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Experts doubt lasting change to academic work practices post-Covid

Written by: Ellie Bothwell
Published on: 21 Jan 2021

Source: iStock

Many have predicted that the pandemic is likely to permanently change the world of work, but experts were unconvinced that academia would be included in a long-term shift in employment practices.

Some universities have announced short-term policy changes aimed at increasing flexibility and well-being during the crisis. In the UK, the University of Strathclyde told staff this month that they do not have to work on Fridays during the current lockdown, a policy that was initially introduced at the beginning of the first lockdown last March.

Cardiff Metropolitan University vice-chancellor Cara Aitchison also announced that meetings would be limited to 10am to 4pm Mondays to Thursdays to “help staff exercise outdoors in daylight, be on hand for home-schooling and maintain mental health”, while Newcastle University implemented a four-day week during April 2020 to help staff “try and achieve more of a balance between work and home life” and said that it was currently minimising meetings and calls on a Friday.

In continental Europe, Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University Rotterdam encouraged staff to “take some time away from email either side of Christmas”, said Rebecca Hewett, an assistant professor at the school.

She added that there had also been an attempt among senior staff to “role-model good behaviour” in terms of taking annual leave and encouraging others to do so last year, instead of apologising for taking time off or stressing that they will be working during their holidays.

However, Dr Hewett, whose own research focuses on the interface between HR policies and everyday working experiences, said she thought it was unlikely that these practices would become the norm post-pandemic.

“I suspect they won’t continue,” she said. “The pressure to publish is still incredibly high.”

A Strathclyde spokesman said that Fridays would still be promoted as a meeting-free day once lockdown measures are lifted, but that it was not exploring a four-day week on a permanent basis.

Gregor Gall, an affiliate research associate at the University of Glasgow and an expert in industrial relations, said that there were likely to be “two contending pressures in a situation where mass vaccination allows a return to some kind of normality”.

The first will be “to go back to the pre-pandemic situation without learning any lessons”. The second will be to “learn lessons from the period of the pandemic by looking at new ways of working, not necessarily by doing any less but by working ‘smarter’”.

“It would be a gross oversimplification to say the former will come from senior management and the latter the staff and their unions – but there is also a lot of truth in that and in this sense much will depend on the extent to which an institution is run in a collegiate manner,” he said.