We need our collegiality reserves replenished post-Covid – here’s how

While collegiality rests mostly with the people, institutions cannot just sit back and wait for it to spring on its own, says Lucas Lixinski

Lucas Lixinski's avatar
UNSW Sydney
22 Aug 2022
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Everyone at universities need their collegiality stocks replenished post-Covid

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To me, collegiality is the beating heart of an institution, a core element of its culture. Without collegiality, a university department’s culture almost by default gets defined by a less-than-flattering adjective or in cold and distant terms. I like warm and fuzzy, so I’m all for collegiality. Covid has taken a toll on it, though, so here are ways to restore and reimagine collegiality with (and hopefully someday beyond) Covid.

Collegiality is the sort of thing we all tend to take for granted because it is not urgent to our day-to-day jobs. The urgent, in academia as in much of our 21st-century lives, tends to crowd out the important.

The subtle power of collegiality, however, should not be taken for granted nor underestimated. It is built in often ineffable ways, via informal hallway conversations, serendipitous encounters that lead to a beverage and/or a meal or that bond-forming chitchat about everything and nothing before and after a committee meeting.

Covid, by moving us online and forcing us to work from home, has taken away many of these opportunities for chance, unstructured contact. It has prevented us from replenishing our collegiality reserves, and we have certainly drained them in the past two years or so.

New and increased pressures on our time have further depleted these reserves. We had to reinvent our jobs and, as a result, work longer and harder to relearn so much of our craft. Add to that increased job insecurity for those already in precarious employment across the sector and even insecurity for those who assumed their jobs were stable. Finally, many institutions, trying to keep their finances in order, resorted to stimulating those close to retirement to leave. Very senior colleagues, in addition to their many gifts and contributions to an institution, are also repositories of collegiality, in my experience, and I feel their absence dearly.

In my own case, though, some of the employment pressures brought about by Covid helped collegiality surge, at least momentarily. People whose jobs were not at risk rallied to try to defend colleagues whose futures looked less certain. Watching it happen was incredibly heart-warming, but it had two effects: it drained a great deal of those collegiality reserves due to the sheer effort of it all; and it drove a deeper wedge between the institution and the people within it.

To be sure, collegiality rests mostly with the people. But the institution is needed to facilitate it – as a forum, as a logistics organiser and, occasionally, as a funder of certain collegiality-building activities. A wedge between people and institution means that when people are in a position to start replenishing the collegiality reservoir, we are less clear on where the hose is coming from, or that we mistrust the hose. Yes, I am torturing this metaphor, but I hope you see the point.

Now, how do we recover from Covid? How do we replenish collegiality? For one, we need to accept that some of the spontaneity of collegiality-building may never be fully recovered. Many of us are used to working online and come to campus less often. So, we need to create opportunities for informality, which is a bit counterintuitive.

For one, committee chairs could build an additional few minutes of “purposefully unproductive time” at the beginning of each meeting in which they just let people chitchat, or chairs can drive a conversation about the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race or whatever TV show people seem to be into these days. Yes, we are all busy, and we want to get our meetings over with, but surely we can indulge in some light-hearted conversation for five minutes and then focus on the efficient conduct of the actual business, no?

Also, while we’re on “purposefully unproductive time”, how about creating opportunities, through the institution, for informal contact? How about a weekly online quiz on rotating topics, which people are encouraged (but not required) to attend, preferably towards the end of the day when people are less likely to have meetings or brain space for “serious” work?

Also, and I personally cannot stress this enough, never underestimate the power of food to bring people back to campus and into a room. I try to bring the occasional batch of cookies for the weekly “morning teas” my department organises (even store-bought works). As an institution, feed people for some events which are about shared big-picture objectives; thank-you-for-how-hard-you’ve-been-working cake is always very welcome. And don’t forget to include vegan and gluten-free options!

Understanding that collegiality, and collegiality-building, are part of the job is key here, and the lesson relates to individuals and institutions alike. Collegiality is an important part of our collective resilience, and we sure need more of that going around. Admittedly, there is only so much the institution can do, but an institution can absolutely do more than wait for collegiality to spring on its own. Let’s nudge it.

Lucas Lixinski is professor at the Faculty of Law and Justice at UNSW Sydney.

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