Business case studies

Case Study: The Open University in Scotland

 

1. Pre-Covid

The Open University in Scotland is a higher education institution delivering learning and teaching to over 18,000 students across Scotland. It has c150 staff based centrally in Edinburgh; plus c500 academic staff across Scotland, not office based.

The majority of staff are (normally) office-based, with more senior staff able to work from home on an ad hoc basis. Student recruitment and support services are delivered both online and via telephony: these c80 frontline staff were required to be office-based .

The situation for The OU in Scotland was unusual, in comparison with many other universities, in that it already delivered its services remotely. Its purpose and delivery method was unchanged and, in fact, demand increased, with new student registrations for the academic year starting autumn 2020 up 24% on the previous year. The organisation has been much busier than usual. No staff were furloughed, and new staff were recruited during lockdown.

 

2 Adjusting to lockdown

OU students study online; the model has been distance learning for the last 51 years, so in terms of delivery for learning and teaching, lockdown was not a problem. The challenge was in providing the technical set-up and flexibility to enable office-based staff to switch to remote working.

 

“We could read the runes so we’d had about two weeks of planning and we had already started ordering IT equipment to be ready. We didn’t get caught short completely. When we shut the offices on the Friday before the 23rd, then most people took equipment away with them. So, from the Monday they were able to do some form of work. For the next couple of weeks there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing sending laptops out to people, but fundamentally most people were able to do something straight away.

“There were a few people who couldn’t work because of childcare, but apart from that, once we sorted out the equipment, everybody could work from home.”



Office-based staff fall broadly into three groups, academic, student services and external engagement. Their experiences during lockdown were very different.

Over 40 or 50 academics are based in the Edinburgh office. They all had a workstation in the office but were already experienced at home working.

The student services team of c80 people provides contact with and support for students, primarily by telephone, plus email and webchat. It had always been assumed that these operational front-line services could not be done from home. Taking credit card payments and receiving in-bound telephony required a set-up that staff did not have at home. When this team moved to working from home, they could no longer use the office systems, and so students were no longer able to make contact by phone. The webchat service was ratcheted up to compensate, and the ability to process credit card payments was quickly put in place.

It was not a seamless transition. Several challenging issues emerged. If an employee were taking a difficult phone call, perhaps from a student in distress, it was not appropriate but sometimes unavoidable that a child might interrupt. If the internet connection failed, that could make an already difficult conversation even harder.

 

“There’s been a definite dip in our service to students, I would say, from remote working. The rest of it, the email contact and the more operational processing side of things has actually been fine and the more that we were able to upgrade people’s IT equipment, then actually we’ve been able to improve that through the past six to seven months”.


A third group of staff work on external engagement, the OU’s relationship with colleges and schools and other outside bodies. These staff do not have direct regular contact with students, but they were exceptionally busy from home during lockdown because of new demands for the institution’s expertise in developing free online courses for people who were on furlough, and resources for teachers to help them deliver online learning to their students.


“Obviously the OU have been doing [distance learning] for so many years that we’re seen as the expert in the area. So we’ve come to the fore in terms of our offering and our provision - people have wanted what we’ve got. All of our staff who are involved in external engagement and partnerships have been flat out, so there’s been no concern about them not working [from home]. It’s more been about just trying to get them not to overwork.”


Keeping in touch with people was one of the most important issues during lockdown: to keep the workforce motivated and morale good. Line managers were asked to keep checking in on their teams, without formalising it, but to replicate the kind of ad hoc contact that would normally happen in person in the office. Primarily intended to ensure wellbeing and support team cohesion, regular light-touch contact also enabled line managers to spot and quickly deal with any performance issues, before they became difficult.

 

“We were just making sure everybody would have some kind of contact once or a couple of times during the week, or even once a day. Just to check in, not to check up.

“It’s been quite hard for the line managers, because there have been so many constant policy changes as well, as we have updated how were dealing with the situation. Having now moved from lockdown to recovery, the conversations with staff about ‘do you feel confident/comfortable to return to work’ and then talking people through any concerns they might have, whether those were legitimate or not. They’ve had to take on quite a lot of responsibility, our line managers. They’ve come up trumps really, I’m really proud of them.”

 

3. Challenges

Providing appropriate, timely support for helpline staff

Students could still be supported via outbound phone calls, but this brought with it a staff wellbeing challenge. Being based at home, it was not always easy for someone who had been dealing with a very complex enquiry or challenging phone call, to have immediate feedback or get support themselves.

 

“Sometimes for a very complex enquiry, staff need to have immediate feedback, or need to have some support themselves after dealing with a very challenging phone call and you’re not able to do that either. You’re not getting the visual cues that somebody has just had a distressing phone call and so it’s not ideal.”


Wellbeing and balance

Initially, and especially because the schools were closed, the approach was very much ‘just do what you can’. But as it became clear that this was going to be a longer term crisis, and that staff were having to combine increased home responsibilities with, in many cases, increased workloads, concerns about wellbeing and balance increased. The OU across the UK, not just in Scotland, immediately instigated a special form of emergency leave – a pandemic contingency leave. In place of the existing provision, of up to ten days a year, with no more than five days at a time, anyone with caring commitments because of either sickness or childcare could take as much contingency leave on full pay as they needed. Experience showed that it was not abused: people used the leave to recharge, and flexed their working hours around their care commitments.

 

“We found that people started self-regulating themselves so, especially those with childcare commitments, people would try to do some work in the evening. In the end it kind of levelled out, in that people were working at least half or three quarters of their normal hours. It kind of paid off. That sense of generosity and flexibility and support was there, and then people self-regulated themselves and started going back to work.”


Recruitment during lockdown

Recruitment of new staff had to continue during lockdown, to deal with the increase in applications for the 2020/21 academic year. Staff had quickly to develop a new set of skills, in how to interview and induct remotely. The People Services team rapidly came up with videos about how to do online recruitment, and were available as an online support function. Interviewers felt that the remote recruitment process in the end resulted in better appointments than in previous years. New appointees have been positive about the remote induction process.

 

“We’ve never done [remote recruitment] before, it would never have occurred to us not to do a face to face interview, but I’ve heard the interviewers say that they think they’ve actually got better appointments from doing it this way than they did in the past, which I think is a bit odd! It was very, very successful.

“The onboarding, which is our term for induction, has been quite challenging doing it online and remotely, but again it seems to have been ok and when we’ve asked for feedback from the new appointees, they’ve all been quite pleased with how it’s worked.”

 

 

4 Flexible future?

There will be a new agile working policy, at least for the immediate future.

“We have developed a new temporary ‘pandemic’ agile working process. Our existing policy is quite formal and you have to go through various forms etc and get it all approved. This is much more short term. It is a lot quicker, designed to be up and running very quickly. It can just suit people, say if they haven’t got any afterschool childcare and they’re just going to need to work in a different way for period of time.

“We have been bringing some people back to the office since late July to undertake business critical activity. We are lucky in that we have enough space, so c60 people can safely return with social distancing, with the others continuing to work from home. The office is open c7am till c8pm, with core hours 0830 - 1730. If people want to work shorter hours in the office and top up the hours at home, we now know that they can work three hours in the evening and that might suit them better.”


There are already some requests for working from home to continue.

“At the moment I’m just agreeing to requests on quite a short-term basis, so sort of saying we’ll review it after six months. It’s been a real eye-opener - we always assumed that our front line services had to work in the office. We now know that that’s not true. Though we also do know that performance is better in the office, and that’s to do with the robustness of the IT, and also having other peers and managers around to offer on-the-spot staff development and training and support etc. I think going forward, we can have greater flexibility.”


Virtual meetings will be part of the new working environment – including for large groups

“We’ve proved that you don’t need to be in the same room to have a perfectly effective meeting. Certain meetings always had to be face to face. Really big meetings, over 30 to 40 people, would be face to face because they’re just too difficult to organise. Well, they’re not. We’ve shown that we can have meetings for 100, 200 people perfectly well online. All of those assumptions have been challenged and I think it’s a fantastic thing that they have been.”


Longer term, terms and conditions will be updated to support greater flexibility

“We will have very different ways of working going forward. That’s a longer-term piece of work, but people used to have written into their contract whether they were homebased or office based, and you had to have different terms and conditions for each. I think that will go, but it will take quite a long time to get sorted. In the meantime, we can be more flexible through our agile working policy.”

 

5 We could do that

Covid contingency leave

Not every organisation can afford to offer unlimited contingency leave, but with pandemic restrictions set to continue well into 2021, think about what kind of additional, flexible leave you can offer. Other employers have introduced Covid weekends (a long weekend once a month) or Covid days as needed. Treat people well, and they repay you.

Be proactive about checking in, not checking up

In a future where more people work some or all of the time at home, managers will need to develop the habit of proactively checking-in – the equivalent of saying hello on the way to the coffee station.

Ensure equality of access to flexible working: it makes everyone feel equally valued

“It’s breaking that mindset, isn’t it? We’ve shown that we can work round people and work round different hours. It has sort of equalised things between the academic and operational staff. I think the operational staff always did feel as if the academics could work the hours that suited them and nobody told them they couldn’t work from home, whereas [operational staff] were always told they had to be in the office. It has equalised things a great deal.”

Be honest about what roles require staff in person and on the premises.

There is more to flexible working than working from home.

“It’s been a learning too that there is something about working from the office that is important and that is quite essential for the business as well.”

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