficient and regular communications and meetings with trade union representatives, and case study HEIs explained how they have developed better internal communications together with their local unions. This includes the importance of communications being two-way - to actively listen, reflect and talk. As one case study explains: ‘The University identified the need for ‘conversations’ and a range of communication channels and there are now a number of these, new, old and revised.’ 

Perhaps the most common theme emerging was how many institutions are looking at new ways of working and how some are addressing it as a cultural transformation, which comes as no surprise. Whatever the label – hybrid, balanced and blended, dynamic – the underlying principle is to identify for each role within the organisation whether or not they lend themselves to hybrid models of working. The doors will hopefully open for people with disabilities in terms of requests for reasonable adjustments in the form of remote working, and perhaps the flexible models will pave the way for a hidden pool of people who have caring responsibilities. And continuing to focus on the opportunities, eventually this might help the stubborn pay gaps as we see more women take up senior roles which offer hybrid working.

Sector input

Steering the writing of the guidance in such a short turnaround time was a testing task. But it was made possible thanks to the exceptional contributions from across the sector. Many chapters include invaluable contributions by the Chair of the Universities Safety and Health Association (USHA), Universities UK, a Consultant Occupational Health Physician from a medical school, HR Directors and their teams as well as Heads of Institution.  

The pace of change from last year has shown us how fast moving the landscape has been and the guidance reflects that. But we are mindful that as the context changes, the guidance will need to be updated in the form of additional resources. For now, we are delighted with the positive feedback from members and are already developing more case studies.  

Better times

In ‘Leading a return to campus’ one Vice-Chancellor contributes with reflections on the past year: “If leading through adversity is hard, then leading through uncertainty is harder still.” But we are all now hoping for better times over the coming months, and as all campuses begin to open up more. Only working together across the sector will this be achievable or, as one Vice-Chancellor summarises it: “Confronting the virus has been a tiring and relentless slog, staff have been asked to go far beyond what may be reasonably expected of them, while students have borne with good grace the brunt of restrictions aimed at keeping the vulnerable safe. There is however light at the end of the tunnel…With robust preventative measures ongoing, it’s now time to press play and get on with our lives once more.” 

Managing Staff Return to Campus Guidance is publicly available on UCEA’s website.