Careers intelligence: starting a university job in lockdown
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“I had wanted to meet as many people as possible in my first 100 days,” reflected Nic Beech on his initial plans after taking over as vice-chancellor of Middlesex University.
Within six weeks of his arrival, however, the university’s campus in north London was closed as the UK entered lockdown.
“I managed to meet some students and staff, but handshakes soon turned to elbow bumps and then no physical contact at all,” Professor Beech recalled of his unusual start as the head of an institution.
Of course, the sudden shift to remote working has posed challenges for all university staff. But those beginning a new job in the era of coronavirus may find the situation even more daunting − often having moved to a new town, city or country, they are unable to set foot in their office, say hello to colleagues or strike up departmental alliances as the probation clock starts ticking.
While Skype or Zoom calls have been useful, the sheer volume of these calls can be tiring, said Professor Beech, who was vice-principal at the University of Dundee before he joined Middlesex in February.
“We’re holding meetings with the senior executive twice a week, but other meetings that take place informally are now being held on Skype,” said Professor Beech, who described his videoconference schedule as “seriously exhausting”.
With one-to-one meetings also in the diary, he has tried to minimise the bureaucracy associated with them, he added. “We’ve taken out some of the formal items [for discussion] you’d normally have – they can be useful, but you don’t want it to be so rigid that you’re checking on the minutes of every meeting all the time,” he said.
At times, the new vice-chancellor has welcomed the informality that Skype allows, he said. “On occasions, people’s cats have genuinely been quite entertaining − these moments can humanise the whole experience.”
Newcomers such as himself, he suggested, should make efforts to schedule more wide-ranging chats with those who know the territory, even at the risk of seeming a bit pushy. “Even though vice-chancellors are incredibly busy at the moment, they have been very generous with their time – with many finding half an hour to speak to me,” he said. “It sounds obvious, but it is sometimes a case of ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.”
Belinda Coyne began her new role in human resources at Charles Darwin University, in Australia’s Northern Territory, in mid-April in the middle of a national lockdown.
“I felt quite a bit of uncertainty during those few weeks before commencing, [regarding] whether my new role would still be going ahead,” said Ms Coyne. Being reassured about this and other matters had been crucial, she added, as was receiving communications about the university’s decisions on Covid-19.
Efforts to include her in the university community from day one were also appreciated, said Ms Coyne.
“The day before I started, my manager arranged for my laptop, equipment and reading and training materials to be dropped off at my apartment − there was an Easter egg included, which was a thoughtful touch,” she said.
Receiving photographs of key staff members was also important when contacting colleagues via Zoom, added Ms Coyne. “It was nice to at least be able to put a face to a name during these catch-ups,” she said.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that navigating a new organisation in socially distanced times can be difficult, she said. “A new employee can’t just quickly check things with a manager or someone at the desk next to them – for each small query, you need to call somebody or email and then wait for a response, so you can sometimes feel like you are hassling people.”
Those personal flourishes – Zoom introductions, welcome gifts and even receiving branded stationery – have been much appreciated, she continued. “Just having a friendly 15-minute catch-up every Friday about how your week has gone or plans for the weekend can really make somebody feel a bit closer to the team when working away from the office.”
Rebecca Jarrett, head of resourcing at Cranfield University, said her institution had been making efforts to greet new starters. “Our induction days are held once a quarter, but we’ve moved this information online so staff can take self-guided virtual tours around the campus,” said Ms Jarrett, who was encouraging new starters to meet their teams on Zoom, for both professional and social reasons.
“Fostering a sense of fun is something that can easily be missed when working remotely in a new team,” said Ms Jarrett. “We have set up a Facebook group for staff, and I’m aware of teams holding quizzes, bake-offs and themed dress-up events,” she continued. Staff were also invited to join larger forums about issues arising from the coronavirus crisis.
“Our vice-chancellor has been fairly proactive in recording messages and chairing discussions, so we’re keen that new colleagues are included,” she said. “We want to reassure our new staff that it’s normal to feel a bit isolated and cut off in these difficult times – whatever your circumstances, it may take a bit longer to do your job while working remotely.”