Life has changed for us all over the past few months. As for all those who are currently living through lockdown, for a University community to which working together on our campuses is such a core part of our lives, this has been an enormous change, and at times it has been very hard to cope with. A couple of weeks ago, I asked a few colleagues from around the University to share their own experiences of working from home, the challenges they have been facing, and think about ways they have been coping. Here are some of their stories. We have published them to hopefully illustrate that we are all facing different challenges, and are all finding things hard. My sincere thanks to those who have shared their stories – please all do take the time to think about how you are coping, and if you are struggling, talk to your colleagues and your manager about how you can prioritise things to ensure your workload is manageable.
Please make time to look after yourselves, your health, your friends and your family, and don’t feel the embarrassed if you feel you need some help with coping. We are all learning how to deal with the events we face at the moment, and it is important that we don’t do this alone.
Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and People
Life has been very different since 23rd March, working from home, home schooling and trying to manage planning three meals a day for everyone. At first I did not realise it would be as challenging as it is, initially comparing how it would all work to school holidays where we had lots of freedom and I only had to think of fun things to do and places to visit. I was very wrong. Thankfully we are all healthy and COVID-19 has not affected us in any other way than having to stay at home, but it is tough trying to juggle all aspects of work and parenting. We are all now eight weeks into this new way of working, each night I think about the work that I need to do the next day, what I need the children to do, the fun tasks I can try and do with them and where we will go for our daily exercise, it is becoming my new normal way of thinking. Communicating with my team and with my colleagues is a daily requirement for my job, to share and collect information but also to get the contact that we all need with people outside of the house. Most days I have an online teams meeting – at first I used to worry about the children coming in, they seem to suddenly need me every time I’m on a call, but now they walk past, stare at the camera and it’s lovely that nobody from work minds at all. We are all adapting together to find the way that fits the best. I feel that the situation we are all in has brought out a very caring side of all of us.
The contrast between colleagues with caring responsibilities or long-term health conditions and those without has been foregrounded since 16th March on our UK campuses. While the move to remote working and online teaching has been difficult for everybody, it is clear that some people have been disproportionately affected by recent changes. Colleagues with caring responsibilities who are home-working report significant anxiety about falling behind with work, missing meetings, and seeing their inboxes expand as they try to honour their commitments while also responding to the immediate needs of family members. The difficulties this presents are magnified significantly for those looking after loved ones with physical and/or learning disabilities, and for those who are lone carers. Staff who themselves have disabilities or underlying medical conditions have also faced significant challenges, particularly those needing to shield themselves against the virus through full self-isolation; this has impacted on how quickly they can respond to the rapidly changing situation. And, of course, all staff are doing their best to support our students, some of whom have existing mental health concerns which are being exacerbated by lockdown, and others who left the UK to return home once the pandemic spread and are now in different time-zones. Some students have no choice but to remain on their own in Nottingham, while others have returned to homes that are not always welcoming and not always spaces where they can study easily. It’s become more apparent than ever that, as a university, we can’t assume that all our students share a homogenous experience and that all our staff are equally able to be flexible – and this highlights the enormous challenges we face.
The project I was working on ended before the lockdown but as I was still involved with some of our Kenyan colleagues on course and curricula development, this continued remotely, albeit with delays due to some of the challenges transitioning to online learning for students and staff in Kenya. Communications with our Kenyan colleagues suggest that most staff are going into work a few days a week, but students are working from home/remotely. In Nottingham, the move to online working has been remarkable thanks to the commitment and willingness from all to ensure students continue to engage and are supported during these strange times. Pharmacy colleagues have succeeded in conducting oral assessments online, and in education, colleagues have initiated a series of online adult education discussion classes to engage with local and wider communities. International students who have been unable to return home are in regular contact with their tutors, and PhD students have built a strong support network. Even though students have felt supported, staff in both Schools miss the daily contact with their students and are looking forward to teaching face-to-face again. The research community has also continued to share ideas and build new interdisciplinary networks to examine issues arising from COVID-19. Communication and regular ‘checking in’ with colleagues have both been essential during these uncertain times.
In Malaysia, members of our staff community are gradually returning to work on campus. Several colleagues shared their experiences of life under the movement control order that began on 18th March. Many spoke of being pulled in different directions as they combine work with running a household, raising children and home schooling. This sometimes means working late into the night to catch up, while finding ways to carve out some breathing space for themselves. Uncertainties surrounding health, financial and job security, national regulations as well as teaching, learning and assessment policies have also caused some to feel overwhelmed. Others spoke of increased expectations to answer emails and messages after hours and on weekends. While they want to support colleagues and students, especially as assessment deadlines draw nearer, this has compounded the pressure they are under. The use of new technologies has affected staff in different ways. For some, this has eased the way to work and teach from home, form writing groups and reduce feelings of isolation. At the same time, it has also resulted in technology fatigue and ergonomic concerns. Across schools and departments, the COVID-19 situation has enlarged staff concerns for our students’ learning and wellbeing. During the past two months, hundreds of students have continued to live on our Malaysia campus, and our colleagues in the estate and security offices, including teams of cleaning and security personnel, have been busy ensuring a clean and safe living environment for the community. After several weeks of online teaching, many are looking forward to returning to the classroom, once it’s safe, so that they can give their best to their students and ensure that those who are less active online are not left behind. For the Wellbeing services, being physically present on campus will enable them to better allay the fears and anxieties of students who reach out to them. They recognise that while technology has helped them connect with people, it can also create new challenges for people with visual impairment.
When the lockdown down started, I felt like I had been thrown into a maze with no escape route. I was stressed (mentally/physically) with the need to grapple with new ways of working and new ways of prioritising my workload. The loss of social interactions – through my team, my local church, and family – also meant an increased sense of isolation.
Nine weeks in, and I am still missing life before the lockdown however, I am coping better with tasks management and my work-life balance. I have come to appreciate the importance of good leadership that my colleagues and managers have demonstrated over this period. Many have shown compassion and patience which has helped break down my rigid notions of what my work environment should look like and how many hours I need to work to be seen as being productive. I am learning to be kind to myself and to appreciate the gift of time.
Well I describe most days as being like a WWE Wrestling match, where the kids represent the opponents in the ring (they are two and four years old) and my wife (who is a teacher) and I constantly tag each other in and out of the ring swapping windows of opportunity to work with our constant struggle to try and home school / entertain the kids. All too often the kids want to do separate things but want your undivided attention so you are constantly presented with a no-win scenario. A normal day for me is probably patching together about 4 hours of work in daytime hours as I dovetail with my wife, and then the second half of my day running from eight-midnight once the kids are all settled in bed. The kids wake up without fail like robots at 6am every day, so it is tiring and gruelling. In groundhog day, Bill Murray has little appetite for the repetition to start with, and then finally accepts his position and uses the opportunity to develop new skills. This scenario feels like the reverse – the initial energy designing lots of interesting fun games and learning experiences for the kids is waning, as the burden of yet another useful suggestion of what to do with your kids on Whats App weighs you down.
Don’t get me wrong it is great spending more time with the family, but the relentlessness of it without decent breaks and additional stimulus can be draining at times. The atmosphere is also flooded with feelings of guilt – guilt that you are not doing enough work, guilt that you are not doing enough with the kids who are constantly asking if I’ll play with them, and guilt that you are not looking after yourself. The odd foray into social media is effectively just a highlights reel of everyone’s lives with sickening picture perfect family scenes which serve to reinforce your sense of failure. However you just have to remind yourself that for the other 23hrs and 59minutes of that day, they may well have been having the same battles as you, and clearly they are not going to post the kids meltdowns or the house looking like a bombsite. Overall everything feels like a compromise and therefore breeds a real sense of dissatisfaction. However I then give myself a kick and remind myself that in the big scheme of things we are lucky – we’ve not suffered any bereavements of family of friends, we’ve not lost our jobs and we live in a nice space where there are things to do. Moreover my sister is a consultant in a hospital and I when I see what she is dealing with, it is a further reminder of how lucky we are. However this just adds to that overall sense of guilt. I’d love to say I’ve learnt a new skill in this time, or I’ve managed to work my way through my backlog of Netflix films or the bookshelf of must-read books, however it feels like there is less spare time currently, not more.
On the up-side it is great to see how the sports department have pulled together to support each other and continue to deliver an offer through the various mediums open to us. There are elements of the digital platforms that have proved helpful with work efficiency, and I am wondering why on earth I hadn’t been using the online video calls to connect more regularly with friends and family worldwide. All too often my kids have invaded my online teams meetings, as have others, but I actually think it has helped humanize these meetings – however I think the goat2meeting concept developed by an animal sanctuary in California is maybe a step too far (check it out online!?).
To conclude it is tough, but accepting that things are exceptional at the moment and therefore things are not going to be perfect and may not go to plan, is half the battle. I now just have to work out how to rein in my wife’s online spending bonanza.
I’m finding the uncertainty of lockdown to be one of the hardest things to cope with. I’m an extrovert, and I’m missing the noise and visibility of the students and staff around our campuses. It is much harder to ‘bump into’ people when you are working remotely, and I’ve been making a real effort to put lots of short catch-up meetings in my diary to catch up with my research staff and PhD students, as well as many colleagues around the University who I work with – these meetings have helped me as well as (I hope) helping them. And I’m not feeling guilty for spending the first five minutes of a work meeting talking about how we are coping, and sharing stories about how we are coping.
I feel like I’ve made more mistakes in recent weeks than I normally do, and I think a lot of this is to do with the fact we are communicating by email, and we are tired, and things need to be done quickly, and we are worried. As the weeks have settled down I’ve become more confident about knowing what needs to be done quickly, urgently, and perhaps imperfectly, and what needs to wait for some time when it is quiet and I’m able to think. I’m lucky as my children are a bit older than some, and so they are mainly able to look after themselves, but I feel sad for them missing out on what should have been the traditional rites of passage of a teenage life, and guilty that even whilst I’m at home, on some days, I’ve had so much to do I’ve done barely more than say hello. Days that have worked well are those where I’ve made sure that I’ve taken time for a lunch break, when I’ve been able to spend time outside in the garden, and when I’ve done some exercise (although I have not had the courage to take on Joe Wicks yet).
One of the things that I’ve realised over the past few months is that we often think of “the University” as being our campuses, or our buildings. Well that’s not the case – “the University” is us, the people who work and study there.
If you have experienced or are still going through any of the issues mentioned above, the University has a number of support and guidance resources that could help, including: