The huge impact that COVID-19 has had on the education community has highlighted the importance of understanding staff needs and developing the necessary support systems. Work related stress has long been recognised but 2020 has shown that these support methods need to be augmented.
For academics, the pandemic has been a gamechanger. Within weeks of lockdown and university closures, social media was rife with posts, videos, blogs and ideas; ideas for teaching, building community and tips for parents trying to manage childcare whilst working.
It was incredible to see staff adapt to new techniques and pedagogy, but not everyone felt equipped with the necessary skills for the rapid shift.
A skills gap was clearly noticeable, and there was a constant pressure from long-winded training sessions, updates, how-to guides and instructions.
Research, as well as teaching, has changed beyond recognition. Despite an increase in opportunities around COVID-19 related research ideas, delays have been anticipated across fieldwork, conferences and data collection. Qualitative research which requires face-to-face interaction has been suspended, and limited travel has constrained collaborative research.
It’s been a year like no other. Not only has the way we work changed drastically, but there has been a shift in work-life balance too, which has had a knock-on effect on staff wellbeing and mental health.
Hearing from staff
The impact on staff has been huge; working remotely, juggling demands around working and home life, fatigue and productivity etc.
In the face of such change, we ran a call to produce a collection of staff reflections with the aim to build around and explore ‘lived experiences’ to provide a reference point to help propose and redesign future continuous professional learning and development (CPLD) activities.
We created a monograph (jointly edited with Professor Edward Cartwright and Dr Thomas Allen) with input from the faculty of business and law staff at De Montfort University, along with reflections from the university’s research Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA).
The collection has some incredible stories of how staff overcame various challenges, and displays the importance of interactions, capabilities, aptitudes and potentials to highlight diversity in approaches and how essential every aspect of work and day-to-day life is. It was exceptionally useful to get such diverse feedback and means that we’ll be able to take a holistic approach to future CPD training.
How staff showed resilience and innovation
“More active learning engagement… The outcome: we achieved higher levels of engagement than we ever had in classroom teaching. We all feel we’ve become better teachers. The students have given fantastic feedback.”
“Student response has been excellent and many report positively on how the sessions have helped them keep contact with their peer group.”
A host of new challenges
But many saw a host of new challenges, which included:
“The stress has been intense and has significantly impacted my mental and physical health.”
“Online teaching will disproportionately affect classes that have been designed to be highly interactive and engaging… Online teaching, will, to misuse the phrase, “flatten the peak” of student engagement. Lectures may homogenise stylistically over time and student experience may regress to a lower common denominator. Certainly, innovative and creative approaches to teaching will be needed but it remains to be seen if technology can fully address the new challenges we face.”
“The front room is too sunny…the back room too cold…the kitchen is disruptive because of the constant catering and cooking with two young men in the house. There is the added issue of power and invisible borders - not wanting to noisily ‘contaminate’ the next room…or having to negotiate the use of a room after lunch.”
The importance of building staff digital capabilities
This insight points toward a critical theme: staff wellbeing and development. Apart from the more commonly thought of support around instructional and technological know-how, a key principle is building up staff resilience by enhancing motivation.
Institutions are trying their best to accommodate staff needs; communities that focus on welfare, team meetings/chats are scheduled to ensure staff are heard and problems dealt with, social media pages with advice on wellbeing etc.
There has been remarkable support. However, there seems to be a need for future strategies to acknowledges the differences in experiences and to reflect and explore a revised model that helps institutions manage, improve and accelerate support. In our monograph we’ve highlighted a mixture of circumstances and capabilities to emphasise the essential elements for designing future professional development.
Making sure training is helpful, not an extra on the to-do list
It's vital that organisations recognise the importance of staff development.
Some levels or phases of development ought to be identified. For instance, either a timeline approach - short, medium, long term planning - or grouping by needs - academic, non-academic. Strategies to bring about change should involve an individual and group problem, and case-based learning and action research.
Professional development should be an activity that staff are on board with, not something they’re forced into. It should be designed so staff are keen to be involved by enabling a behavioural adjustment. With an extremely busy schedule in hand, an approach that requires a lot of external motivation would not be effective and could well just exacerbate stress. It is essential to consider whether staff development can be designed to identify and overcome problems of time and workload, along with improving staff mental wellbeing.
- Find out more about building digital capability.