By Muriel Bankhead, who joined UCEA as Head of Research on 14 April 2020
26 May 2020
It was all looking so well timed and with so much to look forward to. Confirmation of my exciting new job as UCEA’s Head of Research even allowed for a week’s much-needed short winter break between jobs. But as Covid-19 narrowed and then closed my European and then UK options I settled for a holiday in the back garden. An unforeseen worry to the developing pandemic came via concerned friends, asking whether my new job would even exist. Fortunately, I was regularly reassured by my UCEA colleagues, explaining that this important role was waiting for me - much needed good news with so much bad news hitting us from all sides.
While starting a new job in lockdown is a bizarre scenario, I suspect there are many in our sector and beyond experiencing – or soon to experience – this situation and the challenges it brings. It is difficult coming into a new job and sector at the best of times with things like the challenging higher education acronyms. But I soon discovered that 'Wonkhe' is not just a slightly deprecating adjective for irregular shaped vegetables!
My 'UCEA Induction Programme' was gratefully received and promptly pinned to my notice board. There are so many questions to consider on any first day in a new job but these are complicated by a lockdown. What do you wear to make a first impression? Inevitably, I opted for smart but casual, while still wearing jeans and slippers!
In addition to the back-garden break, I spent valuable time leading up to the first day tidying my home working environment – scrutinising the webcam backdrop and arranging the book-shelves and wondering whether my personal laptop would suffice. UCEA stepped up though, as my first day included an 'IT and remote working set-up' appointment. Colleagues helped iron out IT problems that we are all familiar with when working from home. Clearly the camera worked - a colleague soon quipped that my spider plant needed some TLC!
Making use of tutorials to familiarise new remote working staff has been invaluable. I also found it useful to organise all my web links to the UCEA Remote Portal, the UCEA website, MS Office, Project and holiday planners so I can find them quickly each morning.
But the first week was not a smooth ride: on day two my laptop crashed as I prepared for a series of important virtual meetings. In my haste to ‘fix’ things I removed some functionality from several software programmes, and no one could see or hear me at my first All Staff meeting. Following a quick Google search I fixed the problem with a quick unselect of 'safe start' and reboot. Phew!
All induction programmes should be flexible but, despite the remote restrictions, by the end of the first week I had ‘met’ my new team, and nearly all the other UCEA teams. Simple tips for this include printing out the UCEA Staff web pages – a handy 'crib sheet' to prompt suitable questions relating to colleagues.
Every organisation has a unique culture, and it’s easier to familiarise yourself with that when working in the office rather than remotely. I can believe that starting a new job remotely is harder for anyone who is shy or more introvert by nature. It does require some courage to speak up and express views and opinions without knowing in advance how they might be received.
What else is different? I’ve swapped exploring local sandwich shops and lunch venues for lunch on the lawn most days and I certainly don’t miss those stressful commutes.
By week two I was taking part in regular internal meetings and external meetings with HR Directors. I have been fortunate with my handover because I have inherited an excellent Research team and even have my predecessor, in working as a temporary consultant, at the end of a computer or phone if needed. But Covid-19 is stretching UCEA’s Research team beyond their busy schedule, with additional surveys and reports.
Before I know it, I’m in the thick of it. Starting a new job, in a new sector, in a ‘new normal’ has certainly been an interesting experience and certainly challenging. But then what isn’t challenging these days?