Inside Track | Achieving balance in our new ways of working

Chief People and Culture Officer, Paul Boustead, discusses the need for innovation and balance in establishing new working practices that will set us up for the future.

Paul Boustead, Chief People and Culture Officer, talking at a conference.

World-leading universities like ours have always had to be agile, adapt with the times and be at the cutting edge of research, teaching and knowledge exchange. However, we have for years undertaken this under the auspices of relatively traditional and conventional employment practices. We were always going to need to change to remain globally leading and continue to attract, recruit and retain the best people and deliver the best possible outcomes for all.  

The pandemic has accelerated this and our new values reinforce the need to embrace and discover new ways of working. We are all able through our personal experiences, and also through those of colleagues, friends and family, to highlight changes in working practices which have been adopted over the last couple of years. Some of these changes have been for the better and for some have been less positive. For example, the working world has experienced a significant increase in issues relating to staff wellbeing. Conversely, we have arguably become more productive in certain aspects of our work and been able to embrace more flexible approaches and more autonomy. 

A changing world 

At Leeds, our approach to defining our future working practices – when, where, and how we work – is being informed not only by the recent pandemic experience. It’s embedded within our strategy 2020-30 ‘Universal values, global change’, as a key objective of our enabling strategy

“We will transform the way we work, building on socio-technical developments to evolve our practices and deliver sustainable change and continuous improvement.” 

Our strategy was conceived before the pandemic, recognising that technology had already changed society globally, and was continuing to do so. Our future staff, students and research partners will expect different approaches to those that brought us here. Old ways will not take us to new places. But Leeds is among the biggest and most diversified universities in the complex UK higher education sector, with multiple stakeholders, partners and activities. With over 65 schools and services, one size will not fit all; we have to take a considered approach. 

Listening to our community 

One thing that has become increasingly apparent to me is that the next generation of colleagues coming into the workplace have a different set of expectations and are making choices based on the proposition employers are making. We want Leeds to be leading the way and recruiting a truly diverse and highly talented workforce now, and in the years to come. We also want to retain and develop our existing colleagues and ensure they feel supported in the physical and virtual workplace.  

Certainly throughout the pandemic and even before that, colleagues told us they had a better quality of life when they had more flexibility around when and where they worked. During lockdown, we saw that many activities could be performed equally well, or even better, remotely or asynchronously. We also saw that some activities, despite being possible remotely or asynchronously, really did benefit from closer, synchronous working. These are the specifics we’re still learning at a departmental and institutional level.  

It’s also true that some activities are inextricable from campus or from fixed time periods. After all, we are a campus-based organisation and that will remain the case for the foreseeable future. Despite technological advances making new approaches possible, a sense of place and belonging are still imperative for our students’ experience and wellbeing, and that’s true also for staff. So, achieving the right balance here, as so often in life, is the key. 

We’ve also heard in the past about constraints relating to our estate – be that implicit or explicit barriers to collaboration, or indeed the challenge of achieving our net zero ambitions. These are areas we want to positively influence through our new working practices. 

The trick we need to pull off, and we need your support to achieve this, is to preserve what is special (which I have experienced already in my short time at Leeds) about the University of Leeds and change our ways of working at the same time. I believe our values are central to guide us in doing this… 

Values at the heart 

“By focusing on our shared values, we will create the conditions and culture for our community to thrive. At its heart is a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.” 

In order to really embrace collaboration we need to be prepared to be flexible and digitally innovative in order to work effectively and productively with our internal and external partners.  

In being compassionate we need to adapt our working styles and approaches to meet and respond to the diverse needs of each other and our students. Appropriate flexibility built into our norms will allow us to meet people where they’re at in their career and life in general. 

To be truly inclusive in all we do we can’t expect others to fit in with our previous traditional ways, we need to adapt to accommodate people’s cultural needs and develop different ways of engaging, communicating and delivering services to our increasingly diverse communities. An equality impact assessment is ongoing as part of the work to develop our new ways of working. 

All of the above indicates change, this can be unsettling and create uncertainty. We must approach this with integrity and in a truly consultative and participative way. And when we implement new ways of working that are fit for the future, they must contribute to a fairer future for all our community, including our colleagues and students.  

This is the approach being taken by the Future Ways of Working programme.  

Learning and evolving as we go 

The Future Ways of Working steering and working groups were established during 2021, and are made up of academic and professional members from across the University. Their task was to consolidate the learning of the past few years and combine it with the University’s strategic direction to develop an approach for our future working practices.

That work has included learning from ongoing academic research by LUBS colleagues, reporting by Nexus and CBI and operational trials including one in the Faculty of Medicine and Health.  

We’re now approaching the time where the initial output of this work can be shared with our colleague community. Please be open to learning about this and discussing it with your manager and colleagues. 

Review and feedback will continue to be central to our approach as we implement our new ways of working and beyond that, to make sure we remain true to our values and our mission.

We will be looking to launch an interactive staff engagement survey/feedback mechanism in early summer and I urge you to take the time to participate in this exercise; we really need your input to help shape the future ways of working here at Leeds. Your engagement, support and input into this whole programme is vitally important.  

Paul Boustead  
Chief People and Culture Officer 

Related link

Update 30 May 2022: Since publication of the article above, we have launched our new ways of working website, available to all staff and postgraduate researchers.

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