Without doubt, the saddest day of my leadership career was when the college closed its gates a few weeks ago. Watching staff walking out loading boxes of work and wilting pot plants into cars and pipping horns as they left, not knowing when they would return, brought a rare tear to the eye.
But colleges are far more than buildings. Colleges are built from connections between people. We are in the greatest leadership challenge for a generation, combined with transferring whole institutions to working from home with little notice and simultaneously the largest pedagogical experiment since the Victorian era. This creates a pressure and fast change. Both of which can lead to distress.
Coronavirus and colleges: All you need to know
So what can we do to support staff through this period? For me, there are two main areas. Firstly, the practical real-world realities of working in different ways. Secondly, supporting the emotional change.
Both are underpinned by the development of “teamship”. This is a term I stole from former England World Cup-winning rugby coach Clive Woodward a couple years ago. It is the result of individuals coming together with shared purpose and deeply caring about other members of the team. This drives collegiate behaviours and high trust – these, in turn, bring results.
Coronavirus: Guidance on working from home
We produced a “Big Book of Working from Home”, with loads of information on everything from IT to safeguarding, HR team FAQs around contracts, how to use the online comms systems and even how to structure the working day.
We issued detailed guidance on what the expectations are around teaching and learning and how we are working to get continuity of timetables for students. But this structure is vital for staff, too. We have ramped up team meetings and one-to-ones so that teams can keep in touch, share worries and best practice.
It will take a while for environmental adaptation: we are encouraging people to find normality and routine in the abnormal. In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, we find ourselves in a place where change is ever-present and, therefore, the ability to cope with change becomes a necessity. Creating and keeping together strong teams is the only way we’ll thrive. These are course teams, departments but also our whole college.
Supporting emotional wellbeing
While the practical is important, it must be balanced with supporting the psychological transition. We have significantly focused on the mental and emotional. Reflecting and helping teams to understand their own cognitive behaviours in relation to dealing with stresses of the current situation: how to interpret those physical stressors, social stressors and stimulus and how we create judgements of whether they become a threat or an opportunity, a hindrance or a challenge. It’s easy in Covid-19 times to perceive all situations as high-threat, but this begins to trigger psychological arousal and our emotional and physical state changes.
Ann Wall, director of people and wellbeing at East Coast College, said: “We’ve been incredibly conscious of the sudden impact home working has had on our teams. Ask any member of the East Coast College family what their favourite part of coming to work is, and they’ll say the people they work with. Therefore it’s been our main priority to focus on connectivity and a continued sense of teamship despite working remotely from each other. One of the strengths of ECC has always been our resilience. I know we will come through this unusual time stronger and even more connected than ever before.”
To help staff develop their own resilience prescription, we are helping to create social structures around which staff can coalesce. These include a virtual book group, prayer group and running club. We also have increased access to counselling services, support to high-risk staff and everyone has a "swim buddy" to speak to most days.
We are all to some degree experiencing loss. It’s an emotional bereavement as the stability of work changes and if we are not careful, teams become more distant. It’s the role of leadership in these times to lean in and focus on securing teamship. If we do that then the calmness, productivity and stability we all seek surely will follow.
Stuart Rimmer is the chief executive at East Coast College