October 2020 edition: Learning the Post-Lockdown Lessons of a More Agile Workforce

Learning the Post-Lockdown Lessons of a More Agile Workforce

Back in February this year, I was physically present at a meeting with several HR colleagues from academy trusts. We were discussing the challenge of creating better flexible working across the school sector and how we could encourage trusts and schools to see the business case for investing in this. We had no idea that just 6 weeks later, every school in the land would set up virtual and remote working for all their staff practically overnight! The unthinkable – teachers working from home – had become the reality. Whilst none of us would wish for this to become a permanent reality, it created an opportunity to think about how we build a positive response as we emerged from lockdown.

Right now, of course, schools are facing huge challenges and workforce capacity is right up there as a key concern according to a recent survey of CST members.   This accords with the feedback I have had from HR colleagues across the sector with staff absence and lack of clarity for pregnant workers making it a rocky start to the term.    The health and well-being of school leaders is also a huge concern and I have seen both anecdotal and survey evidence that demonstrates this is stretched like never before.    Resilience and retention of school leaders feels like one of the greatest risks facing trusts and boards need to have this at the top of their risk register and related discussions.  Continuing to be flexible for all school staff is going to be vital to keep schools open, pupils educated and staff well.

Beyond these immediate challenges lie deeper societal change that will impact for many years to come.  Remote and flexible working has exploded across the economy and has continued to remain buoyant post-lockdown, regardless of the Government’s mixed messages.    For many businesses they have seen that they can make it work and employee productivity has increased.  For employees, the opportunity to improve work-life balance, commute less, as well as cope with any childcare issues that emerge due to COVID restrictions are attractive.   All that said, many organisations have recognised the challenges from the enforced remote working situation.  Employees are finding it hard to switch off, well-being can be affected by lack of social interaction and gender equality has taken a hit as women can end up doing the majority of childcare.   Designing ‘good’ flexible working is at the top of the list for many HR professionals across the country.

Many trusts have already made the decision that their corporate teams will continue to work remotely and for some, this will be permanent.   The challenge remains in schools which have much greater barriers to flexible working, yet the pandemic demonstrates that even the unthinkable (teachers working from home) could be done when it had to be.   Like all crisis situations there is much to learn, and many trusts and schools are now capturing all the lessons from a more ‘agile’ workforce and how this can be sustained in a constructive way going forward.

HR practices have had to adapt rapidly with HR teams reporting that areas they have been promoting for years have suddenly come to the fore, including better staff engagement and communication, flexible working, diversity and inclusion and employee well-being.

Mandy Coalter

Over the summer I worked closely with several large academy trust HR teams and national experts in flexible working – Timewise - to capture lessons from the COVID 19 crisis and develop trust and school led resources and case studies to support the sector.  Further work is now taking place with nine schools across three large academy trusts this academic year to learn how to better embed good flexible working in the school context - https://timewise.co.uk/article/project-supporting-teachers-to-work-flexibly/ 

I have always believed passionately in never wasting the learning gained from going through a crisis – it can help to maintain a sense of optimism when times are dark. Discussions with multi academy trust leaders and HR teams demonstrate that better flexible working is just one of the positive outcomes from managing the pandemic. Trusts report a better sense of collaboration and acting as ‘one’ across their schools with effective and regular communication underpinned by technology. The community role for trusts has been enhanced with schools playing a vital role for the vulnerable, key front-line services and families - raising the profile of trusts in their local area. Teacher recruitment and retention has improved dramatically, with many staff choosing to stay put and there being a sharp increase in applications to train to teach.

Alongside this within trusts, schools have recognised the value of strong corporate functions – many of which have thrown off the awful ‘back office’ label and very much been working alongside (albeit virtually) their frontline colleagues in schools.   HR practices have had to adapt rapidly with HR teams reporting that areas they have been promoting for years have suddenly come to the fore, including better staff engagement and communication, flexible working, diversity and inclusion and employee well-being.   HR professionals in trusts have really stepped up to the plate and have worked tirelessly to deliver for trusts and school leaders.  The pandemic has been a global ‘people’ crisis and it has been incredible to see the response of the HR profession. I am delighted to see that more and more academy trusts are giving HR a seat at the top table, investing in strong HR teams and proactive people management practice and those that have, will be reaping the rewards of that right now and for the future challenges that lie ahead.