We are all – in this and every other university – adapting quickly to a new way of working as the nation responds to the challenges posed by the Coronavirus. Just a fortnight ago, it was unclear what impacts the virus would have on the nation; just a week ago the Prime Minister asked everyone to avoid pubs, bars, restaurants, cinemas and large-scale events and to work from home if at all possible. The restrictions on movement and daily life are yet more stringent in some countries – notably in France – and may soon be implemented here in the UK.
Since I became Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam, I have emphasised the importance of community and of place. The university is a very large community of some 32,000 students and almost 5000 staff; it’s place at the vibrant heart of Sheffield city centre was something which immediately drew me to the institution. I enjoy going to work – I enjoy my early morning, and late evening cycle rides to and from the university; I enjoy my interactions every day, with my team, yes, but also with the people I come across, from the first early morning encounters with our domestic teams whom I always stop and talk to, through to conversations in cafes and lifts with students through to the more structured committee and task group meetings which shape the life of an institutional leader.
We are now in uncharted territory. Last week at quite extraordinary pace, the university, this community of 37,000 people, pivoted from largely face-to-face operation to largely remote operation. Courseware and support materials were delivered on-line, and heads of department reported, over Webex meetings, on the challenges and lessons already being learnt. An exceptional team of senior leaders made rapid decisions each day on how the university might operate. I talked of three phases: of ‘set-up’, which was last week and is not over; of ‘operate’ where we get used to working in different ways, and where we learnt how to work important institutional processes from assessment to course evaluation to planning and budgeting, and ‘long-term’ where we start to think about the implications of all this for our organisation in the future.
And this is – will be – exceptionally difficult. The university is, above all, two things: it is its people, and it is its place. It is about the interaction of people in place. We attract students from all over the world to Sheffield Hallam; their lives and futures are shaped by the way we work with them. Much of that we can transition to a new environment, but there are challenges and, I think it is fair to say, we don’t understand all of them yet. We need to learn, which inevitably involves getting some things wrong – a badly worded communication here, a missed meeting link there. I don’t know, and not one of us do, what this transition means for the longer term: is this a ‘blip’ in the way organisations and society work, after which we will return to ‘normal’, or is this an inflection point, leading to quite different ways of operating? Most of us think it’s the latter, but quite how remains unclear.
For the moment, there are still transition issues for us to deal with as individuals. From today, I shall be largely working from home. I’ve always done a lot of work at home in evenings and weekends, but I needed to spend some time setting up my work environment at home for the long haul. One of my neighbours, who transitioned to home working last week, nonetheless sets off each morning on his bike – albeit now ending at the front door he started from, and takes his packed lunch with him. For some of you, I know it won’t be as simple as this, and I fully appreciate that this is a very unsettling and anxious time as we all adapt to the ‘new normal’. Many will be juggling home-schooling children with remote working. My own experience of family life tells me this will not be easy, and that some days will be about keeping children happy and managing their anxiety. We’ll all need routines to get through this time, and those routines must include time and space to exercise and relax, to look after our loved ones, switch off and take breaks.
It will take a little time for us all to adapt to this current reality, and establish a work/home balance that works. We will also need ways to keep in touch not just with our teams on our immediate priorities but with other people across the university in the longer term. I know I will make mistakes, we all will, as we learn to work in new ways. If any of you have tips and learnings about what works, do – please – let me know.
Finally, I want to thank you all. It’s been an extraordinary week and I have been hugely impressed by how colleagues across Hallam have come together to adapt to an incredibly difficult situation, at the same time as managing all the related insecurities and uncertainties at home. We need to keep that team spirit alive over the coming weeks and months, even if over Webex for now.