In July 2021, Peachy Mondays hosted our Further Education Roundtable, bringing together senior professionals from a range of UK-based colleges and universities. The Roundtable was an opportunity to share the challenges that the sector has faced as well as explore the contribution that employee listening can make to identifying and overcoming issues in the workplace and shaping the future of work.

Why is employee listening and engagement less prevalent in Further Education than other sectors?

One of our topics of conversation focused on the relatively low levels of employee listening and engagement within Further Education in comparison with other sectors. Some FE organisations run surveys in-house but there can be doubts about anonymity which impacts participation levels and potentially, the candour of feedback.

There is a wealth of evidence linking customer experience to employee engagement. Surely there is a case to be made that the engagement of lecturers and other FE employees has a direct impact on the student experience? After all, how can you expect students to have a great experience if your employees don’t? How can we create a welcoming, holistic, supportive environment for students if we don’t do that for our staff?

One reason given is that FE leaders are worried about receiving negative employee feedback. But if that’s how people feel, we really need to know. Staff could raise issues that we can easily fix and change. Others reflected that Academics are very analytical. They do research for a living and will question survey methodologies, so you need to be robust and consider your employee listening approach carefully. Employee engagement approaches that work in retail will not necessarily work in academia.

When embarking on an employee listening journey within FE, there is often a need to engage with unions and staff representative groups, however in our group’s experience, they are broadly supportive provided they are confident that feedback is anonymous, results are transparent, and action is taken. Going forward, employee listening also ensures that any people-based proposals that are shared with employee representative bodies are evidence based.

Identifying and overcoming issues in the workplace

The key issue faced by the sector during the pandemic has been the challenge of keeping employees and students safe, whilst maintaining continuity of education and support for students.  Participants remarked that the pandemic has been a real test of business continuity.

A shared experience was the lack of clear government guidance for the sector.  Where guidelines did exist, employers and employees were unsure whether they went far enough.  HR functions were being challenged to come up with rules and guidance when they just had no experience of a situation like this.

The challenge of moving curricula online, was the most frequent source of stress and frustration for staff. Some employees didn’t have the digital skills needed to design and deliver virtual content.  Equally, some practical, skills-based subjects were extremely difficult to translate to online delivery.  There was also the challenge of making content engaging.  Initially, many universities and colleges went into survival mode, replicating classroom-based content and timetables online, but they’ve learned that it’s too much content for both students and teachers to deal with.

Equally, many lecturers found delivering teaching virtually unfulfilling.  Online delivery can be an impoverished communication environment.  They do all the hard work but don’t receive the glorious feedback, questions or moments of recognition that brought them into teaching in the first place.  And what are the behavioural rules for delivering online classes e.g., should students have cameras on or off?

It’s been equally challenging keeping employees engaged and connected.   Some employees have embraced flexible working, others have found it profoundly difficult.  Generally, at this phase of the pandemic, our participants suggested we are losing empathy and patience with one another.  Despite providing employee assistance programmes and support, some colleagues have experienced mental health issues due to lack of social interaction, concerns about loved ones or fears about returning to the workplace, resulting in long-term mental health conditions. 

As with other sectors, work-life balance splits opinion.  For some, flexible working has been positive, reducing commuting costs and time, and enabling childcare.  For others, there is no separation between work and home, which is particularly difficult when dealing with difficult issues and behaviours. 

Shaping the future of work

Some roundtable attendees are using employee listening to navigate the way forward out of the pandemic. This is a fascinating time in the world of work. We have an opportunity to visualise what we would like work to be like. But it is a very short window. If we don’t think about it, the inertia will drag us back to do what we have always done and we will lose some of the positive things to have come out of the last 18 months.

For many, working from home has been a positive. Across our roundtable attendees, 75% to 85% of staff would like to continue working from home to some extent in the future. Some teachers/lecturers want to resume teaching in the classroom, others will continue some virtual delivery. Other models of flexible working are being explored including flexi time and compressed hours. We need to move away from looking for justifiable reasons to refuse flexible working requests because now we know that it works. This inevitably means that managers are having to learn to manage in new ways, empowering their staff and managing by outcomes.

There is a growing sense that the future of work is too complex to have hard and fast rules and working patterns. The work for leaders and HR is to agree on the principles that we will all work towards and enable adult-adult conversations at a local level. We need to start with asking ourselves “what do students need?” and work backward from there. We also need to think about maintaining the vibrancy of the campus for the students if staff are working from home more often. Ideas included offering existing office space to community groups. Some roundtable attendees are finding that flexible working is positively impacting the student experience, allowing services to be delivered outside of standard Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 operating hours.

The pace of change is growing. What colleges and universities were intending to do for the next five years, has just been accelerated in terms of IT infrastructure and digital skills. Whereas before, we were all set up to work well together in the office, we are now set up to work really well from home as individuals but not all in the same place, or a hybrid of work and home. We need to future-proof our technology to enable new, flexible ways of working. We need to work out which activities translate to home working and which do not.

Roundtable attendees are also thinking about investing in different learning technologies for students. How can we use multimedia to deliver practical subjects virtually? One college is even developing their campus to enable outdoor teaching and outdoor meeting spaces.

Next Steps

Our roundtable attendees will continue to use employee listening to manage their exit from the pandemic and shape the future of work.  They have also agreed to keep in touch to build a further education-themed community of practice which we hope to grow.  The community of practice will be a safe place to share challenges and insights and build best practice in employee listening.

If you want to join our FE community of practice, or learn more about how Peachy Mondays can help you to listen better and act faster to drive engagement and effectiveness in your organisation, please contact us using our online form.