Students and flexibility are key when it comes to HE hybrid working

By Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive
1 July 2021
This blog was first launched for Research Professional subscribers earlier this week.

Students are at the heart of what higher education institutions (HEIs) do. This is the key principle for our sector’s autonomous employers as they consider how their employment models will continue to adapt and evolve as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. 

When looking at higher education (HE) as a whole, it is important to remember that this is a sector of significant diversity in terms of employers. Each HEI will reach its own decision about the future patterns of work within the organisation. However, what has been noticeable over the last year is the desire among virtually all of UCEA’s 172 members to learn from the experience of remote working. Our members are determined to offer work patterns which meet the desire of staff for greater work flexibility, while providing a world-renowned high-quality learning experience for their students, many of whom are seeking their own flexibility.

A range of new hybrid working models is emerging among HE employers. Many have signalled their intention to continue to offer and develop a blended approach to delivering learning. However, this does not necessarily suggest a permanent shift to remote working. The reality is likely to be a combination of working on and off campus for most academic and professional services staff, informed by specific business and individual needs. 

HEIs understand that students’ needs and expectations should inform any organisational and work redesign when considering future ways of working and work patterns. Some are focusing on further developments in online learning and teaching provision in light of positive feedback from students. Others are looking at the balanced blending of off and on-campus delivery. 

Dynamic hybrid working

UCEA's well received Managing Staff Return to Campus guidance emphasised the fundamental role staff play in supporting students, delivering education and research, maintaining safe environments, and mitigating the impacts of Covid-19 on the student population; in addition to the importance of managing the safe return of staff to campus. UCEA’s guidance contains rich information and useful examples throughout, including specific HEI case studies – which we continue to add to – relating to new and interesting ways of working. 

For example, Aston University’s case study explains its determination and planning to make dynamic hybrid working a success. Despite the Covid challenges, many staff valued some aspect of how they have lived their lives over the past 15 months. Within reason, the University seeks to allow staff to continue to work in a way that maintains some of those valued aspects. Aston is not returning to the pre-pandemic ways when so much has changed. Instead, the University has recognised an opportunity to harness the positives and create a fundamentally new way of working driven by a new model called dynamic working, based on insights from staff surveys and feedback on staff support and wellbeing. 

Communicating is key

For many employers, hybrid working requires less emphasis on process and much more on outcome. This can mean that considerations such as physical location, the time taken to deliver teaching or other services and the time when delivery takes place - whilst all still important - have to be balanced against a focus on outputs and how they will be achieved. High trust relationships will be critical, with much greater attention paid to coaching and enabling staff, particularly those in dispersed teams. That is why good two-way internal communication is so important and we are hearing of consistency in consulting a wide range of stakeholders including trade union representatives when developing hybrid working models.

Much of the University of Wolverhampton’s ‘Working together in developing future working’ explains how internal communications have developed to meet new needs around the pandemic and campus working. The ‘Agile Working’ project is being driven by a group comprising stakeholders from across the University, focusing on interim measures and longer-term innovative ways of working which will see a re-configuration of the estate and the performance of staff. With insufficient estate being an ongoing issue, the University is now utilising the agile working project and planning to tackle the problem differently, aspiring to free up some space for the benefit of both students and staff. 

Change is a journey

Related to space and estates planning, hybrid working is also placing a much greater emphasis on the importance of technology, particularly platforms for delivery and collaboration. However, ensuring greater connectivity between home and campus is only one part of the equation. Related to this is the importance of reviewing estates planning, with space likely to be at a premium for HEIs. 

For many, the act of commuting ‘safely’ from home to work is important for good mental health. Covid repercussions brought a renewed appreciation of this, particularly for maintaining social connectedness, social support and creativity. Our latest case study explores how Staffordshire University’s blended approach to working was underpinned by a staff mental health and wellbeing strategy. Staff insight, “honest conversation”, good internal communications and trade union engagement were all important elements of Staffordshire’s strategy.

For others, with caring responsibilities, an actual ‘journey’ may be outweighed by the benefits for some from reduced travelling time and potential flexibility in start and end times to the traditional working day. We all need a better understanding of boundaries and expectations to support work-life balance. Crucially, proper consideration must be given to the differential impact on particular groups of staff of any model of hybrid working. 

Delicate balance in stepping forward

There is no single approach to this new way of working. The development of polices to support hybrid working will itself require an iterative process appropriate to local circumstances. Lancaster University’s ‘Reimagining Working Practices’ Programme focused on balancing individual preferences and circumstances with business needs regarding work models and patterns. Using pulse surveys and other sources of feedback, Lancaster found that new digital solutions have enabled successful remote working benefits. Crucially, communication between teams was found to be working well. A key principle at Lancaster has been to reconcile the balance between individual preferences and business needs as locally as possible. As a campus-based university, Lancaster is determined not to lose that sense of campus vibrancy in taking on new working practices.

The fast-moving pace of change over the last year is not going to ease any time soon. There will be an ongoing need for flexibility within any newly established hybrid working changes. HEIs continue to face significant choices as to how to structure their organisations and the extent to which they will adopt hybrid working for the long term. It is vital that these decisions and choices are made carefully, and involve all who could potentially benefit from them.