Placing our values at the heart of hybrid working

By Patrick Hackett, Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at The University of Manchester

Whilst so much has changed for so many of us over the past year and a half, here at The University of Manchester our purpose, vision and values remain steadfast.  

Indeed, our values of knowledge; wisdom; humanity; academic freedom; courage; and pioneering spirit are very much at the heart of the work we’re doing to embrace hybrid working across our Professional Services (PS).  

As Covid-19 first took hold many PS colleagues moved to remote working overnight. I don’t know what the approach was at your university before the pandemic, but here ‘home working’ was often seen as something you could only do if you were in a senior position or were lucky enough to have a manager who supported your request. 

A couple of months into the first national lockdown it became clear that despite the challenges there were also significant benefits to remote working. We wanted to capture what our colleagues were thinking and set up a staff listening project called What works? - more than 2,000 staff shared their experiences.

Colleagues told us about a range of unprecedented challenges, from trying to juggle work with caring commitments and home schooling. Some didn’t have enough room where they lived or the right equipment to work effectively. Others simply missed their colleagues and students.

We also heard about the benefits. Colleagues valued not spending hours commuting and many said they were using that time to exercise more, try a new hobby or simply be there to read their child a bedtime story. Many felt they were producing higher quality work because they felt empowered, trusted and more focused.

Hybrid working has been referred to as the ‘great working from home experiment’ and we are certainly taking an experimental approach here at Manchester. For me, this is the exciting part – our values of courage and pioneering spirit in action, informed by the knowledge and wisdom of colleagues.

When we launch policies or programmes at our university they are typically quite defined and prescriptive. It’s not very often that as a leader I will say: ‘We don’t exactly know how this is going to work’.

But I freely admit that senior leaders don’t have all of the answers, so our hybrid working pilot approach has truly been co-created by colleagues. We’ve held open sessions with a wide range of staff to hear their views. Sometimes these involve a hundred or more people, sometimes like at our ‘In Conversation’ sessions we gather smaller groups to have a deeper discussion with members of our PS Leadership Team.  

We’ve set up two networks of Flexible Working Champions both with very active Yammer groups providing to be a rich seam of ideas and feedback to build into our approach.

All of this led us to design our Hybrid Working Principles which outline four categories. Managers are currently having conversations with their teams about which categories roles fit into and what arrangements can be put in place in their teams to support hybrid working.  

These discussions are revealing some very important practical questions for our staff as I’m sure they are at your university. Where will I sit when I work on campus? What IT equipment will I need? How will we run meetings? Again, we don’t have all of the answers right now – but we’re working on it - together - and providing information and regularly updated frequently asked questions.

A really important question is what kind of work colleagues will do when they do come to campus. Here, people are already talking about using their time on campus to meet in-person with colleagues and students, hold workshops and creative sessions or just enjoy the novelty of bumping into someone you haven’t seen IRL (in real life!) for ages.

To help support all we have developed a range of guidance as well as a training programme to help manage hybrid teams effectively. For our sector, hybrid working is all about striking the right balance– we want our campuses to be vibrant places for staff and students to enjoy. But we also need to consider the wellbeing benefits of more flexible and hybrid working for colleagues. 

We want to achieve a broadly consistent approach whilst also giving teams the flexibility to make hybrid work for them. On the latter we have empowered teams to create their own charters, outlining how they will work together in a hybrid way. 

I acknowledge that hybrid working isn’t going to be option for all our PS staff. Some colleagues have roles which require them to be on campus full-time and indeed many have worked on campus throughout the pandemic for which I am hugely grateful – you can hear some of their stories in this short film.

What we must ensure is that our approach is fair, so at the same time as piloting hybrid working we have updated our Flexible Working Policy. Colleagues can now request flexible working from ‘day one’, whereas previously they had to work here for 26 consecutive weeks to be eligible to apply.

There are plenty of questions and challenges but I’m confident that we can learn from each other’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom. I’m not going to predict when Covid-19 will be a thing of the past but what we have learnt from it will be firmly at the heart of Our Future.

August 2021.