How The University of Manchester implemented hybrid working for its professional services staff

The University of Manchester speaks to XpertHR about its pilot scheme to roll out hybrid working arrangements to almost 5,000 of its professional services staff.

Key points

  • The university is currently running a pilot programme to offer hybrid working to the majority of its professional services staff. The pilot is expected to conclude by the end of August 2022.
  • The hybrid working project team worked with staff across the university to develop a set of principles to provide guidance on how hybrid working should be managed.
  • This approach gives managers more flexibility than a formal policy and recognises that a key outcome of the pilot is a clearer understanding of the range of ways in which hybrid working can be successful.
  • Roles align with one of four hybrid working patterns - predominantly campus-based, predominantly remote, 50/50, or a variable pattern that changes in line with the academic year.

Organisation profile

The University of Manchester has roots dating back to 1824 - but it was formally created only in 2004, when the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology were brought together to form a single institution. It now forms the largest single-site university in the UK, with a workforce of around 12,000 people - a mix of almost 6,200 academic and research staff, together with more than 5,800 professional services staff who provide operational support for the university's academic activities.

"What works?" project

The University of Manchester's journey towards hybrid working began during the first coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown in March 2020, when the UK Government asked all employees to work from home wherever possible. "Up to that point, our academic staff had worked in a semi-hybrid fashion, but our professional services staff were very much office-based," explains Gemma Dale, the hybrid working project lead. "But - as happened at many other organisations - when the pandemic came along, we moved everyone to remote working."

To check how its professional services staff were coping with the sudden move, Dale and her team ran an employee survey - titled "What works?" - to gather their views and opinions. The survey was open throughout July and August 2020 and received responses from more than 2,000 employees. "It was a qualitative survey, using only open-ended questions," says Dale. "We didn't want people to try to rate how they were feeling on a scale from one to 10, or anything like that - we wanted to give them the space to tell us how they were dealing with the situation in their own words."

"The desire for flexibility came through really strongly and we recognised that it was something we had to respond to if we wanted to hold on to our existing talent and keep them engaged at work."

Gemma Dale, hybrid working project lead

The team carried out a thematic analysis of all the responses and found that the vast majority of staff were actually enjoying the new arrangements and were keen to continue working in a hybrid way when the lockdown came to an end. In particular, people were saying that they felt more productive and more empowered when working from home some of the time and that they had a better work-life balance. "The desire for flexibility came through really strongly," says Dale, "and we recognised that it was something we had to respond to if we wanted to hold on to our existing talent and keep them engaged at work."

Collaborating and gathering input

In response to the results of the "What works?" survey, in January 2021 the university launched a pilot project to investigate how it could introduce hybrid working options on a permanent basis for the majority of its professional services staff. At the project's core was the development of a set of guiding principles by which hybrid working would be managed for these groups.

"We didn't want to create a fixed policy on this," explains Dale. "Hybrid working requires a lot of trust and cooperation to work effectively, so we felt that having a prescriptive set of rules would be the wrong way to go. Instead, we wanted to work collaboratively with as many people as possible to create some guiding principles that would help our managers and their teams to manage their arrangements independently and in a way that worked for them."

"We wanted to work collaboratively with as many people as possible to create some guiding principles that would help our managers and their teams to manage their arrangements independently and in a way that worked for them."

Gemma Dale, hybrid working project lead

Input from employees was gathered through a range of methods:

  • a pulse survey of all professional services staff in early 2021;
  • focus group sessions with more than 200 employees; and
  • consultations with trade union representatives, HR business partners and the university's disability support services.

The project team also recruited more than 100 hybrid working champions from across the university, not only to help shape the principles, but also to promote the scheme once it was launched. "We went out to all departments and asked for volunteers to help us put this whole thing together," says Dale. "We thought we might get up to 50, so to have over 100 people volunteer to give up their time was more than double what we expected. They played a key role in helping us develop the principles and they've continued to provide testing and feedback on our training programmes and communications around hybrid working."

Hybrid working principles

Following several months of development, the team launched the hybrid working principles in May 2021. The short, four-page document sets out the background to the scheme, along with guidance on how hybrid working should be managed. The overriding principle of the programme is that the university is committed to supporting colleagues to work in a hybrid way wherever possible.

Responsibility for finding ways to introduce hybrid working is shared: managers are encouraged to consider how hybrid working can be implemented in their teams, while staff are encouraged to ask their managers to consider implementing hybrid working if it is suitable for their role. "We wanted our managers to have conversations about hybrid working with their teams," says Dale, "and we made it clear to staff that if their job met the eligibility criteria then they could be part of the pilot."

Providing training and support for managers

The launch of the hybrid working principles was accompanied by a three-month programme of training events, held throughout June, July and August, which managers could choose to attend to learn more about the principles and how to apply them. These sessions covered the background to the programme - including why the university felt it was important to offer hybrid working to staff - as well as practical sessions on how managers could implement hybrid working in their own teams.

"We developed a real mix of resources, from half-day workshops on topics such as how to communicate remotely and how to build trust with a remote team, to shorter webinar briefings on things like how to run team meetings over video," says Dale. "But we also ran a lot of 90-minute sessions where managers could just come along and chat with us and with each other about their own experiences of hybrid working. We wanted to create a space where people could come and say 'this is what's working for me' or 'these are the challenges I'm experiencing' so that people could see they weren't having to deal with this on their own. Launching with a short set of informal principles rather than a very prescriptive, 30-page policy document was very different for us culturally, so we wanted to give people as much support as possible."

"People really wanted to see and hear examples of how other people had implemented hybrid working in their own teams, and the videos were a great way to share best practice and bring it to life."

Alithea Buchan, internal communications and engagement officer

To accompany these sessions, the university produced a series of YouTube interviews with managers in which they shared how they were approaching hybrid working with their teams. These were put together by Alithea Buchan, internal communications and engagement officer. "People really wanted to see and hear examples of how other people had implemented hybrid working in their own teams," she says, "and the videos were a great way to share best practice and bring it to life."

The team also created a wealth of support guides for managers and employees, including documents on:

  • how to assess a role for hybrid working;
  • how to effectively induct hybrid workers;
  • how to manage flexible and hybrid working requests during recruitment;
  • how to manage performance in hybrid teams; and
  • how to support the wellbeing of hybrid workers.

Hybrid working eligibility

While the university strives to provide hybrid working to as many of its professional services staff as possible, not every role is suited to this kind of arrangement. Colleagues are eligible for hybrid working when:

The majority of the university's professional services staff meet these criteria, in roles ranging from back-office functions, such as HR and IT, to student-facing roles, such as counsellors and librarians. However, there are around 900 employees in roles that cannot be carried out in a hybrid fashion - including security guards, catering staff and cleaners.

"One of our priorities for the next year or so is to make sure we provide more flexible working options for those who can't work in a hybrid way. We'll be looking to promote things like job-sharing, self-rostering teams and annualised hours so that everyone can have more freedom in when they choose to work."

Gemma Dale, hybrid working project lead

"We are very mindful that we've put a lot of effort into providing flexibility for where people choose to work but had a little less focus on when people choose to work," says Dale. "We've already improved this to some degree - we now offer flexible working for new recruits from their first day on the job, for example - but one of our priorities for the next year or so is to make sure we provide more flexible working options for those who can't work in a hybrid way. We'll be looking to promote things like job-sharing, self-rostering teams and annualised hours so that everyone can have more freedom in when they choose to work."

Four types of hybrid working

To make it easier for employees and managers to operate a hybrid working arrangement, the guidelines provide a set of four different hybrid patterns that individuals may work. These are:

  • Predominantly campus-based - roles where 80% - 90% of work is carried out on campus and any remote working would not normally exceed one day a week. This may include working remotely on a rota basis with other colleagues.
  • 50/50 - roles suitable for an even mix of on-campus and remote work, typically working two or three days a week on campus and the remainder remotely.
  • Predominantly remote - roles suitable for up to 80% remote working. These may be roles that are not part of a wider team and do not require significant face-to-face interaction with other staff or students.
  • Variable hybrid - roles that require a significant presence on campus at certain times of the academic year (for example, admissions and graduation) but at other times of the year can be carried out remotely. This could also include alternating weeks or periods on campus with other team members.

Staff are under no obligation to work in a hybrid fashion. "We have been very clear, right from the start, that hybrid working is a choice. We haven't taken anyone's desk away - so if people want to come on to the campus five days a week as they used to, they are very welcome to do so," says Dale.

According to Dale, managers have come up with many different ways to implement hybrid working in their teams. Some have given their team members complete autonomy, allowing individuals to decide which of the four models works best for them. Others - especially those in more student-facing roles - have implemented rota systems, to ensure there is always a staff presence on campus.

"We do have quite a few roles, in our libraries and student services for example, where there's a requirement for face-to-face contact," says Dale. "But our managers have been quite creative at addressing these issues to make sure people can still work remotely. I know of one team, for example, where half the team come on to campus from Monday to Friday one week, while the other half works from home, and then the next week they swap."

Obligations of hybrid workers

The guidelines make clear that employees who enter into a hybrid working arrangement do not have to change their contract, and their terms and conditions of employment do not change. However, they are expected to fulfil certain obligations - including attending their contractual place of work on the dates and times agreed with their line manager. Over and above this, hybrid workers must also:

  • make every effort to keep in touch with their team, including using relevant technology and equipment;
  • comply with local and/or team rules for hybrid working, such as attending team meetings or maintaining core working hours;
  • ensure that they are available and accessible while working remotely - this may include sharing calendars;
  • keep themselves up to date with news, information and events at the university;
  • maintain all necessary standards of performance and attendance; and
  • follow all relevant health and safety expectations while working from home.

The practical aspects of hybrid working

Moving to a hybrid working model presents several practical challenges for the university and its staff alike. The guidelines clearly state that staff are responsible for ensuring they have all the equipment and resources they need to work effectively from home. This includes having a good quality, reliable internet connection and, wherever possible, a dedicated workspace with appropriate furniture and lighting. Employees can receive funding to purchase small items of equipment - such as a footrest, keyboard or mouse - up to the value of £50, subject to their manager's approval. The university also has its own furniture reuse and recycling centre, through which it collects desks and chairs that are no longer required by their respective departments and distributes them free of charge to staff who are most in need.

"We've found that when people come on to the campus to work, they want to be able to meet up with their colleagues and work collaboratively . . .We are looking at a long-term estates strategy to make sure that any new spaces we create lend themselves to the hybrid model."

Gemma Dale, hybrid working project lead

The university, meanwhile, is currently committed to retaining a desk on campus for every member of staff, so that they can continue to come into work. However, the university's main challenge is to be able to provide the sorts of open, collaborative spaces that are often required to make hybrid working arrangements work most effectively.

"We've found that when people come on to the campus to work, they want to be able to meet up with their colleagues and work collaboratively - to do the kinds of tasks they can't do when they are at home working alone," says Dale. "Unfortunately, we don't have enough of the big, open-plan offices that collaboration at scale requires - and, because a lot of our buildings are listed, there is very little we can do in terms of changing that. We can't just knock down the walls. So, we are looking at a long-term estates strategy to make sure that any new spaces we create lend themselves to the hybrid model."

Monitoring the impact of hybrid working

In January 2022, the university ran a survey to gather feedback from all its professional services staff on the hybrid working pilot - and the results were very positive. For example:

  • 92% of staff feel their manager trusts them to work in a hybrid way;
  • 84% feel that hybrid working will encourage them to stay at the university; and
  • 81% feel that hybrid working has improved their wellbeing.

While these results are welcome, the university will continue to assess the impact of hybrid working - particularly on its diversity, equality and inclusion agenda. "One thing we are very mindful of is that the project team is made up of four white women of a similar age," says Dale. "We know that as a group we don't have all the answers and that we have our own in-built biases and frames of reference. So we are actively speaking to specific groups of staff, including working parents, carers and disabled staff, to find out how the programme is working for them."

"We already look at the impact of protected characteristics, such as race and gender, on who gets nominated for pay rises and promotions, for example. But we'll now also look at whether someone's hybrid working arrangements have any impact on how their career progresses at the university."

Gemma Dale, hybrid working project lead

The team will also be monitoring the impact of hybrid working on issues such as career progression. "We already look at the impact of protected characteristics, such as race and gender, on who gets nominated for pay rises and promotions, for example," says Dale. "But we'll now also look at whether someone's hybrid working arrangements have any impact on how their career progresses at the university."

"We're also interested to see whether the programme has any influence on internal movements and transfers," adds Dale. "If someone is in a team that can't accommodate full hybrid working, for example, will they seek to transfer to a department that can? These are the sorts of unintended impacts that we will be looking out for."

Organisational outcomes

Dale believes that the introduction of hybrid working has had a profound impact on the way the university's professional services staff work.

"Before this, we had a very meetings-driven culture. But we didn't use technology - it was very much the case that if you had a meeting with somebody you would get up and go to it," she says. "Even if that meant a 15-minute walk to another department - or even getting the bus to another part of the campus - people would insist on meeting in person. So, I think the move to using videocalls such as Zoom and Teams as a matter of course has fundamentally changed how we operate as an organisation."

Next steps

The hybrid working pilot is scheduled to run until August 2022, to give the project team a full academic year to monitor its impact. Despite the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant in late 2021, which prevented staff from working in a hybrid way for a couple of months, the pilot remains on track. The university is using the findings from the pilot so far to continue to implement hybrid working during the remainder of the pilot period while maintaining a "service-first" approach for staff and students.

To keep staff informed of developments, the university's registrar recorded a short video in which he outlined the current plan. "We had some feedback from staff who were worried about what the next steps were going to be and whether they would end up having to come back into the office five days a week," says Dale. "So we put out a video to reassure people that hybrid working in one form or another is here to stay. We were open and honest with them - we said we were still learning and that there may still be changes to the current model. But we were also very clear that whatever our future working arrangements are, they won't be going back to what they were before."

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