Reflections: two years on from responding to the unexpected

By Matt Lloyd, Head of Business Support
28 March 2022

Two years ago, our sector, along with most of the world, was jolted into a new reality. As UCEA’s Head of Business Support, I have been reflecting on our response to the pandemic’s work challenges, as a sector body supporting our 175 members, and as an employer in our own right. 

Our challenge

Our first challenge was to keep the business running safely, efficiently and sustainably. Our second challenge was to deliver critical information and resources to our members and beyond, playing our role in the sector so that HE institutions could remain operational and continue to provide a high standard of education and support to their staff and students.

In supporting our staff and members through the pandemic, we were surrounded by uncertainty, frequently changing information and even disinformation. 

How we did it

Internally, this meant a rapid shift to new ways of working. Fortunately, UCEA’s investment in IT infrastructure in recent years meant that the technological switch was relatively straightforward and low in cost, especially when compared to the scale of change that our members faced. Yet the human challenges of adapting to new systems and different ways were not to be underestimated. For a small organisation like UCEA with 20 employees (half of whom are part-time), an absence or reduction of ‘social identity continuity’ - a failure to maintain a sense of togetherness and unity during remote working and reduced social contact - presented a real risk that UCEA, like any other business, would not function effectively and would see negative impacts on employees’ health and wellbeing. We worked hard to combat this, providing regular opportunities to keep in touch with colleagues online, not just for work, but for networking and social activities. We also made some pragmatic decisions to decrease risk such as reducing expenditure and postponing some office project works. We implemented protective measures for ‘on site’ colleagues. We intentionally delayed the launch of our new strategic plan which was eventually released covering 36 months (instead of the usual five years) reflecting the high levels of uncertainty.

Beyond protecting and supporting our staff, providing timely advice to our members was paramount. Clear concerns for HE institutions were identified and raised as soon as possible, and early pandemic predictions of the impact on the sector ranged from bleak to apocalyptic. UCEA’s members were hungry for help and support, yet many of our usual engagement methods were no longer unavailable. Popular membership services such as conferences, training workshops, networking events and campus visits were all suddenly off limits.

As an organisation valued by members for its ability to act quickly, UCEA had to live up to its reputation and to deliver clearly and consistently. We set sail on a cooperative course of action, working with trade unions, government departments and HE institutions to deliver accurate guidance to help them overcome the pandemic’s hurdles. With health, safety and wellbeing of staff and students of paramount importance employers and unions worked well together. From mental health to hybrid working, many of the principles or case studies UCEA has developed have recognised the need for continued cooperation. Joint statements focused on safe returns to campus, testing and vaccinations. Our regular online meetings with senior team members from HE institutions were particularly popular, and that remains the case today. It’s hard to believe that two years later, speaking on Teams and Zoom with the mute button on was more the norm than the exception! 

But what about the next crisis?

As an employer, UCEA was perhaps overoptimistic about the speed with which the pandemic would pass, and how soon some sort of normality would return. Two years on and we are just about bedding into a hybrid working pattern that suits our members and our team. There have been positive developments too: Pre-pandemic UCEA was a traditional 9-5 office-based organisation, encouraging members to consider flexibility for their staff but hardly leading from the front. But as we are all learning, there are now expectations from staff regarding what constitutes a workplace, and this will continue to have an impact on recruitment and retention.

It’s not just staff who have appreciated the hybrid approach. Our members have welcomed it too. We’ll build on the learning from providing events and training online and we are planning for the future to include a blend of virtual, in-person, and even hybrid events. Whilst the benefits of meeting face-to-face can’t be understated, a blended approach will see us maintain and even improve links with and participation from our members around the UK.

Behind the scenes, we cannot allow our IT infrastructure to fall behind the curve. We’ll need to keep a close eye on our finances too, achieving a balance of sustainability and value for money. The sector was already facing a financial squeeze, but external factors such as rising inflation and spiralling energy costs are affecting the whole of society.

We are now better placed to expect the unexpected. Our Business Continuity Plan (which included reference to an unknown pandemic for some years!)  worked, and our efforts to pivot to new ways of working and deliver things differently for our members were largely successful. Last year’s ‘Allow us to (re)introduce ourselves to our members…’ blog remains a great reminder for members how best to access UCEA staff and services.  But we aren’t complacent. We need to ensure that UCEA remains resilient and adaptable to meet the next crisis whilst taking care of our people and supporting our members - facing their own financial challenges - to the best of our ability.