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Perfect blend

Raj Jethwa argues that universities must involve students and staff in developing hybrid working models

Higher education’s autonomous employers should have a key principle in mind as they consider how employment models will evolve after the pandemic: that students are at the heart of what higher education institutions do.

There is significant diversity in terms of employers and each higher education institution will reach its own decision about future patterns of work within its organisation.

But what has been noticeable over the past year is the desire among virtually all of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s 172 members to learn from the experience of remote working. Ucea members are determined to offer work patterns that meet the desire of staff for greater flexibility, while providing a world-renowned, high-quality learning experience for their students, many of whom are seeking flexibility themselves.

A range of hybrid working models is emerging. Many higher education employers have signalled their intention to continue to offer and develop a blended approach to how learning is delivered. But this does not necessarily suggest a permanent shift to working remotely. 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.

Higher education institutions 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-campus and on-campus delivery.

Novel ways of working

Ucea’s well-received Managing Staff Return to Campus guidance emphasises 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—as well as the importance of managing the safe return of staff to campus.

The guidance also includes case studies—regularly updated—relating to new and interesting ways of working, such as the way Aston University, through determination and planning, has made dynamic hybrid working a success.

Despite the Covid challenges, many staff at Aston have valued some aspect of how they have lived and worked over the past 15 months. Within reason, the university is seeking to allow staff to continue to work in a way that maintains some of those valued aspects. It has recognised an opportunity to harness the positives and create a fundamentally new way of working, based on insights from staff surveys and feedback on staff support and wellbeing.

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 and the time when delivery takes place—while 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, with consistency in consulting a wide range of stakeholders, including trade union representatives, when developing hybrid working models.

Estates planning

At the University of Wolverhampton, internal communications have developed to meet needs around the pandemic and campus working. Its Agile Working project, driven by stakeholders from across the university, is focusing on interim measures and longer-term innovative ways of working that will see a reconfiguration of both the estate and of what staff do there. Insufficient estate has been an ongoing issue at the university, but Wolverhampton is now using the Agile Working project to tackle the problem differently, aspiring to free up space for the benefit of both students and staff.

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

Commuting safely from home to work is important for good mental health. Covid brought renewed appreciation of this and particularly of the importance of maintaining social connections, 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 the university’s strategy.

For people with caring responsibilities, the benefits of an actual journey may be outweighed by the benefits of reduced travelling time and potential flexibility in start and end times to the traditional working day. Crucially, proper consideration must be given to the differential impact on particular groups of staff of any hybrid working model.

Delicate balance

There is no single approach to this new way of working. Developing policies to support hybrid working will require an iterative process appropriate to local circumstances. Lancaster University’s Reimagining Working Practices Programme, for example, focused on balancing individual preferences and circumstances regarding work models and patterns with business needs. Using pulse surveys and other sources of feedback, Lancaster found that digital solutions had helped remote working to be a success.

But good communication between teams was crucial, as was balancing individual and business needs as locally as possible. And as a campus-based university, Lancaster was determined that taking on new working practices would not mean losing any sense of campus vibrancy.

The fast pace of change over the past year will not ease any time soon. Any newly established hybrid working changes will still require flexibility. Higher education institutions continue to face significant choices about how to structure their organisations and how far to 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.

Raj Jethwa is chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.