Office Hours – the future of HE working

Office Hours – the future of HE working


For part three in our content series with Stori, we spoke to our panelists about how they feel about the future of work. Is the full time return to the office imminent, will HE marketeers never be back in the office or are we all set for a hybrid future?

“Please leave the office calmly and quietly in an orderly manner, and leave all your belongings behind”

It wasn’t quite as dramatic as a fire alarm but March 2020 and the first UK campus lockdowns will linger long in the memory for many who work in higher education (HE). Suddenly institutions that had required formal agreements for flexible working policies and where everyone had a desk and a landline had their entire teams working from home.

And now after a year of fully remote and for some hybrid working – a mixture of the virtual and on-campus working. The sector may well change the way it works forever as a result.

“The genie is out of the bottle for hybrid working” says Martyn Edwards, director of marketing and advancement at Loughborough. “We can see that in the battle for talent many HE marketing jobs are now including flexible working as standard, no institution can afford to fall behind if they want to retain and attract specialist staff.”

For Alison Kerwin, director of marketing at the University of Liverpool, the future of HE is more blended than it was prior to the pandemic. While she states that her institution wouldn’t want to “completely turn [its] backs on” the positives that have arisen from the propagation of homeworking, there are certain tasks for which it is beneficial to be on campus.

She stressed that “you can’t replicate that feeling you get from walking around the campus and seeing students doing what students do”.

Opportunity comes with the increased flexibility of a blended model. In particular, this is the case with technical skills and data analysts. As Justin Cole, director of marketing and communications at Bournemouth University asks: “Do I really care that they’re based adjacent to me in the next office? Not really.”

Dee Reid, director of external relations, reveals that a survey undertaken at Leeds Beckett found that 94% wished to continue with a hybrid way of working. Citing what is understandably an extreme example, Reid mentions that a talented IT leader at her institution had plans to move to Australia and a strategy was negotiated that saw him finish his current project once he moved.

While Reid appreciates that a commute to and from the other side of the world may not be quite sustainable in the long term, the precedent set during the pandemic represents “a real opportunity for us to kind of open up talent pools”.

Reid also made the very salient point that “creativity doesn’t always strike between nine and five” and that HE institutions should consider a break from the traditional timetable, as well as looking at hybrid working.

Flexibility in approach to working time and location also can have a big positive impact in an organisation delivering on its equality and diversity commitments, as Loughborough University’s Martyn Edwards says: “Members of our team with caring responsibilities have had to fit work around their families a lot more whilst working remotely. In the future, ensuring there is that flexibility in place will require the sector to practice what we preach in terms of effectively balancing trust and staff wellbeing with the wider needs of the institution.”

The sustainability aspect is worth considering too, “as a campus university, our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint is a strategic priority. As well as the benefits to staff of hybrid working there is also the positive environmental impact of there being less commuter traffic.”

Rebecca Trengove, director of marketing and communications at The University of Dundee, explains that weighing up the pros and cons of remote working is a “very live discussion” at her institution. Although her team adapted effectively to the ‘new normal’ during lockdown, she highlighted something that perhaps gets lost in the discussion over the balance of blended working – staff working in suboptimal work spaces at home, such as cramped kitchens or bedrooms.

Despite the fact that “the more transactional types of things” can still be completed remotely, she argues that the more creative aspects benefit from the type of collaboration that can only take place in person.

For Dan Barcroft, director of student recruitment, marketing and admissions at The University of Sheffield, despite the strides the sector has made in embracing remote working out of necessity, marketing and comms professionals are, by their very nature, “people people”, making them “more disposed to team working”.

This tendency towards the tactile means that hands-on, in-person work needs to be married with the virtual. Barcroft believes in empowering individuals, “giving them agency to find their own way”.

An increased emphasis on remote working will open up a wider pool of talent for HE in the future, according to Kerwin: “People should be able to apply and work with us from much further afield than they do currently.”

Cubed comment:

“It’s clear to us that for the HE sector, and we include ourselves in that, things have changed in a way that is likely to be irreversible.

“Many universities will be delighted at the prospect of freeing up space vacated by under-occupied meeting rooms and desks. However, as marketing and comms leaders we think we all need to think very carefully about how we best foster collaboration, get that all important engagement with students and allow creativity to flourish.”

“Since the start of the pandemic we’ve moved offices ourselves and the ‘new normal’ has been very much part of our thinking. We have introduced a number of break out rooms to increase creativity and collaboration between each and every team member. If you’d like to come and see our collaboration spaces and find out how we can help facilitate creative discussions remotely and face to face, please get in touch.”

Chris Rogers, agency director at Education Cubed

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