Professor Susan Smith, Associate Director, Leeds Beckett University reports on early Covid-19 research linked to HE teaching….
Back in March, as we hurtled towards lockdown, I had a bright idea… Why doesn’t our team become the subject of our own research – we will be participants? Let’s explore the impact that sudden home working has on the team. We are a small educational development unit – the usual mixture of academics, project managers and educational developers who, until recently, have been campus-based. Currently, our team is all women.
I wrote a research proposal, explored the underpinning theory and obtained ethical approval for a small qualitative study. There would be three interviews with each team member. The first would be immediately after lockdown while we were adjusting and “in shock”; the next after a month; and the final one as we moved towards some sort of return to campus in the autumn. I have now done the first two batches, transcribed them and am undertaking a full thematic analysis. I hope to write a paper when the study is complete but, until then, thought it would be valuable to share a summary of what appears to be happening to us, our work and outlook.
Finding 1: It’s a messy business
This hasty transition to lockdown working is not linear or tidy. We didn’t just slot into it – initially some felt shocked and that they didn’t have the skills to deal with aspects of the technology. Once we got the right equipment, practical tasks became easier and things started to improve, but it was the human stuff that was trickier to navigate. Some had children (suddenly wrenched from their own educations) at home and this was upsetting and distracting; others were cut off from families, regular routines disrupted, tables and screens were too small, projects which had been the focus of pre – lockdown work were halted.
However, whilst the navigation of work-life balance in the first week seemed haphazard, by week 4 colleagues were talking about the advantages of having “more control” over their schedule, opportunities for self-development and enjoying the daily “Boris” walk. They recognised that conventional offices aren’t exactly oases of calm (phone calls, opportunistic drop ins, loud chats): some registered that distractions are as plentiful in an office as they are at home, and that it just takes a while to adjust.
Finding 2: Some job roles lend themselves to this crisis more than others
Not surprisingly, our super tech-savvy team members stressed less about the digital tools. Those with strategic, people-based roles whose bread and butter were meetings, building relationships and understanding the future, felt more alienated and cut off. The nuanced nature of teaching face-to-face, running physical interactive workshops and picking up snippets from others before meetings, or useful corridor chats were suddenly gone and seemed impossible to replace.
Real collaboration – the heart of our work- now had to be done through a screen and initially seemed clinical, cold and odd. Some of us are still grappling with solving this problem. However, even the less technically adept now recognise that the digital tools are simpler than we thought, and our capabilities better than we imagined because we now have a strong hunch that an even more blended, inclusive approach will suit all the students better too. We understand that this lockdown is an opportunity not just to improve our digital skills but to clarify in our own minds the real added value of what students and colleagues “get” from the physical classroom and face-to-face teaching.
Finding 3: “Being in the unknowing” is “a thing” and we have to learn from it
The current state of play for working life has all become a bit meta. We mainly teach and advise others. We quite often teach reflective practice as core to academic practice and now we are all learning, and all undergoing active, deep self-reflection as we go. The challenges now are overcoming the “maintenance challenges”. Our motivation remains variable – it is hard to know what to plan for, when we don’t yet know what to plan for, and we are working with others on different solutions for teaching delivery that can make you feel like your brain is exploding.
Reflecting on the enforced and unexpected changes to our jobs, whilst knowing you are still the same person trying to adapt and work in a ‘differently productive’ way appears to be both frustrating and exciting.
Being in the psychotherapeutic state of “the unknowing” has become a valuable but tense reflective exercise. We need to recognise that we are in an uncomfortable state of slow Nietzschean “becoming” and it is different for everyone. We blithely encourage students and colleagues into “reflective practice” on placement experiences, dire critical incidents, academic practice, failures. Now, without warning, we are having to do it properly on and with ourselves. We must take the time to think about, and relish, being in the unknowing.
Finding 4: We are learning skills fast because we must
During the immediate aftermath of being banished to homeworking we were anxious about using the technology for meetings – “what are these Skype meeting things?” What if your weekly team meeting doesn’t really feel like a “proper” gathering because you are not all in one room, drinking tea, sharing news and discussing ideas? “How on earth do you share a screen?” Well… by week four it was, in current parlance, the “new normal”. We had to bite the bullet, so we checked out the manual and just got on with it. Some said that by week four, they had moved from hating the way the video showed our distorted faces and untidy houses and odd art work to actually liking it – that seeing others was “company” and comforting. Whilst this may reflect our desperate need for social contact, it does indicate that as an unintended side effect, our Skype/ Teams etiquette is improving – more structure, when we talk over each other, more consideration of the “Do Not Disturb” in the Skype profile, more natural silence and even laughing has emerged as a real possibility…
We see this as a fabulous chance to look at our already good delivery through a different lens and have gained insight into why some students like to be distance learners and avoid the tiredness and financial burden of the commute.
For ourselves, we intend in the autumn to review our team’s approach to flexible working in order to take the best bits forward when we finally emerge. We’d like to hear from others about your experiences. Have you tried to study your team’s lived experience? Let us know: S.V.Smith@leedsbeckett.ac.uk