A year into the pandemic and the majority of staff and students are still learning and working from home.  Universities have adapted to working through the pandemic in different ways. Whether it’s driven by place, focus of purpose, or academic reputation, universities have different needs that should be at the forefront of thinking when it comes to future ways of working.  Here, SUMS Group Managing Director Joel Arber explores the experiences of universities so far and how we can use this year's learning to successfully move forward.

In search of the perfect hybrid

A little over a year ago, the global pandemic forced us all to close our campus operations and work from home. We have had to find innovative and technology-based solutions with most of us working remotely. The higher education sector has responded impressively with pace and agility. Teaching and learning, research and campus services have all moved online, adapting to survive. There are many positives to reflect on. A high proportion of staff members have enjoyed the work-life balance of working from home and even found it more productive. The pandemic has also helped IT directors and teaching and learning leads to catapult forward the digital transformation agenda with rapid change. However, it is also important to recognise that adjusting to working remotely has been extremely challenging for many, with obvious negatives including a damaging impact on wellbeing and a reduction in collaboration. It has also surfaced and exacerbated a range of pre-existing inequalities, including gender, race, age, and digital.

The pandemic may have pushed us into agile working, but it is here to stay. All the recent surveys undertaken suggest that a hybrid model that combines working from home and working in a designated setting will be the ‘new normal’. So, what does that mean for universities?

While it is crassly insensitive to suggest that we ‘shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste’, the reality is that the experiences we have been through over the past year provide a golden opportunity to consider our future ways of workings. This is because the extent of the changes – all-encompassing, performed at pace, and refined over an extended period – has allowed us to look into the future through the lens of experience. This can enable us to realise the benefits of our newly adopted ways of working – instigated by the global pandemic – but also incorporating the best of how we formerly worked as individuals and teams.

Brave new world?

With the lure of Boris’ freedom roadmap and the 21st June etched in our collective psyche, people are asking for greater flexibility in the future. The closure of campuses and move to online learning, services and support has taught us that more flexible working and remote working are not only possible; in many cases, they are desired by staff and students alike.

We must remember in this that we have diverse workforces and needs. Listening to and understanding these needs will help establish how more flexible ways of working can best meet colleagues’ needs while still delivering the needs of the institution. And because the whole premise is that of greater flexibility, we need to recognise that one size doesn’t fit all: different roles, different people, will have different needs and capabilities.  For some, that means working on campus full-time. For others, working from home. And for most, likely a mix of the two. The two-way management of expectations will be important for long-term success and satisfaction.

At its most basic, the individual and corporate mindset needs to shift to one that sees work as something you do, not a place you go. And with this comes the need to develop greater two-way trust between university employers and employees, between managers and their teams. We need to get used to management based on outcomes: on productivity rather than presenteeism.

In addition, we will all need to get more comfortable with the prospect of sharing spaces and sharing equipment again after months of being conditioned against this. To achieve this, we’ll need to establish the etiquette, set expectations of hygiene and cleanliness – of leaving on-campus workspaces as you found them.

Where to start

Universities have adapted to working through the pandemic in different ways, reflecting that underneath the commonalities that hold the sector together there is plenty of diversity. Whether it’s driven by place, focus of purpose, or academic reputation, universities have different needs that should be at the forefront of thinking when it comes to future ways of working.

The starting point is therefore to agree on institutional objectives: what are you trying to achieve in rethinking the way the university operates? Are academic colleagues in scope? Having spoken about this issue now with a range of institutions across the sector, SUMS is seeing different strategic drivers shaping the future in different ways. Once you are clear about what you are trying to achieve from change – whether it’s reducing operating costs, rationalising space to grow commercial income, meeting demand from employees for greater flexibility, digitising your university, or reducing your institutional carbon footprint – you can work with colleagues to deliver your objectives.

This has to be the first step because in order to succeed it is essential to manage people’s expectations. Leadership teams cannot afford to overpromise and underdeliver to their staff and students. Use the clarity your objectives provide as a platform on which to build a set of principles to guide more detailed work.

Ultimately, we should be aiming to develop frameworks that enable our university communities to be as collaborative as possible when they’re on campus; and as productive as possible when working from home. It doesn’t have to mean changes to contracts or job roles. It’s about how job roles can be delivered across the axes of place and time, underpinned by technology, to optimum effect.

A question of balance

The clock is ticking on the return to campus. Out of necessity, many universities are adopting temporary ‘ways of working frameworks’ to cover the initial transition period, focused on practical necessities. The longer-term changes, involving new systems or the reconfiguration of campus buildings, require time and investment along with rigorous planning. Take the opportunity to get input from a wide range of stakeholders across your communities to help co-create solutions. You should be prepared to pilot ideas – testing, learning and gaining buy-in as you go.

Having helped a range of universities in shaping their future ways of working over the past few months, a number of keywords have kept coming up consistently throughout conversations and workshops:

  • Trust, as referenced previously, is central to making solutions implementable and sustainable.
  • Fairness should be a key sense-check: will this work for colleagues across our community, and if not, how can their needs be accommodated?
  • Belonging: from going through an onboarding process to help colleagues transition back to campus, to reinforcing what it is to be part of the university community wherever you are working, we will all have to work harder at creating that essential sense of ‘team’ or ‘community’.
  • The final word is empowerment. This is the most contentious. It requires the other keywords to be deep-rooted, and for the university to make it very clear where the boundaries are set. Not every institution will tackle this conundrum in the same way. It is a question of balance. Some will take a laisser-faire approach with staff given the freedom to work when and where it suits them, so long as they are meeting the university’s requirements. Others will offer a degree of flexibility within the constraints of a framework, setting very clear expectations of their employees.

Central to success is designing a framework that will meet your institutional objectives and be an authentic fit for your organisational culture.


This is the first in a series of posts on how new ways of working are being developed through the lenses of culture, HR, space management and technology within universities across the UK. 

This post was written by SUMS Group Managing Director Joel Arber.   Joel joined SUMS Consulting, the not-for-profit charity owned by universities, in 2019 and in addition to his role as MD, is also the professional lead at SUMS for branding, marketing and student recruitment assignments. A passionate strategic marketer, communications expert and senior leader, Joel was formerly Pro-Vice-Chancellor (External Relations) with responsibility for external engagement and policy-shaping at the University of Central Lancashire.  Joel is currently supporting universities across the UK and internationally as they reform and revolutionise their activity to ensure they are fit for the future.

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