Returning to …

Work? This does not feel like the right word as most staff are still working during the COVID-19 lock-down, albeit remotely, even though some are furloughed.

Campus?  This does not feel like the right word as we are likely to have a phased return to campus and it does not seem appropriate to make a distinction between the value of what is going to be achieved on campus and what will continue to be achieved remotely.

Normal?  This does not feel like the right word as not many people think that we will be returning to ‘normal’ as we knew it.  There are many others who would prefer not to return to ‘normal’ and see this period as the interruption to our ways of working, doing and being that the world needs.  There are just as many others who think that there may be a ‘new normal’, but we are not sure when we will arrive there.  Even the ‘new normal’ that we speak of at this moment is likely to be a transitional phase.

So, we need a new word to go with ‘returning to..’ and it will be interesting to discover what emerges when we press the ‘re-set’ button.

In the meantime, we are already planning ‘the return’ and some are remarking on how this time has helped us to really appreciate the value of human connection, of relationships and togetherness.  The irony of us really noticing the value of human connection when we have physically and geographically been apart is not lost on us.

Much is being discussed about how the ‘restart’ may happen; how it may be phased and how we reintegrate with those who may, in fact, have been working or living on campus through this period.  How we will manage the transition back. How we will learn to be together again – avoiding any friction, as some have remarked on how fractious relationships have been eased whilst working remotely.  And how we will be able to paradoxically mark our ‘re-connection’ within the boundaries of any social distancing.

The Higher Education sector, individual institutions and teams are discussing whether to host certain units, the first semester, or even parts of whole programmes online.  If we choose this route, what will be the impact on campus premium and how will we gain the most value from our campus spaces, many of which have been refurbished and regenerated in recent years?  Indeed, how could we use the campus differently for staff, students and community, all year-round?

Some are speaking of ‘recovery plans’ – but what will we be recovering, and from what may we be recovering?  Those who are resisting a return to the ‘old normal’ are hoping for a renewed culture, improved behaviours, and an opportunity to reconfigure working patterns.  We do not know when we may have such an opportunity to ‘recreate’ our organisations again.  How do we want to use this opportunity?

And how will people be feeling when they return?  Will they be suffering from ‘burnout’? How anxious may they be?  Will the reality of what they have just experienced hit them?  Will there be a turnover of staff who have re-evaluated their life? Speaking of the ‘human’ element that we mention above, we will certainly need to create time and space to process the emotional elements of our experiences; to acknowledge our losses and to deal with anxieties. And to reflect on our learning and what we may want to keep, lose, gain. How will we balance recognition of this as a time of innovation and change at the same time as being a time of grief and loss?

One thing is certain, the economic climate, financial challenges and other decisions that we make along this journey will mean that we will not be the same size, shape or makeup going out of the lock-down period as we were when we came in.  So, let us not just think about ‘keeping the show on the road’ but let us be curious about what we can do differently.

Some questions for us to ponder:

  • What are the first three things we will do when this period is over?
  • How will people be feeling when they return?
  • How will we avoid the rush back to normal afterwards?
  • There are lots of versions of the truth – success for one group may have come at a cost for another group – how will we create space for everyone to tell their story?
  • When is the right time to harvest the learning from this period?
  • What has this time given us?
  • What have we lost? What have we lost that we value?
  • How will we balance recognition of this as a time of innovation and change at the same time as being a time of grief and loss?
  • How can we use this time to break through the routines of the past?
  • If we could carry one thing that has been beneficial from this period forward, what would it be?
  • How might we use our campus spaces differently?
  • We do not know when we may have such an opportunity to ‘recreate’ our organisations again. How do we want to use this opportunity?
  • If this time has been the planet asking us to wake up, what will we do differently now?

Dr Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University, together with colleagues from the Learning from Disruption sessions that took place in April 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down:

Caroline Bryant, Regent’s University London; Lisa Stevenson, Sheffield Hallam University; Bethany Hyman, Brunel University; David Wallace, Queen Mary University of London; Rosemary Benson, London Metropolitan University; Laura Brown, University of London; Simon Inger, University of Bath; Sophie Lovejoy, Organisational Development in Higher Education Network (ODHE); Daniela Bultoc, University College, London; Sam McVaigh, Manchester Metropolitan University; Lisa Anderson, University of Dundee; Sophie Sowerby, Durham University; Sara Corcoran, University of Sufffolk; Annette Robinson, Lancaster University; Susan Kane, University of York; Saire Jones, University of Westminster; Trudie Donnelly, University of Warwick; Ailbhe Lynch, City, University of London; Sarah Akhtar, Sheffield Hallam University; Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University

Previous blogs in this series:

What is Ours to Do?  1 June 2020

Agility and other ‘…ities’ 5 June 2020

Communication and Compassion 9 June 2020

The Well-Being Challenge 11 June 2020


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