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A Brave New World for Higher Education

on Tuesday, 11 August 2020.

To say that the last few months have been a challenge and steep learning curve for HR professionals in the Higher Education sector would be a serious understatement.

Whilst many of you will now be enjoying a well-deserved break for a week or two, there are a raft of further issues that will need to be addressed with the start of the 2020/21 academic year.

We explore some of the key HR challenges that lie ahead over the next few months and how coronavirus (COVID-19) may have changed some working practices in the HE sector for the foreseeable future, or perhaps forever.

Getting the Workforce Back on Campus

The priority for most universities, following the easing of lockdown, is getting staff back onto campus and putting in place safe working practices for the new academic year. Although the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has not been widely used in the HE sector, decisions will have to be taken about whether and when any furloughed staff should return and whether the flexible furlough scheme should be utilised to allow for their phased return to the workplace. HEIs will also need to determine whether it is now appropriate for those staff who have not been able to work from home to return to campus. For both of these categories of staff, there is likely to be a difficult process of readjustment to the world of work and support, back to work programmes and re-training should be considered.

For those employees who became homeworkers almost overnight, universities will need to decide whether, and if so to what degree, they should return to campus. Throughout the country, coronavirus risk assessments are currently being carried out; discussions are taking place with trade unions and other interested groups; and steps are being put in place to control the risks that coronavirus poses for staff, students and visitors to campus.

Understandably many employees will be worried about their return to the workplace and getting to and from work, particularly if they have to use public transport. Communication with staff will be key, as will understanding and addressing their particular concerns.

Even when reassurance is provided, there are likely to be some employees who are reluctant to return to the workplace because, despite the steps the institution has taken to make the workplace 'coronavirus secure', they believe that there is a serious and imminent danger to their health. This may particularly be the case for those who have been 'shielding' or are members of one of the 'clinically vulnerable' groups.

Such cases need to be handled sensitively, understanding and addressing the particular concerns the employee has and considering whether there are any further measures that can be put in place to allay their concerns. From a legal perspective, care needs to be taken due to the potential for disability discrimination claims and also possible claims that they have suffered a detriment or been dismissed due to their refusal to return to work on health and safety grounds.

Coronavirus HE blogs

Changes to Working Practices

Coronavirus plunged many university staff into full time home-working when this was not something that they had really contemplated previously, except on an occasional basis. The world of Microsoft Teams and Zoom video calls has quickly become the new normal and roles which we would never have thought could be done from home are being carried out efficiently and effectively that way.

In the short to medium term, with the need of social distancing and other safety measures, it may be necessary for many roles to continue to be carried out remotely, or at least for them to be carried out remotely for much of the time. Some employees will be happy with this new way of working and others probably can't wait to get back onto campus.

It may also be the case that more roles can be carried out remotely on a permanent basis than we would ever have been thought possible prior to the pandemic. This could open up opportunities for HEIs to recruit and retain a much more diverse workforce and attract individuals who wouldn't previously have been attracted to the HE sector, to a particular university's location or didn't want to relocate.

Most universities are shifting to some form of blended learning model for the new academic year, with face-to-face teaching being in much smaller groups. This may mean that changes are necessary to the working hours and patterns of academics, to allow for teaching to take place over a more elongated working day.

Now is the time to be reviewing homeworking policies and terms and conditions of employment to ensure that they accurately reflect changes to working practices and if necessary to negotiate any contractual changes.

Coronavirus has changed many people's perspectives and priorities. This may result in more applications for flexible working, to enable a better balance of work and other responsibilities. As many roles have been carried out effectively in a more flexible way during lock down, it may be more difficult for universities to decline requests for home-working or other patterns of flexible working in the future.

With more people likely to be working remotely and flexibly going forwards, it will be important to ensure that those who are more visible because they are physically in the workplace are not treated more favourably than those who are on campus less regularly, particularly with regards to career progression and promotion.

A couple of recent surveys have highlighted the impact that lockdown has had on women with childcare responsibilities. The first, by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and University College London, found that for every three hours of uninterrupted work an average father could do whilst working from home during lockdown, an average mother could only do one. The other, by Digital Science, identified a drop in the proportion of academic papers accepted for publication where women were identified as the first authors during the lockdown period.

With publication records being a key criteria in decisions taken about the recruitment and promotion of academic staff, the effect of the pandemic on female academics is something that may need to be taken into account in decision-making processes in the future, to avoid women being disadvantaged and possible claims of indirect sex discrimination.

Workforce Planning

The financial challenges faced by universities as a result of coronavirus, particularly due to reductions in tuition fee income and revenue from accommodation, catering and conferences, have been well publicised. This will undoubtedly give rise to workforce planning issues for many HEIs, whether that is in terms of reduced working weeks, voluntary severance schemes, restructurings, redundancies or other measures.

Of course, these are not issues that are new to the sector and even before the pandemic, many universities were looking at their organisational structures to ascertain whether they are fit for purpose and going through organisational change and transformation programmes. However, coronavirus may mean that such plans are accelerated and perhaps that more draconian steps will need to be taken than originally anticipated.

Workforce Planning banner

The key to a successful programme of change, and the avoidance of successful Employment Tribunal claims, is in the planning. It is important to determine what you want to achieve at the outset, to fully cost this, to establish a timeline which allows for sufficient time for slippage and to follow your own procedures. There may be some additional complications in the current environment, such as conducting consultation remotely, but the key principles remain the same.

Coronavirus has opened up the prospect of new, innovative and perhaps more efficient ways of working. There will be many challenges over the coming months but some great opportunities to rethink working practices and establish workforce models that may be more appropriate for what may be a brave new world.

This article was published on the UHR website


For specialist advice regarding the future of universities, please contact Jane Byford in our Higher Education team on 07909 656764, or complete the form below.

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