On Monday 16 March 2020, a group of the university’s senior staff met in the Vice-Chancellor’s office to work through the changing coronavirus situation and emerging government guidance. We knew the Prime Minister was to address the nation the next day. We’d worked through information on students, courses and the campus, and had already made extensive adaptations to the way the University worked. But there was still a lot to do.
I’m sure that no-one would have believed you if you had said as we left the university very late in the evening of 16 March that we would still be working remotely a year later. But this week marks the anniversary of the University’s transition to largely online operation. I am enormously proud of what has been achieved over the last twelve months throughout the University. The overwhelming majority of courses have been delivered remotely. Student support and well-being operations have been transformed to digital-first delivery. Resources and support – educational, psychological, material – have been focused to sustain our most vulnerable students. Communications with staff and students have sharpened. We have deployed research, teaching and institutional strengths to support the city and region. Alongside all this, the campuses have remained open, with huge efforts made to ensure that they are safe teaching and working environments.
Along the way we have learnt a huge amount about each other, the way we can work flexibly, the way we sustain and develop teams. This has meant, incidentally, learning a good deal about our colleagues’ taste in interior decoration. We have learnt inventive ways to make effective use of screen technologies for teaching, for communication, for administration – and some exceptionally imaginative approaches to Zoom social quizzes. We’ve transformed the way we make decisions and share information. Grasp of digital learning and collaboration tools has developed exponentially. All of our data tells us that there are ways of working during the pandemic that the overwhelming majority of staff want to embed in to the future working of the University. One of our major current workstreams is considering exactly that – how to use the experience of the past year to reshape the way we are as a community.
Early on, there was a novelty about all this, enhanced by the eerily quiet streets and glorious Spring weather which accompanied the first lockdown: as traffic noise disappeared, the entire world seemed to be on the verge of substantial change. Summer turned to Autumn and then to Winter, and as the sheer grind of long lockdowns took a toll, many – and I include myself in this – found it more difficult. This has been especially true for parents, those with caring responsibilities and those who live alone.
One of my pre-occupations is to work out an answer to what seem to me to be the big questions organisations face in 2021: which of our changes need to become permanent? What do we want to go back to and what do we want to be different? These questions engage colleagues across the University, but also permeate the conversations I have outside the University – now from my own workroom, when once I would have schlepped across the country to see people. I’ve learnt, which is no surprise, that there’s almost no consensus about the details. There are those who want to go back to the world of work, and of the University, as it was in February 2020, but they are in a minority, though they appear to include the Prime Minister who has spoken of people’s enthusiasm to get back to pre-pandemic work cultures.
There have been a range of responses to every aspect of the impact of the pandemic on work routines. This is true in terms of the relatively trivial: some people have missed not dressing smartly for work, others have enjoyed the greater informality (I have a hanger of ties unworn for a year.) It’s true also in terms of progressing business. I was on a Teams Board meeting for a national organisation; the chair said she desperately hoped to see us all in person very soon, but the side chat had all been about how much more efficient it was to run these meetings on screen. And it’s true in respect of the most serious issues. Some have found the relative isolation of remote working increasingly difficult. Others have enjoyed the flexibilities involved in integrating home and work. The examples could be multiplied. These different perceptions mean that a balance between change and continuity is difficult to secure.
Ipsos-MORI conducted a UK opinion poll on what people were excited to do when Coronavirus restrictions end: it’s no surprise that 80% report looking forward to a spontaneous day trip, 74% to having dinner in a restaurant with friends, and 51% to seeing work colleagues again in person. More surprising, as many as 31% report looking forward to “commuting to and from work”; the latter is a reminder that some people enjoy things that others find irksome. The biggest US study I’ve readfound evidence to suggest that after the pandemic, about 25% of all work days will be supplied from home, compared with just 5% before. That’s a big shift, which offers real opportunities for more flexibility.
For a university, the important priority is to meet the expectations of students and research partners: they come first. For twenty years, higher education analysts have argued that student expectations of technology run ahead of universities’ practice. The pandemic has forced change in pedagogy, research methodologies, digital collaboration tools. Although few are strictly new, there has been a paradigm shift, and there will be no turning back. During the pandemic, I joined the advisory group for Jisc’s ‘Learning and Teaching Re-imagined’ project, which identified important questions in the future of teaching and the need for an institutional route-map to address them. It does mean, as Michael Barber pointed out in his curiously titled valedictory report for the OfS – Gravity Assist– getting serious about equipping students materially and educationally to access digital learning. It means using campuses differently, ensuring that students and staff are able to interact in the most productive ways to promote learning and inquiry. All those are challenges, but also opportunities, and all organisations have learnt a good deal about how to handle both.
A colleague pointed out to me gently but firmly the other day that it’s wrong to think that we are about to move into a ‘post-Covid’ environment. She was right. We will be living with Covid and its impacts for a long time, though we will be moving into a post-pandemic environment. There are choices to make about the way the university works and we are increasingly clear about them. The last year has been hard and challenging in different ways for everyone. Working differently for so long has impacted on us in unforeseen ways. The difficulties have been real, but so has the experience of doing things differently. It’s been a long, hard, challenging year, and the challenges aren’t over yet, but across the university we have gained the confidence that we can make hard choices effectively.