Hybrid Higher – achieving a purposeful balance
Going back to 2019, if you had declared that your college or university was about to embark on a large-scale, enforced experiment with homeworking for all staff you would have received more than puzzled looks.
Fast forward to January 2020 and full or partial campus closures began to occur in China, and by March the same was happening in the UK, Italy, Brazil, India, Canada, the US and elsewhere. By March 11, 2020 it was official, the World Health Organization made “the assessment that Covid-19 can be characterised as a pandemic”.
And with the pandemic the world changed, including the world of work.
The gradual long-term trend towards home working evident in many countries from Australia and Japan through to the US and most parts of the EU was vastly accelerated by the pandemic. We went from a slope to a cliff. What was previously largely enjoyed by a privileged few became suddenly a requirement for the majority.
“Opinion is divided on whether everyone returning to a fixed workplace is desirable”
With change we sometimes use the expression ‘there’s no going back’. However, in countries with successful vaccination programs the prospect of going back to offices and classrooms is now a reality.
Opinion, though, is divided on whether everyone returning to a fixed workplace is desirable. Employers are seeing opportunities to remodel their working practices, and employees would value a flexible mix of home and office.
In June, Advance HE brought together senior university colleagues with responsibility for planning future operating models to discuss the ‘hybrid’ question. Reaching out to a diverse range of colleagues and institutions, including contrasting national contexts, the Hybrid Higher project looked at hybrid working through three lenses: operational effectiveness, leadership, and fairness.
The substantial gains made in online and flexible pedagogies should not be lost. That is a given for most institutions following the pandemic. But neither should universities and colleges lose the progress made in the battle for distinctiveness over the last 40 years.
Technological homogeneity would not ultimately be a desirable outcome for either universities or students. So, the key question for institutional identity remains, ‘who are we and what do we stand for?’ Answer that and you have a purposeful basis for considering hybrid working.
This is not to say that institutions should not question their choices. Regarding investments in infrastructure, teaching large groups in lecture halls may be a particular area for enlightened review. Similar consideration should be applied to hybrid working arrangements, with the choices made being firmly linked to institutional identity and purpose.
“Managing disbursed teams online has exposed many leadership shortcomings”
Many headlines have appeared claiming that virtual and hybrid working will require a new kind of leadership. The reason for this, however, is that managing disbursed teams online has exposed many leadership shortcomings. Where teams muddled along when located together in a shared space, virtual engagement has caused things to breakdown. But good practice in leadership remains the same.
Creating meaning, establishing trust, clarifying expectations, allowing autonomy, showing appreciation, ensuring safety and providing social support – these good practices are fairly constant. To support hybrid teams, though, leaders will need to dial them up more, and in different ways, and to that end institutions will need to invest as never before in leadership development.
One key area of leadership good practice for hybrid working is deliberate and intentional inclusion. Without this unfairness, actual and perceived, will rapidly grow, and existing inequalities will be magnified. One example of unfairness is the proximity bias that so easily comes with two tier teams. Those closest to us, or that we see most often, are unconsciously associated with qualities such as reliability, commitment and dedication.
Consulting staff both collectively and individually regarding the choices made for hybrid working will be crucial, and alongside this striving to ensure that those from marginalised groups or with specific needs are both listened to and heard.
Moving forward, the challenge of achieving a purposeful hybrid balance between virtual engagement and in-person collaboration for staff in universities and colleges will become a marker of institutional success.
‘Hybrid Higher – hybrid working and leadership in higher education’ was published in July 2021, including highlights pamphlet.
About the author:
This is a sponsored post from Doug Parkin PFHEA, FCMI, MInstLM, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management, at Advance HE. With a focus mainly on leadership, Doug is responsible for a range of Advance HE’s national open programmes as well as undertaking bespoke consultancy assignments for universities both in the UK and around the world. Key interests include educational and research leadership, the leadership of professional services, strategy development, leading change, and leading with emotional intelligence. An accomplished teacher, facilitator, coach, author and conference speaker, Doug has achievements across a wide range of leadership, educational and organisational development projects. He is also the author of Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses, which was published by Routledge in 2016.