Last week, I spoke at Amity University’s conference on Student Engagement, Wellbeing, Holistic Development & the ‘New Normal’. I talked about how we can move from just about coping with remote working now to opening career opportunities working from anywhere and I will publish it in two parts. This installment outlines my thinking on the first part of my talk: what we need to do to make remote work sustainable, not just a stop-gap during the crisis.
Many jobs cannot be done remotely, and we need to recognise that there is an imbalance towards middle class people with university degrees who hold those who can. There are many aspects of social justice I will touch upon, as they are crucial for making remote work … work on a societal scale. I think the underlying inequalities affect us all and that the remedies may help us all, too. If you want to read up on the intersection of career guidance and social justice, I highly recommend Tristram Hooley’s work on the topic.
Holding it together
Last March, after a long period of dithering, the UK government decided to bring the country into its first lock-down. So we all immediately had to work from home. Many of us hated it and feverishly waited for the moment to return to ‘normality’. We all tried to manage on a daily basis, often juggling homeschooling and care responsibilities. We really just tried to get by.
Previously many employers claimed that it was impossible to offer remote work to people with child care responsibilities or disabilities. This turned out to be mostly … inaccurate [ed.: what I really meant was to say it was bullshit]. I remember when disability campaigners pointed this out. Suddenly, employers made reasonable adjustments – now that they had to be made for everyoneelse, too.
The ‘old normal’ was not normal
Soon, more underlying social grievances became apparent. While managing our own anxieties, we found that our living circumstances were less from ideal. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution we all lived and worked at home again. It turned out that our housing stock was not geared towards this new normal. Neither was our service based economy, which was highly dependent on commuting and consumption.
We faced the pressure to stay both physically as well as mentally healthy. And as the economic damage of the pandemic piled up, new anxieties emerged. The threat of economic collapse and mass redundancies became dominant. Even the most neo-liberal governments enacted bailouts and rescue packages. Naturally, at some point they tried to push us back into the office. We can safely say now that that has not worked, as the virus still ravages through especially the Western world.
Can remote work become the norm?
But also, people didn’t want to go back to the office, just like that anymore – here in Ireland that is 90% of remote workers [ed.: this is a bit simplified, but I pulled the stat from the excellent National Remote Work Strategy, p2]. The longer the exception to the rule extended the more it became the new normal. And we had to dig deep to keep holding it together, as we developed new coping mechanisms. At some point flexible and remote working advocates started to ask the questions: ‘what would we need to make this new normal bearable?’ and ‘could we even thrive?’
My answer to this is – yes, we can thrive. I think we can reach an equilibrium, as we slowly turn a corner, and rethink the way we commute, consume, and commune.
What needs to change?
The way I see it, this will require wholesale economic and social change. When listing up the different factors that play a role here I notice that most of them are outside of the hands of individuals, though. Yes, we can build resilience, develop personal coping mechanisms, practice mindfulness, or whatever else gets us through the day. I do, too. But that is not enough. We need fundamental change. We need:
Secure housing, so no one gets evicted while we are all supposed to shelter.
Consistent and effective public health policy, offering Covid prevention and treatment.
Financial aid. State aid can tide over parts of the economy central for the time after Covid-19, but which may not survive until then.
Digital infrastructure and widespread digital literacy are central from hereon.
And finally, fairer employer-employee relations. Employees have been flexible and made sacrifices to keep their employers afloat. It’s time to recognise that and develop new partnerships.
And that’s just the baseline. [end of part 1]
Hailing frequencies open
Want to read more? I will publish part two shortly, where I will talk about what education could do to help enable graduates pursue remote careers.
… at least how they are conducted in most places, and I’m happy not to have to try to convince unwilling team members that if we really really try, we can make it work. In our new normal, reviewing our work should look very different.
Since I can’t take myself out for a cuppa like I used to do with my team, I thought I’d embrace #WorkingFromHome and submerse myself in reflection – in the bathtub. No worries, I am not going to bare all, only my reflections about how I have been doing lately.
Right, I’ve pinned my questions in front of me. No more playing with the rubber duck – let’s get going!
What am I better at?
I am managing the anxiety that I felt when I started working from home much better. I am giving myself to space and time to accept that I cannot be be super productive while in a global pandemic.
Have I asked a difficult question lately?
Yes: How am I going to survive financially, as I am now not employed anymore?
Do people trust me more than they did?
This is hard to answer, because I do not know what people think. But I have noticed that many people have been regularly in contact, well beyond any organisational requirement or politeness to do so. I take this as confirmation that they want to be in touch and, therefore, trust me.
Am I hiding more or less than I did last time I checked?
I am not sure if this question is very relevant to me. I have been always … erm … been a bit of an over-sharer. Visibility is an issue when working from home and when working for oneself, but I feel also less constrained by organisational affiliation and therefore my naturally low shyness may have subsided even more. Oh dear.
Is my list of insightful, useful and frightening stats about my work, my budgets and challenges complete? And have I shared it with someone I trust?
No, my list is not yet complete. I have only been working for myself, in a different country no less, for the last two months and I am still waiting for a number of costs and metrics to come in. It’s not been adding any axiety, but I will have to address this. As for the sharing part – well, you are reading this blog post.
If selling ideas is a skill, am I more skilled at it than I was?
I think that skill has neither gone up nor gone down. I always thought that I was good at selling ideas. Only now I just have to come up with all the ideas myself, as opposed to working for an organisation which offered a certain set of values and ideas to stand for. However, I always ever chose organisations which values and ideas I would align with.
Have I had any significant failures (learning opportunities)?
Failures? No, I don’t think so – but moving to another country, to a rural border setting has given me a plethora of learning experiences. As opposed to my stay in Japan a many years ago, no one has put a stone through my window yet, so I guess I haven’t screwed up just yet.
What predictions have I made that have come to pass? Am I better at seeing what’s going to happen next?
I always shied away from making predictions, as observing and empathising come more easily to me than interpreting and predicting. And I don’t think I got any better – and frankly, I don’t really care. It’s a daoism thing. Also, this is 2020 and 2021, and the only prediction is that there will be surprises – and guess, most of them will be challenging. Our new normal remains – full of surprises.
Who have I helped?
You know who you are.
Am I more likely to be leading or following?
I always hoped to be doing those in equal measures – as I think you need to for authentic leadership. I don’t have a team to lead now (the cat doesn’t listen), or an institution’s board to sit on, so I’m focusing on following my instincts and hope they will lead me to a place in which I feel fulfilled and I can have a positive influence on our new normal.
Today I can announce that I have taken voluntary redundancy from my long term employer, Regent’s University London. I feel sad but also proud of the accomplishments achieved together, and I am excited about the future. I will be leaving Regent’s shortly, so it’s time to look back.
Matthias is leaving Regent’s? Impossible!
12 years ago I returned to Regent’s into the job I had wanted since I came to the UK in 2002. I was offered it after the untimely death of my predecessor Simon Hamm. Simon’s shoes were very big shoes to fill, and I always felt a very personal obligation to him. He had given me my first job in the UK when no one in my native Germany did. I am reasonable confident that Simon would have approved of my work at Regent’s. I used to check with him on occasion visiting his tree on campus when I was still working on location. Regent’s has the beautiful tradition of planting trees with memorial plaques when staff members die and Simon’s tree has always been an anchor to me.
We’ll meet again
I will miss my colleagues and friends, and the truly inspirational entrepreneurs in the Regent’s Hive. But I’m also excited by the next chapter which I am about to open up in my life. I will post about this soon, so keep following my blog. I am deeply thankful for the countless moments of joy I felt when working together for a common purpose.
2020 has been a hard year for all of us. Of course, Regent’s went through its trials and tribulations as well. But I have seen the most amazing accomplishments among my students and alumni, my colleagues, my team, the wider university, its executive, and the board. We changed business model in a very short time. We found ways to help students and colleagues succeed, and not lose hope during a global pandemic. And that we were able to rescue the university in its most perilous time has been nothing but extraordinary. My sadness is truly balanced by pride in our accomplishments.
Let’s see what’s out there!
My life is taking me down a different path now. I will watch from afar the amazing feats Regent’s will achieve as part of the Galileo group. This partnership was the right step for the university to take. For me it’s time to bow out and be on my way to pursue another path. I will always remember the Regent’s family fondly, and how much they made me who I am today.
From the bottom of my heart – thank you!
PS: Stay tuned, because I’ll have more to tell about what I’ll do next.
The lock down period has been transformative in many ways. Let’s make sure we focus on keeping what is good about it.
A disclaimer on privilege
I am aware that I am writing this from a position of privilege: my job wasn’t furloughed, my role could easily be done remotely, and I have a safe and enjoyable home which gives my significant other, the cat, and me enough space to work (not in case of the cat) comfortably. This piece is written in acknowledgement that others will have struggled more – but I am trying to focus on what I’ve learnt recently I want to retain.
Taking back control
Working from home has been an empowering experience for me, and I hope for my team, too. Commuting to work in London is never a great spend of time, and I have gained back 2.5h per day just by not doing it. That’s half a day per week with less exhaustion, and in the summer, just overheating. My commute wasn’t bad, but it still constrained what I could do with this time. My team has demonstrated how effective you can be running the type of client service we offer, and so have so many of us – it’s time that our employers embrace working from home as a true alternative that can help lead to less crowded cities and a more thoughtful spend of resources. The current negative headlines pushed in the (mostly) conservative media make no sense here.
Resist the urge to improve performance
Did I write that book, perfect my sourdough, or create an amazing product that will make the world a better place? No, and I wasn’t going to do that under any circumstance – the lockdown added a burden on our collective mental health which will probably take years to unpack, so there is no need to expect us to become super-performers while so many of the certainties around us were falling apart. Recognising this is key – we’re still just people coping with uncertainty, and that is hard. I would wish for us to remember that for that nebulous ‘new normal’. Here, I see a specific role for educators; for too long (and in the UK probably for longer if one can believe the sounds coming from the department for education) education has been reduced to a zero sum game of supply-demand economics, overlooking the option that investing (often into things that don’t immediately create a return) will create new knowledge and opportunities for growth.
This is what I would like to make sure we communicate to our (young) learners – that they are not the problem. They’ve been fed this li(n)e for far too long, and if we want to repair the damage caused by the crisis, we need to start listening to them. I have often written in defense of ‘young people’ as a collective noun, and in my many years in education I have become ever more amazed by their resourcefulness in dealing with the issues our and our parents’ generation created. In some cases, the damage was done much earlier and may need to be dealt with by knocking metaphorical (or physical) statues of their plinths.
I spoke at a panel for LinkedIn Learning on helping students and graduates in the early stages of the lock down, and what struck me most was that while focusing on solving the problems we face, the one thing we need to make sure we don’t forget to transmit is – hope. Hope that they can shape the world in their image. Hope that they can counter the intertwined toxic onslaught of populism, division, and intersectional discrimination they so clearly abhor. They’re out marching now – let’s make sure they remember their educators as not defending an indefensible status quo, but giving them hope. Let’s not just work from home – let’s #WorkFromHope.
Hamlet, our university cat, showing me what to do now some time ago … nothing.
The first two weeks were easy. Almost too easy. I was busying myself with helping everyone around me cope with a crisis situation. The third week turned out to be much harder – for me. I am not sure what happened; whether looking after others slowly started moving into the background, or whether slowly but surely, the anxiety that a crisis like Covid-19 creates got to me. I started feeling more anxious and stressed out by the smallest things, feeling like I wouldn’t be able to deal with the work and social obligation load that I started experiencing.
Let’s unpack this – or maybe not?
I always think of myself as pretty resilient, but I know that my combination of stepping back, thinking things through, compartmentalising away the things I cannot deal with, and then step by step working towards a solution has its problems. The main problem is that sometimes the boxes that I compartmentalise away into keep stacking up and I’m not always able to unpack them in a way that is good for myself and others around me. Imagine the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark; that giant warehouse in which all those buried secrets sit in boxes labelled ‘top secret’, filed, and then just put away forever. They may never be retrieved, and that can become a problem.
But I do what I always do when I’m dealing with a problem…
I do all the things that I think are best in the situation: I keep a routine, I train slightly more even than I would normally do, I eat well, I socialise – admittedly a lot of it is online now and I am more of a people person, but everyone has been really really trying to make this all work. So what was it? Even as I write this – I feel as if I’m already too late for some grand project that I’m supposed to have completed last week.
A video this week helped me, as it reminded me that this actually a perfectly normal reaction: it is normal to react with stress to a stressful situation, for example when we are all surrounded by a dangerous virus, a threat we cannot and that isolates us from most of the people we know and love. We might even miss those we don’t a little bit. IT. IS. NORMAL. It helped me understand on a cognitive level that my reaction wasn’t something I was supposed to fight, but to accept, and then find ways to deal with it without overcompensating.
Now that is the hard part, because I think I am one of life’s great over-compensators. Just like I compartmentalise things I cannot deal with, I over-analyse things I think I can deal with, play through a variety of scenarios, work on general strategies on manage each of them, and then wait for them to unfold. You see where I made my mistake? The mistake is that the challenge in this situation is to do nothing.
I am Major Kira!
I remember a deep space nine episode where a religious leader tells one of the main protagonists who has, for her own safety, been brought to a monastery where she can sit back, recover, relax and be safe from the forces that will threaten her. She tells him that she feels useless. The wise – and reasonably hot – priest tells her to change her perspective:
Major Kira: I’m useless here. Vedek Bareil: So? Major Kira: So? I… I need to feel useful. Vedek Bareil: It might be interesting to explore ‘useless’ for a while – see how it feels.
Deep Space Nine, The Circle
I’m very much like Major Kira in this exchange.
Doing nothing as an option
Reflecting on last week’s blog where I describe my Prussian Lutheran upbringing, I recognise there is no space for embracing inaction and uselessness within the belief system that I grew up in. I am not religious anymore, but my upbringing has taught me valuable lessons and I think this one is being tested now. Sitting and letting things happen is neither in my nature nor a part of my socialisation.
And this is, I think the challenge, for week four, and all the upcoming weeks thereafter: to remind myself that feeling anxious is the right thing to do in a stressful situation. I need accept that I’m anxious and that will make me slightly less productive. I will not write that novel I never wanted to write anyway. I will not master two new crafts. I will not finally break that anxiety I have about the social expectation that I am supposed to love sitting down and reading books. It is not the time to challenge my anxieties, but to learn to live with them. They are part of the natural reaction of what is going on around us. What I can do is share this experience and I think the lesson is to just embrace being useless for a while.
PS: I recognise that my anxiety is still really mild in comparison to what others may feel. If this affects you more than you think you can manage, please check out the NHS guidance on what to do. A lot of employers (like mine) also offer employee assistance programmes which may be able to help you, too. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK – seek the help you need.
I am writing this from my ‘annual leave’. The university asked us to stick to our booked annual leave, and rightly so, since we couldn’t restart the show on campus if everyone took a month off at the end of social distancing.
I was supposed to visit my ageing mother and play some RPGs in Germany this weekend, but since Lufthansa rightly cancelled my flight, and I wouldn’t want to be a hazard to my mother, I am, of course, spending it at home. I have the privilege to have a garden and so I am sowing and weeding, and weeing into the compost (look it up, it’s a natural compost accelerator) – and I am trying not to do the same things I do during the work week. It also gives me time to reflect on the reasonable adjustments I’ve made since starting to work from home.
First of all, my workplace is not a workplace – it’s a dining room table, and I’m sitting on a dining room chair. Unlike my Significant Other (henceforth to be referred to as the SO), I normally don’t work from home, so I’ve been adapting the place I work at now into a workplace. At first, a confession: after telling my team to start taking their equipment home every night, I – clearly on autopilot – locked mine up, together with my work phone on the last day before starting to work remotely. And there they sit in my locker at work, slowly and lonely draining their batteries. My team, on the other hand, listened to my advice, and are working away on their university devices. Go team!
But, as my mother always says ‘you are allowed to be stupid, as long as you can help yourself’ – I’ve set up my Chromebook and connected it to a cheapish screen I have knocking about for some online role-playing (Star Trek and D&D, if you must know), and started working on Monday morning, two weeks ago. I am pretty fit and have good posture, but knew after a few days I would start feeling my lower back, so I started making adjustments before this inevitability: The biggest improvement was – an empty Amazon box, propping up my external screen to sit above my Chromebook screen. I can touch-type without looking at my keyboard, and now my line of sight aligns with the top of the screen and I don’t have to tilt.
But then, I knew, I would have to invest some money to adapt more.
I invested into a wedge cushion and a lumbar support cushion – together about £35 on Amazon. I use the former to tilt my hips into a more stable position and enable my legs and feet into 90 degree angles; the latter supports my lumbar spine and keeps my lower back at its natural angle.
By mid-week of week one, I noticed that my voice was strained after sometimes pretty much non-stop MS Teams video calls. I admit it – I suffer from YUMPSV, short for Your Uncle’s Mobile Phone Shouting Voice – my SO confirmed this by coming downstairs to tell me to shout less. As there is only so much chamomile tea I can drink in a day to soothe my voice, I knew I had to address this.
I concluded that if I heard my own voice in my ear – or at least all others in the meeting, I would start speaking more naturally, and not end up sounding like Tom Waits by the end of the workday. The principle was sound, but here is where I made my first mis-investment: I bought a fancy-ish gaming headset with mic monitoring – it projects your own voice into your headset, so you don’t shout along like Rambo when playing Call of Duty at 3am (or whatever online gamers do). Turns out that this tech doesn’t really play with a Chromebook. Oh, if I had only listened to myself and brought the lovely Microsoft Surface laptop home with me – I’m sure it would have worked. However, the headset does help, and I’m shouting less – but I will not be able to have technology do the job of disciplining myself.
Having been raised in the Prussian Lutheran tradition – my father would only ever shower cold, except for Saturdays – I have been raised to believe in open windows and scoff at warm clothing; and that shivering could ever be acceptable from anger that it isn’t colder. I am so much less tough than my father was in this regard, but I have stood under a waterfall in the Japanese mountains chanting Buddhist chants. That’s short and shocking, but I was not prepared for the slow creep of the cold while sitting for days in the coolest room of the house. It’ll be great in spring and summer, but it sucked working like this. The SO and I had a discussion – and since I’m responsible for crawling into the roof space on cold morning to check the heating pressure, I qualify as the house’s heating engineer – I could convince both her and the cat that moving the main thermostat on to the ground floor would not freeze the rest of the house.
I keep’em. Almost ‘nuff said – since most of the university works still to UK office hours, most meetings are organised around them. However, since our highly international students are now working from a variety of time zones, my team and I are adapting: we will have to offer synchronous one-to-one appointments at a wider variety of times during the day, with some early and late offers to catch the outliers; and we are recording our group and webinar sessions, so they are available asynchronously. I think though, there will be further thought about this, since a personalised learning experience should not be exclusively coming out of a can.
How about you?
What adaptations have you made? Share your tips in the comments or on social media. The cheaper and weirder, the better.
Since last week, I am a British passport holder. After a long time and spending a lot of money, I now hold this valuable travel document. It’s an EU edition, thank you very much – if you don’t have one, I suggest you get one while they’re still available. I am now a dual citizen, that class of people who are by identitarians often suspiciously regarded as somehow disloyal. Indeed, how can you hold more than one national identity and be loyal to both? Or was that more than one thought maybe?
‘Membership has its privileges’
The answer is simple really: my European identity contains both my German and British identities nicely. In fact, now that I think about it, as idiotic as Brexit is a venture (don’t believe me – believe one of David Davis’ Spads, who has now broken ranks), it has helped me define myself more clearly: I am (and will always remain) an EU citizen. I am a German Anglophile by birth and upbringing, respectively. I am a proudly pro-European British citizen now. With all of those come privileges, responsibilities, and rights.
It was the assault on my rights as an EU citizen that brought me to the decision to end the continuous uncertainty I had been subjected to – against all leave campaign promises regarding our status, which turned out to be porkies of an especially cynical kind, affecting Brits abroad and EU citizens (both mostly deprived of a vote) here alike. Now that I am a Brit, and hold the membership credentials that entails, I reflect back on the journey through the valley of insecurity this took.
Are you applying while European?
One of the biggest insecurities that affect EU citizens in the UK now is the spectre of discrimination. EU online support forums are full of fearful stories of unfairly priced motor insurance quotes and mortgage offers being withdrawn. Some are misunderstandings due to heightened sensitivity, but some turn out to be true. The ones that really stuck with me are the ones I pick within my professional area.
I have had reports of internships, contracts and work offers being retracted due to the EU citizenship of the candidates – normally around funding or just lack of clarity what will happen next. Nothing in writing of course – but enough to make my Spidey senses tingle.
But this is against current law, non?
Let’s imagine you’re applying while European. A central question asked as part of every recruitment process is a version of ‘do you have the right to work in the UK?’. At the moment, sure, an EU citizen does have this right. But that is – thanks to HMGov – now that’s conditional until a final agreement has been reached.
An EU citizen has the right now, but the legal status after March 2019 remains stubbornly unclear. Does that mean you can only sign a contract until the date of Brexit in March 2019? With all the best will in the world, even with a permanent residency card in hand, no EU citizen can currently honestly make that claim beyond March 2019. I recognise it is highly likely that it will be clear at some point, but is it a right and can it be guaranteed by the individual at the time of application? No one knows – and what will a nervous hiring manager do with your application now, just in case they need to go through additional hoops after Brexit or pay a migrants skills charge?
‘Please apply again’
‘Nothing will change for you’, was the Brexiter’s standard answer to my concerns – but everything has changed. My advice is of course for EU applicants (and all others) to fill in their anti-discrimination forms (adding the option ‘EU citizen’ has become a bit of batch of pride among activists), so that the actual effect of this becomes clear at least retrospectively.
Now I know that non-EU citizens have been subjected to this type of gauntlet for years of anti-immigration rhetoric. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and just as I bemoaned the withdrawal of post study work visas for international students, which helped the UK attract and retain non-EU talent (and brought in shedloads of money), I bemoan this further erosion of the UK as a country ‘open for business’ (not to even mention ‘open to ideas’).
Looking back at achieving citizenship and passport, my European identity, and my sense of history imbued by my German upbringing with parents who remembered WW2, I spend every day hoping for a better turn of events, for myself, my EU immigrant cat (pet passport and all), those I love – and those I don’t. Brexit is kobayashi maru, the unwinnable scenario – no amount of optimism is going to change its doomed course. My speck of hope is that I now have a vote – and I hope that many others with permanent residency will come to the conclusion that they should get one too.
Should I e.g. be subjected by redundancy in the future (higher education is one the industries most affected by Brexit), I now can claim that I have the permanent right work in the UK, 2019 and beyond. But as many qualified EU workers in the UK (and their international employers) now recognise, they do not have the obligation to stay. International mobility is an asset, especially when paired with the transferable workplace skills and the languages to facilitate a smooth transition. Maybe some of us may end being able to have our cake and eat it after all.
I would like to know if you have experienced the issues I’m writing about – or can give me assurances that I’m overly worried. Have you experienced or heard of any EU citizens struggling with this? Share in the comments and let’s talk about it.
Have times changed. Early in my career, I used to be sceptical about student input into services and learning. Turns out I learnt this from my elders. My education was – with noble exemptions – fairly top down: school, university, peers – the established order knew better, and students could not be trusted to make decisions about their own learning. Everywhere else, including in universities, it became all about self-regulation, but students were somehow different – assumed to be self-indulged and opportunistic. In earlier blog posts, I have held up the values of a hard education and how it has built the resilience I nowadays benefit from. And that wasn’t wrong, but I used to overlook the part where students can be much more than clients or consumers – they can, and should become true partners. And most want to be challenged, not spoon fed.
A slow learning process
This is something I’ve learnt over roughly the last year. It began with a consultancy project: we asked a group of students to help us reach out more successfully to their peers using social media. The results were nothing but eye-opening. Our Facebook reach (the recommended channel to reach out to our current students) jumped from single-digits to regularly to over a thousand. And since we’ve learnt to not just inform them about what we do, but provide valuable content they can work with, their online engagement has risen even more. What this means is for another post, but the lesson here was that the students were ready to engage, which often eluded us in what we often think of the ‘real world’. In truth, it was us our insistence on them answering our emails (haha) and showing up when we wanted them to do so who stood in the way of success. Lesson learnt: listen to your students and go where they are.
Build it and they will come … or maybe they will stay home and watch cat pictures
Build a bed and I will sleep on it
It’s interesting that the above approach now is being used by employers, who use online (and social media) channels to engage the students where they are, increasingly offering them options they actually find attractive. For that, we have to understand that with the incoming student generation, online is just as valid as offline – and it is time that universities learn that about them. I recently sat in a development session with alumni and student entrepreneurs – we are jointly working on improving our start-up offer – and it was amazing to behold the differences in the way ‘we’ (education professionals) looked for solutions to simple questions about learning how to run a business and how ‘they’ (students and alumni) addressed actually addressed them. It was an educating experience. My learning is that whenever we think we know what is best for the students, it’s time to make sure we have them in the room to lead us towards what they actually need. We should neither consult them and then railroad them into what ‘we know is best for them’, nor just do all the things a random sample of students will tell us on the day. It’s a long process of mutual listening, but hey, as educators, using our qualitative research skills doesn’t hurt a bit. Let’s build services that reflect this approach.
A community of learners
The central truth that I have learnt by working closely with students and alumni over the past year, has been to observe how they build communities – and that almost completely managed and driven online. A space without community means nothing to them – build it, and they probably will chat online about how they want a different space. Build a bespoke online space, and they will use a different channel to – you get the (cat) picture. Don’t only ask them, join them in their places – whether online or in person (that difference matters less and less). It is in valuing and treating them as equals and partners where true student engagement happens. Do I always get this right? Absolutely not, but I have students and alumni whose judgement I trust and who will help me understand them and their needs.
Now that I think about that, they have taught me something – they have engaged me in a learning community where ideas are shared and concepts are worked out together. What a great student experience I had!
This week I have gone part time. Instead of a nine to five, five day work week, I’m now working four days a week at reduced hours. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I think the time is right. This is also giving me the opportunity to develop new skills. So, what will I do?
The three areas in which I think I should develop my skills are: I would like to improve my French language knowledge because I think I should work on my language skills at this specific point of British history. The only positive effect of the Brexit referendum result has been for me that I’m an even more staunch European than before.
Secondly, I want to learn more about technology. I think that technology is becoming ever more important in the workplace and that does not exempt universities. So, I want to learn more about coding, programming, web development, and data analytics. The workplace is depending increasingly on these skills and people in universities need to adapt to that just as much because these are the skills that we will have to imbue in our students – what better time than to learn them now? Also, my service is ever more focusing on analysing our student data to improve the student experience, and I think evidence and data-driven employability services are the future.
And thirdly, I want to develop my professional networks further. I am keen to find out how my contacts are working so I will spend some time meeting people and learning a little bit about how they do their work in the field of employability and beyond. I’ve always done this when travelling to a new place, meeting up with people I only knew online – now I’d like to intensify this approach.
So, that’s my plan. Is there anything else you think I should learn? Send me a comment on Twitter, give me ideas on LinkedIn, let’s meet and talk – let’s see what happens. I will be happy to hear from you.
Some time ago, my team went through an exercise in self-reflection – or as those things often go, we tried, did some of it and then got distracted by doing the ‘real job’. One of the ideas we were pursuing was to understand everyone’s relationship with their jobs.
We agreed on a format, where we would answer a number of simple questions, such as ‘What do I do?’, ‘What does it mean to me?’, and ‘Where do I want to take this?’. The aim was that we would tell each other in one of our weekly start the week meetings.
It never actually happened as planned, but I’ve got a little memento – as I wasn’t going to be there on the day, I recorded a short video message. Upon reflection, I actually like it quite a bit – it’s some form of mini-manifesto on how I think I do my job. Have a look, and see if it resonates with you.
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