Matthew Tomlinson, Dean of the Leeds Campus at The University of Law, discusses the transition they made to online learning and remote working and shares the valuable lessons they learnt along the way
Last month, ULaw, alongside every other HE institution in the country, was faced with closing its campuses and moving to a virtual world. As part of the senior leadership team at ULaw, I formed part of the task force that was challenged with migrating our entire staff and student body, spread across 13 sites, online overnight.
Four weeks later, as I sit in my kitchen with my morning coffee, about to join the first of what will be many Skype meetings of the day, I can’t help but reflect on how my leadership has adapted to this new world. In a way, it is almost hard to remember what life was like before. Our transition as a team has been hugely successful and this has been partly attributed to technology and the commitment to ensure our students are supported, however, there have also been some valuable learnings of my own along the way.
We’re working remotely not in isolation
These are the words I imparted to my team prior to us closing the Campus. My initial fear of moving to remote working was how my team would adapt to this. The success of a university is so much dependent on its people and their ability to work together. There is an energy that embodies a university building that is generated by the physical presence of people, both staff and students. So much of the work we do is centred around face to face contact and my team were certainly no exception to that. I can see how removing this vibrant and friendly workspace could quickly lead to demotivated and potentially lonely staff.
Building a virtual framework for my team that created regular and ongoing contact points was the first thing I did. It was important to me that this was not simply an exercise of populating calendars with team meetings and management meetings, but also facilitating contact points for normal interaction between colleagues.
Let your team take ownership of how they communicate
Change is always difficult to navigate but the transition to remote working was both unfamiliar and abrupt and furthermore required people to get to grips with new technology. It was therefore really important that the team took ownership of how they communicated with each other and found platforms to do this with which they were comfortable. Our daily campus meetings during the first week trialled different meeting platforms, from Skype, to Zoom to Microsoft teams. The team then had a choice as to which they preferred and very quickly virtual coffee mornings were being hosted by Zoom, departmental meetings by Skype and the social committee quiz on House party.
A smile can make your day
Where a team like mine had worked so closely together in the same physical space, there is an inevitable emotional response to being physically separated. Seeing each other is so important and I encouraged the use of webcams from the start. Aside from the obvious benefit of body language communication, seeing a colleagues smile is in itself uplifting. Communicating in this manner always seems to encourage more general conversation. The novelty of seeing each other’s homes, pets and children has in itself generated some good humour.
Don’t have a meeting for meeting’s sake
In the first weeks, where things were changing day by day, it was entirely appropriate to have daily update meetings that involved the whole team as there was a constant stream of important information to report. However, we have now had time to settle into this new world and the speed at which new information is coming through has significantly lessened. In our normal world, we would not be having daily ‘all team meetings’ and just because we are operating in a virtual world does not mean we should. Scheduling a 30-minute call where you only have 5 minutes’ worth of content to report is inefficient and inconsiderate of people’s time, so my tip is to make sure you make communication with your team meaningful.
Capitalise on the opportunity to strengthen your team
Whilst this new way of working has been unwelcome and has forced businesses to change their strategies, it has at the same time stimulated new ideas and has required people who would never have ordinarily have worked together to collaborate for the first time. Where we are all faced with uncertainty in every aspect of life, working on projects to futureproof your institution is hugely uplifting and generates a true sense of purpose and positivity during – surely this can only be a great thing.