Chameleon Programme – Blended Working

The Project Beginning

In September 2019, I started a Chameleon Programme that was tasked with reviewing how the university could support colleagues to work more flexibly. A particularly relevant topic as it turned out!

The Chameleon Programme is a year long business improvement programme that involves colleagues from across the university working together, in multi-functional teams, on specific projects set by Senior Officers Group . I was teamed with three other university colleagues, who work in different areas of the university and with different roles.  Our project sponsor was John Hogan and we had to set about devising plan and understanding our project scope.

We began by gathering information from sources at the forefront of flexible working, such as CIPD and ACAS, as well as reviewing existing university policies . Interviews with various colleagues across the university, such as School and services managers gave us a better understanding of what ​Flexible working meant in the context of our university. Consensus was that there was support for increased flexible working practices but there was a need for greater guidance to ensure fairness . 

We also had the opportunity to visit an external company, called The Thirteen Group, who are a social housing provider located in Middlesbrough.  Their belief is based on staff being in control of their working patterns with productivity measured by outputs rather than presenteeism. They invested heavily in infrastructure and technology as well as providing guiding principles, with endorsement from senior leadership, which was key to driving the changes. ​It had showcased what was possible.

Desk availability system and The Thirteen Group

We decided to try to mirror some of the Thirteen Group principle through an initiative called ‘Flexible Fortnight’ – the principle was to remove existing boundaries to working times and allow teams to manage working hours accordingly, and we were to capture staff response via a survey.

We had a plan.  We had teams ready to take part in the Flexible Fortnight and had generated recommendations that could be put forward and arranging events to present our findings.

Then, it all changed

Then COVID came along! 

COVID has been responsible in changing working patterns, for most employees, across the university; how we work, where we work and when we work. 

In March 2020, everything changed.  The majority of us were asked to work from home.   It was potentially the best Chameleon project ever! Or it might be the worst ever!

What did that mean for our project?  Well, it meant change too.  We could no longer pursue the initiatives that we had arranged.  So, we created a questionnaire to incorporate feedback about working for home.  We combined the survey results with the findings from our research and submitted a report in June 2020 to our sponsor.  We were also invited to be part of some of the Executive Board lunch meetings that touched on the new way of remote working and listened to feedback from staff across the wider University.    

Its flexible; its informal; its team specific; its build on trust.

This culminated, in December 2020, with an invitation to join a task and finishing group for blended working. The group includes representation from the Faculties, People Services, NUIT, Estates and Trade Unions with the focus on discussing how the university workforce could mix campus-based working and working remotely, post pandemic. Consultations are still ongoing, papers have been submitted to various committees, and webinars have been arranged to give colleagues the opportunity to hear plans first hand. Hopefully, this will be the start of clearer vision going forward.

The Future of working patterns

What have we learnt? A lot! One thing is certain, there is a consensus that we do not want to go back to the way we operated before. Why would we look back when we have come so far? Though the past year has been challenging on many different levels, it has also allowed many of us to gain first-hand experience of working in more flexible ways. There is an opportunity to embrace change from the lessons learnt and build a more modern approach to our working culture and behaviours. To make a change like this before COVID was hard to imagine.

As a project team, we have achieved far more than we ever envisaged; having helped give guidance and findings to potentially changes in University working patterns and policies.  The Chameleon programme lasts for 12 months and this is where it comes to an end for or team. However, we hand over the baton now and the story continues. Only time will show what the university does to progress and evolve the changes it needs to our working patterns.

We have been fortunate in terms of the timing of our project and I feel that we have taken advantage of the situation to allow us to leave a legacy from Chameleon project on the university.

From a Chameleon Project, For the University