The DNA of Work

How is work evolving in higher education?

September 27, 2022 Season 1 Episode 35
The DNA of Work
How is work evolving in higher education?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Universities and colleges are complex organisations - in many ways quite different to other businesses in sectors such as finance, insurance and technology. With their mix of students, academics, researchers and professional services staff, there are a many needs to be met.

So how are they managing after 2 years of the COVID pandemic, where many more people started working away from their offices and students and lecturers began a journey of online learning? Many academics and researchers were already working in flexible ways before March 2020, but professional services much less so. Where are they now?

Here's a quick overview of the discussion points in this episode:

  • A renewed emphasis on staff learning, development and benefits (04:16)
  • A game of two halves - professional services / academics and researchers (13:02)
  • Going global to reach the best talent (19:36)
  • Co-creating work experiences (28:03)

AWA Host: Karen Plum


AWA Guest details



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson 

AWA Institute contact: Brad Taylor 

Music: Licensed by Soundstripe – Lone Canyon

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00:00 Karen Plum

Hello everyone. When you think about the higher education sector, what comes into your head? Is it the amazing buildings that they tend to be in? Those sort of hushed corridors, where academics and researchers are beavering away in labs and closed offices? Perhaps it's the students who are moving around from halls of residence to lecture rooms, or to tutorials or going to events?

Universities and colleges are pretty complex organisations. In this episode, I want to find out how they're adapting to the new world of work that we've all found ourselves in since the pandemic started two years ago. 

INTRO: Welcome to AWA podcast, which is all about the changing world of work and trying to figure out what's right for each organization, because we know that everyone is unique. We talk to people who have walked the walk, who’ve got the T-shirt and have learned lessons that they're happy to share with us. 

I'm your host, Karen Plum, and this is the DNA of work. 

00:01:05 Karen Plum

During the pandemic, we heard a lot about the student experience at universities and colleges and you tend to assume that those organisations are just as impacted in terms of new ways of working as other organisations. But is that really the case? To help me find out, I'm talking to three guests with different perspectives. My first guest is Caroline Jones, she's Employment Tax Director at BDO, a global business which provides accountancy, tax and advisory services in over 167 countries. Welcome, Caroline. 

00:01:40 Caroline Jones

Oh, it's really nice to be here, Karen. 

00:01:42 Karen Plum

It's great to see you, thanks for taking part. So, Caroline, what does your role at BDO entail? 

00:01:48 Caroline Jones

Basically the role that I have is to advise any organization in its capacity as an employer. So all the employment tax related things to do with their employees. I'm lucky enough to lead the National Employment Tax Team for not-for-profit and have worked in the university sector in the last couple of years.

So immediately before joining BDO, I was the employment tax specialist advisor for the British University Finance Director Group. I was with them for a year and it gave me a real insight into the challenges that are facing universities. Started my career as an inspector of taxes so that's what's given me a really good insight into the way that HMRC look at all sorts of employment tax related things in universities. 

00:02:33 Karen Plum

Thanks for that, Caroline. We've heard a lot about the student experience over the past couple of years, but I guess at the moment we're starting a new academic year. How are things looking for universities? 

00:02:46 Caroline Jones

In terms of the student experience, we are seeing a slight decline in student numbers. So I think that it's probably gone down by about 7% on the previous year. And actually what we have found is that increasing numbers of students are actually not completing their courses, so that in itself gives challenges for universities. 

00:03:07 Karen Plum

Hate to mention the B word, but has Brexit had an effect on this? Are we seeing fewer numbers of people coming in from Europe? 

00:03:15 Caroline Jones

Yes there has, there’s been a sharp fall in EU students coming to the UK, and that means that the university numbers are slightly down. But we are seeing more overseas students coming to the UK from countries such as China and Nigeria, so it may be that although we're losing some of those European students, we may get students from elsewhere across the world. 

And one of the ways that universities have thought about addressing that is to look at student and staff well-being. And I think that's a really important part of making sure that our universities are fit for the future and that the students have a good student experience. There's certainly been a lot of talk about the student experience over the last few years, with more and more distance learning and universities are looking at changing the way in which they deliver learning, and also the way in which they support their employees. 

00:04:07 Karen Plum

Do you think the cost of living crisis is going to force people away from working at universities and colleges? Are their salaries competitive? 

00:04:16 Caroline Jones

I think in terms of employees themselves, there is a big focus on well-being, but there's also been some concern about whether or not those employees, as the cost of living hits, might decide to move to other organisations and I think we haven't seen that happen yet, but that might be something for the future. 

But universities are looking at trying to address that, and it is difficult for them because historically they haven't provided much in the way of additional benefits. So you have your spine rates, which start at just under £19,000 and go up to about £56,000, but outside that they didn't have a lot of scope to provide other benefits. 

So we're seeing universities looking at perhaps how they can help their staff through this crisis that might be via short term loans. Quite recently I've seen a university offering free breakfasts for everybody, so they are trying to look at that more and more. But a bigger part of what they're doing is actually around learning and development for the staff they have. 

So they're very keen to make sure that their staff have a really good experience, they don't want to lose them. Some of them have got many years’ experience in the sector, so the one thing that they want to do is retain them and attract good staff. We are seeing a lot of universities committing to providing staff with development opportunities. To make sure that the individuals themselves and the departments are able to contribute more fully to the achievement of the university's objectives. 

So there's a whole lot being looked at around the university strategic plan and making sure that employees are able to contribute to that plan. I think as we go forward, we're going to see a lot more in terms of performance management. 

00:06:03 Karen Plum

What's that going to involve, Caroline? 

00:06:05 Caroline Jones

They're introducing those sorts of more formalized programs to help people understand where they are in their role at the moment, what they need to do to get the next level and also what they need to do to fulfill their potential. So I think that has been something that's always been there but is something that’s coming to the fore now as universities are really, really keen on keeping their people. 

00:06:29 Karen Plum

Are these organisations embracing flexible and hybrid ways of working? 

00:06:35 Caroline Jones

We are seeing a move towards more flexible working. That might mean that some staff work at home permanently, some may come into the university on particular days, and that includes academics as well as other staff. 

We are seeing a complete change, I think, in the presenteeism. At one time, you know, you had to be present in the university, and now we're recognizing, following COVID, that it's possible for people to still do a really good job from other places on campus.

In terms of that flexible working one of the challenges I think that universities are facing is that flexible working might mean working from home where home is not in the UK. The challenge for universities around employees and academics more generally, is where they are and understanding whether or not there are any implications for them working in other countries. 

Universities are such big organisations - it isn't always possible to keep a handle on exactly where people are. I have had experiences with a particular university who suddenly found out that they had somebody in Portugal having thought that they worked in the UK when that person became pregnant and needed medical care in Portugal and obviously, they haven't contributed to the Portuguese Social Security system. So that created huge issues for the university in the UK, so it is something that universities need to think about. 

It's not just about the tax, it's all sorts of other things come in like the Social Security, like pension, should somebody be in a UK pension scheme when actually they're based overseas and I think self-service HR can sometimes be a little bit of an issue because if people are able to go in and update their records, maybe that isn't picked up centrally, so they may actually have on their records that they're living overseas, but that might not hit the university’s radar. 

00:08:31 Karen Plum

And what about aspects like the amount of space that a university is actually occupying? We look at all sorts of buildings and think about how costly it is to heat and light these buildings, which are poorly occupied and obviously if we're trying to reduce carbon footprints, that's not great. Are you seeing many colleges and universities actively trying to address the space they occupy? 

00:08:57 Caroline Jones

We are seeing universities looking at their real estate with a view perhaps to renting out or maybe even disposing of accommodation, particularly those universities that are quite sprawling. They may be looking at their sort of outlying real estate, but it is something that they are all looking at and it meets the ESG agenda of course - the less property they have, then the less they will be expanding on light and heat, etc. So yes, definitely. Again, I think we're early days, so although, you know, I, I hate to say, I hesitate to say that we're actually over the COVID-19 pandemic, but we're certainly going that way, hopefully. 

But yes, it's definitely focused universities on - do they actually need all that space? And with flexible working, do they need that space; distance learning, do they need it; and indeed, they often have a number of researchers overseas, so they're looking at it in the round at the moment. 

The other point that I wanted to raise is around ESG - so the environmental social governance, this is trying to make sure that in this day and age, they're reducing their carbon footprint and they're doing everything they can to do that. And from an employee angle, there are various initiatives going on and one of the key ones is around the introduction of electric vehicles. So universities are starting to offer their staff the opportunity to have an electric vehicle, thereby reducing their carbon emissions, and it is actually very tax efficient. 

So just coming back to the point I made about it being quite difficult for them to provide benefits other than salary, this is something that they can actually provide. 

00:10:38 Karen Plum

Well, that's given me a great overview of the current challenges for universities and colleges. Thanks very much for setting the scene for us, Caroline. 

00:10:48 Caroline Jones

Thank you. 

00:10:50 Karen Plum

Next I thought it would be good to hear from a particular university, and I'm delighted to say that I'm joined by Nick O'Donnell, Director of Estates and Facilities at King's College, London. Hello, Nick. 

00:11:02 Nick O’Donnell

Hey, Karen, thank you very much for having me on. Delighted to be here on the first episode of I think the rebranded DNA of work, coming to you from King's College, where DNA was discovered with photograph 51!

00:11:15 Karen Plum

Fantastic, what a great link - well done - I can tell this is going to be fun! So, Nick, can you just tell us briefly what's your role at King's College? 

00:11:24 Nick O’Donnell

I'm Head of Estates and Facilities that provide wide-ranging services and support to the whole university. We're a team of about 900 people that self-deliver on many fronts including catering, hospitality, engineering, cleaning, security as well as all the conventional estates and FM operations, providing a whole range of student services such as residences, sports and event support. 

So a very wide-ranging role, mostly around operations but with significant capital management and estate management. It covers an estate of about 4,000,000 square feet and an asset value of about £5 billion. 

It's not without its challenges, but most of all, it's about what makes people tick, how do we satisfy and support world class research and world class learning? And that's what we're about. 

00:12:21 Karen Plum

Fantastic. So, Nick, how do you think the university - in terms of the staff and the academics - are they working in a different way than before the pandemic hit a couple of years ago? 

00:12:30 Nick O’Donnell

We were probably ahead of many of our competitors in our steadfast adoption of Microsoft tools long before the pandemic. So we had adopted Teams and had been making a foray into using teams as a way of delivering on some of our sustainability commitment long before the pandemic came round. 

We had the right foundations in place and the right attitude around flexible working, both around policies, employment contracts and the like. 

00:13:00 Karen Plum

You were ready to go then. 

00:13:02 Nick O’Donnell

We were better prepared than many, and indeed amongst our team we have some people who are renowned and indeed published on the subject of ways of working, the mobile workforce and the like. 

But what has changed is really a game of two halves and in the first half, well, we've been able to make tremendous progress across what is called in the university sector - the professional services community. So this is much of the back office that has no direct connection with the student experience. Huge amounts of indirect connection be it, you know finance, IT, HR, other big groups, marketing, communications. 

We had long since recognized the opportunities within professional services for efficient and effective working and were one of the first universities in the UK to create a low cost location for servicing and supporting our back office needs. For us that's located in Cornwall. So we already had a remote workforce working in Cornwall, now up to 200 people providing a shared service center and we have the right tools and policies in place to support new ways of working within London. 

So of two halves, the professional services have definitely adapted well. We are cautious with the professional services that we haven't seen a full year in the full returned COVID and we recognize that with the current energy crisis and cost of living crisis, that we may well see more people return to work. There's no doubt about it - Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, everybody wants to be in and we're hosting a lot of events to encourage people to be on campus. 

Mondays are tough, and to some regards we've practically given up on trying to lure people in on a Friday because we've created a mantra of having no large meetings on a Friday and thus people are able to do small one to ones online, or indeed do other things. 

So we're not quite ready for a four-day week with our professional services, but there's a strong argument to revisit the amount of times that we open our campuses, particularly on a Friday. 

00:15:06 Karen Plum

So enough about Cornwall. What about the other half - you said it was a game of two halves?

00:15:12 Nick O’Donnell

For the second half - the academics and the researchers - a completely different story. Space is part of the social contract that we enter into with our academic and our research community. They want their offices, they want their labs, their workspace, their work benches and it's a problem that's been running for approximately 200 years at King’s. 

We have made great progress over time and we're considered leading amongst UK universities by virtue of the fact that we have sharing agreements across most of our campuses where academics will effectively share two to an office, recognizing that they're not in that often. 

Equally, we're fortunate that we've had very good identity card location data, so knowing footfall across buildings by type, be its student or staff. And boy oh boy, do some of those research buildings stand out. Likewise, the huge amount of academic offices that we have (that roughly accounts for about 50% of our estate), some are used. We have academics who come to campus day in, day out and want to be on campus. That's how they work, that's how they track their research and that's how they like to engage with students. 

But that really is only about seven or eight per cent of our academic workforce. Many of them have enjoyed the benefits of new ways of working, without the willingness to give up the real estate - just yet. The value of the office has many different meanings to the academic - it's part sanctuary; it's part a place of study; it's part of place to meet students; and it is definitely a place to dump their books and their rubbish and their models and their awards. And it's a very, very difficult subject to chase them down on. 

The fact that we have got two for one is remarkable. As we look forward to say, what does the future look like, it cannot look like this - and we recognize that within our academics there is absolute need to have a hub, to have a heart for their business. The home of geography, the home of law, the home of health. But we need to ensure that we get the balance right between what is public, what's private and what's there for everybody to use, including our community. 

00:17:35 Karen Plum

Just one thing before we finish, tell me about Cornwall. Why Cornwall? 

00:17:39 Nick O’Donnell

Well, there's a funny story around Cornwall, which is we recruited two amazing IT individuals, who came from a large FMCG company, where they had built a business case to take that company’s IT department to Cornwall. And it was a really sound business case and one of the two individuals is a Cornish chap from Newquay. But the world renowned FMCG company they were at said no, no, nobody is ever going to go to Cornwall, that's not going to work, we're just going to go to Bristol like everybody else 'cause that's where we think we should put a shared service centre.

Our experience was, we agreed with their assessment that going to where other people had put service centers tended to create competition and there was nothing wrong with being the first mover and having all that first mover advantage in going to Cornwall. 

But we were greatly surprised when we got there and we were fortunate. The leveling up agender was only emerging, we found more talent in Cornwall than we ever imagined, in part because BT had had a long-standing operation down there that as luck would have it, they chose to close. And indeed within Cornwall itself, the community was crying out for high value year round jobs. 

So, we started small, about seven years ago with 50 people and we're now up to 250 people in that area, some part time, some full time and we run many different services out of there from HR support, finance support, indeed of course the estates and the facilities and the IT help desks are there and we're running more and more activities out of there. 

00:19:19 Karen Plum

And have you noticed that recruitment has become easier? I mean, we heard about the exodus from London during the pandemic - everybody wanted to move to the countryside. There were droves of people coming to Devon and Cornwall. Have you noticed that recruitment and retention has changed? 

00:19:36 Nick O’Donnell

We have different dynamics in recruitment across different parts of our business. Cornwall per se, awkwardly we have had something of a brain drain of our IT community there because they're being poached by people who say, well, we don't care where you live, you can work from anywhere.

So that that has been a downside. Equally we struggled to recruit even in central London, in some areas and some roles, both within estates and indeed across the university. At any one time there are up to 600 vacancies in King’s at the moment, which is remarkable. They're well-paid jobs with wonderful benefits. 

We are exploring and considering how we open up a third form of employment because we recognize that we have what looked like traditional employment contracts in London, what looked like more service centre performance-based contracts in Cornwall. We're now exploring a global employment contract, to say how do we recruit and pay for talent that might work outside of the UK? And that's a response to many things, but it is around access to the best talent in the world.

So that would never have been considered without the pandemic, because I think people just didn't have faith and confidence in our ability to recruit and manage people from different parts of the world. I have to say for a London university that doesn't have any overseas campuses and where London is a key part of what we do and how we teach and where we research - the population of London is the most diverse of any city in the world - it is a big leap to consider an overseas employment arrangement where we'll have what we've codenamed King’s global staff that can come and join us from anywhere. 

But it's a really great example of how we're responding to what is something of a brain drain on our country, where talent has been sucked out in different places from electricians to engineering professors and there are challenges across the board. 

00:21:34 Karen Plum

OK. Well, Nick, it's been fascinating to hear the experience at King’s - of where you've been and where you're going. Thank you very much for sharing on the podcast today. 

00:21:43 Nick O’Donnell

Thanks for having me, Karen. 

00:21:45 Karen Plum

And for my final guest, I'd like to welcome Colombine Gardair, who is AWA’s Director of Innovation. Hi Colombine. 

00:21:52 Colombine Gardair

Hi, Karen. 

00:21:54 Karen Plum

So Colombine, you've worked within academia and over the last maybe four or five years I think you've been supporting University of Manchester as they've been transitioning to new ways of working. So what have you seen over the pandemic period - how have things been changing for people working in universities and colleges?

00:22:17 Colombine Gardair

Well, I think before the pandemic, there were two types of ways of working really within universities in general where researchers, research staff, academics were already, you know, working in a way which you could describe as hybrid, where the main reason they would need to be on campus was because they had activities like teaching during term times or because their research needed them to be on campus to access materials. 

But one of the attraction of, you know, of academia in general was always the flexibility of being able to work a bit as and when you want and need. It was always perfectly acceptable to work away from your office, and there no contractual obligation to be for a certain number of hours on campus. Of course, depending on your level, and your relationship with your supervisor or whoever is leading the piece of research you're working on, there might be different arrangement from one individual to the next, but there was already quite a lot of flexibility of something that you could term hybrid. 

However, for professional services, so the staff that support the running of the university, it's always been very much tied to being present on campus. So when the pandemic hit and everybody moved to being fully remote, that flexibility of location, where it was a major shift was really for those PS teams who didn't have that obligation of presenteeism put onto them - the ‘I need to be seen to be working’. 

00:23:55 Karen Plum

So I think from your experience and from the experience of our earlier guest at King's College, there's quite a different working experience between professional services staff and academics and researchers. Generally speaking, how do you think this played over the pandemic period? We see with so many organisations that people felt more trusted once they were working remotely and it might have taken a while to bed down, but with university groups as well as other groups, is this something that you've seen very much that people just felt a lot more trusted? 

00:24:36 Colombine Gardair

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when you're moving away from a presenteeism culture to one where people are being left to achieve their work the way they see fit, then of course you see trust growing, and I think that trust goes both ways. It's both people feeling more trusted by their managers and leaders to be able to do their job well, but it's also managers and leaders realizing that actually with little, not little supervision, but we know without the same amount of overbearing, sometimes supervision, people achieve great things as well, and even maybe sometimes more than they ever expected. 

Sometimes it's a surprise because if you're micromanaging, very often it's out of fear of the repercussion on you as a manager of a job that didn't get well done or didn't get done to time or et cetera, et cetera. So when you get into a situation where you're forced to let go of those fears because of the situation, then it's a perfect opportunity to kind of take a step back and go - actually, they know what they're doing, it's still happening, actually maybe they’ve space to surprise me and to go beyond. And when those things happen, then it's magical and that’s how cultures start to shift and evolve. 

00:25:59 Karen Plum

What are you seeing now that workplaces are opening up more? How are universities responding in terms of their willingness to continue, perhaps a hybrid model and not requiring people back in the office and going back to presenteeism? 

00:26:17 Colombine Gardair

I think there is a general desire in all respect to carry on with, you know, with that hybrid model and one thing to keep in mind when you're thinking about universities, especially the big prestigious UK universities, is that people choose to work in university also for the prestige, for the building, for the location, for the history, for everything that comes with it. 

And what I've seen from the work we've done with universities is people being really eager, actually to get back to campus. Not necessarily 100% of the time, definitely not all the time, although that's not necessarily true for all. There are certain part of the profession, those who are very student facing, who feel like they can only do their job well when they are with the students. 

But there is also, you know, a big part of the population who wants to be in that element of that historical knowledge, intellectual stimulation that comes with working with the university. 

00:27:30 Karen Plum

I'm interested in your thoughts - our previous guest mentioned that space was part of the social contract for academics and researchers, and that King’s College had been on a very long journey to try to make better use of the space occupied by the academics and the researchers. Have you seen any particular solutions work well for those people to address their needs but also utilize the space better? 

00:28:03 Colombine Gardair

So I think that's where universities are still very much on a journey, because that is entirely true - space is part of that social contract. Part of, you know, becoming a recognized academic - you get your individual office and then your individual office in the corner with bigger windows and you know it's part of it. 

And that's where there is a lot of work still to be done because we know offices are underutilized by academics and when you show them the data, when you get them to sit down, when you get them to think about the compromises, the experience I've had with all the academics I've been working with is that they care very much about their research teams and when the compromise is between - I have my private office and everybody around me is in dire condition, then they are very willing to give up that for the benefit of the team. And when you get them to experience some different ways of working, they also see a lot of benefits to being closer to the people they work with. 

We know that innovation happens at that interaction between humans. Innovation doesn't happen in the solo office. Innovation happens outside of the office, and you come back into the office to do that, to put it on paper. But innovation, you know, happen outside of it.

So it is a journey. And I think it's a journey where universities need to really involve the academics, involve their research population, co create with them what the solution look like. Because if you compare the academic world to your typical knowledge worker company, you have such massive difference and challenges. I'm not saying that in a traditional Finance office, I don't know, I don't want to cite a sector… 

00:30:06 Karen Plum

Yeah, they're not without their challenges! 

00:30:10 Colombine Gardair

Exactly - I'm not saying that one size fits all for traditional pieces. It doesn't, we know it doesn't. But the different personas and scenarios that you need to design for are much more restricted, compared to the academic population. The complexity of relationships between a research group and the outside word, the interaction with the student, the interaction with the PS teams, the interaction with outside organization that maybe they're doing research with, maybe organization they have huge confidentiality issues that makes privacy that might make or break a contract for them. 

So you need to really, really design it carefully with them, what that space sharing looks like. 

00:31:00 Karen Plum

So it's not that we do anything different than we would do with any other organization, it's just the same. But we would design it specifically to the needs that they have and that's why Nick said it's a 200-year journey at King’s. OK, well, I think we need to leave it there, Colombine, thank you very much indeed, it's been fascinating. 

00:31:22 Colombine Gardair

Thank you so much, Karen. 

00:31:25 Karen Plum

So I guess like every other organization, universities and colleges are just having to figure things out, finding out what works for them and taking into account all the new ways we've been working since the start of the pandemic. Isn't it amazing that that pandemic accelerated so much of what we do and how we do it? But our job now is to keep things evolving, to keep things moving forward, wherever we work. 

CLOSE: If you'd like to hear future episodes of the DNA of work, just follow or like the show. You can contact us on our website, Thank you so much for listening. See you next time - goodbye. 

Caroline Jones, BDO
Nick O'Donnell, King's College, London
Colombine Gardair, AWA