Last week, NU Women and NU Parents co-hosted a discussion space to allow colleagues to share their experiences of the transition to blended working in their corners of the University institution over the last few months. Hosted as a two-hour drop-in session over lunchtime hours, the attendees raised a wide variety of talking points, airing issues, and sharing coping strategies. There was a lot shared among the attendees, and the below is an abridged summary of the many points raised. If you’re interested in hearing more about this transitional period, please get in touch with NU Women to receive the full session notes.
1. Main concerns and suggestions:
- Overall, the attendees viewed blended working as a net positive to their experience of employment at the University. Everyone emphasised that they were committed to keeping blended working open as an option.
- All attendees noted that a lot of their anxiety during this transition period stems from a lack of certainty around longer term plans from the University regarding the longevity of blended working.
- The University should establish a set of guiding principles around blended working. This would prevent feelings that blended working arrangements are implemented at the whims of management and would help staff feel more secure in their own arrangements and empower them to advocate for themselves.
- The University should invest in blended working. Many noted a clear difficulty in communicating across OC and WFH colleagues, particularly in meetings that take place simultaneously online and in-person. To make blended working more sustainable, the attendees suggested investing in coaching or training on different listening and communicative styles, and in technologies to bridge this gap.
- Part of protecting staff members’ ability to flexibly WFH is recognising the benefits of blended working beyond the COVID pandemic. Every attendee noted ways that being able to WFH, even occasionally, has benefitted their personal and family lives.
2. Workplace culture
Attendees communicated a general sentiment that the University leadership’s framing and implementation of blended working has thus far been unjustified and uneven. Primarily, many people spoke on a feeling that they weren’t being trusted by their leadership to work from home effectively and that this was particularly disappointing given their efforts to keep the University running over the many months of mandated WFH time.
Ultimately, it felt to many attendees that their experience of blended working was very much dependent on the preferences and good will of their line managers. Some cited frustration at a lack of justification for individual managers’ emphasis on presenteeism, while others praised managers for taking extra steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff as they returned to the office. One attendee shared that she was grateful that her manager had taken the care to ensure that staff working on campus will be working with a wide variety of colleagues to combat the feelings of isolation among the team.
However, some were concerned with their managers’ emphasis on productivity over wellbeing, stating that they felt discouraged at the current blended working set up prioritising hours spent at work (in the office or at home) over the quality or quantity of their work itself. It was the experience among the group that this resulted in a poorer relationship with their work and often put undue stressors on their wellbeing in already challenging circumstances. Many were also struggling to keep their productivity high alongside the distractions of returning to busy office environments and they wanted to feel more supported in making this transition, particularly in recognition of the social benefits of returning to campus.
Attendees also commented on their very different experiences of blended working depending on their role at the University. While not all this difference was problematic (i.e. the expectation that estates and student-facing staff will be expected to be on campus more than ‘behind the scenes’ colleagues), others noted that their experience was very dependent on the locations they worked at and who they worked with. One attendee on a satellite campus greatly appreciated the relative quiet at her workplace and wasn’t sure if she would feel as safe on central campus. Other attendees commented on feelings of unease around colleagues and students refusing to follow mask-wearing and distancing guidelines.
3. Disabled staff and staff with parenting and/or caring responsibilities
Even before the current pandemic, blended working arrangements would have been helpful for disabled staff and staff with parenting and/or caring responsibilities. During the session, it was noted that, due to being able to work from home many had been able to take on more work hours and thus bridge some of the pay gaps experienced by these groups. Presenteeism is physically demanding and puts strains on care arrangements, and blended working arrangements have enabled staff to take better care of these areas of their personal lives while maintaining their workloads.
Further, the normalisation of this style of working was experienced as contributing to a more accessible workplace, particularly when also taking care of their own and their dependents’ wellbeing. However, this was coupled with concern that these arrangements would only be available during the pandemic, while abled and non-parenting/caring staff are in need of them, and attendees wanted to ensure that blended working would remain an option into the future.