Helping teams to support learning in times of disruption

Lis Parcell and Chris Thomson highlight some potential challenges for college teams dealing with heightened Covid absences, with a reminder of some strategies and resources that could help keep support services going

As 2022 dawned, headlines warning that public sector leaders were expected to plan for up to 25% staff absence raised the prospect of FE colleges starting the new term under severe pressure. Serious gaps in staffing due to the unpredictable spread of the Omicron variant threatened to add to the now familiar difficulties caused by earlier variants and “long Covid”, not to mention other illness and staff vacancies. In turn, more staff might need to work from home when self-isolating or caring for family members.

Facing uncertainty

This situation means even more uncertainty than usual for staff working in support services, such as learning resources or libraries. With classes shifting between on-site and online, staff need to be able to balance between f2f and digital modes of working, often at short notice, across multiple services points and sites. People returning from longer periods of sick leave need support to regain their footing in an organisation that quite likely looks and feels different – physically and virtually – from when they were last there.

New staff joining a team (whether on a permanent basis or as temporary cover) may need to get up and running immediately without the benefit of a f2f induction and the team welcome that would normally go with it.

Acknowledging progress

In a staffing situation that may feel precarious for many, it’s important that we don’t take for granted the enormous progress staff and students have made over the past two years to shift from f2f working to digital. There are plenty of examples of emergency responses coined in 2020 which are now part of routine practice and continue to improve the lives of learners, from ‘click and collect’ library borrowing to laptop loans.

Below we highlight some of the challenges that major absences may bring, and look in more detail at some practices which may help to protect and sustain innovation in support service teams.

Challenges of absence

  • Staff who have been off sick or diverted to cover for absent colleagues may find it hard to catch up on key developments
  • Major disruption can cause staff to lose confidence in what would normally be familiar digital processes and skills
  • The organisation can lose vital know-how if the specialist in a particular area is unavailable
  • Staff wellbeing and mental health may be exacerbated, for example by the need to close service points or learning spaces which we know are important for student success and digital wellbeing
  • Staff shortage can lead to people being in constant firefighting mode. There is a danger of developing ‘tunnel vision’, withdrawing from networks that could provide peer support and inspiration. Yet as the Microsoft Work Trend Index report on hybrid working states:

“When you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and group think becomes a serious possibility.”

Maximising flexibility

These are some of the practices that worked well during the early months of the pandemic to enable teams to pivot to digital working.

  • Get the basics right: have a shared knowledgebase for FAQs and key procedures. Use cloud-based tools so these are accessible for people working remotely. Provide a shared inbox for support queries which can be handled by more than one person. For example, the library/LRC may need to collaborate with IT staff to document essential and often time-consuming processes such as enabling access to online resources
  • Manage meetings so that they are as inclusive of all: those joining online, those who are on campus and others catching up after absence. If you have a group on site and others joining virtually, ensure that those online are not overlooked in discussions – you might even consider having everyone joining online
  • Recording a meeting may be an option, but it’s not always effective if someone has been unable to attend. Recordings can be time-consuming and tiring to view, especially if there are a lot of them. It is also frustrating to sit through discussions when the viewer cannot participate or pick up on decisions and actions. Consider how to capture the outputs of meetings in a digestible format. Text is quicker to skim and search than audio or video. Built-in transcription tools can generate a text record which you can then edit down to the essentials
  • Just because people have access to digital tools to work from home (WFH) doesn’t mean they have to be online all the time. If they are sick, encourage them to take time to recover. Working outside of ‘normal’ hours can be helpful for some, but it can also indicate that someone is struggling. Be observant and support your team to develop healthy WFH habits
  • Attention to staff development is often an early casualty of staffing shortages. But as up-to-date digital skills are now vital for everyone, it’s important for managers to ensure that learning and skills development do not fall by the wayside when staffing is stretched. Support staff to keep honing their digital skills and confidence, taking advantage of available online resources and peer support. Even an hour getting to know a new resource or attending an online event with peers from other colleges can help to build confidence and motivation when times are hard
  • Encourage staff to access online support resources to protect their health. Regular online spaces (e.g. a weekly virtual coffee time) allow all staff to meet and support each other informally, and strengthen team bonds. This can be particularly beneficial if you have new staff joining at times when conventional onboarding arrangements are not possible
  • Stay connected with online communities of practice and online professional learning events. These can offer a pool of like-minded staff across the country who can help with questions and problem solving – even if it’s just to give much needed reassurance you that you are not alone! They will also offer (usually free or low cost) online meetups which are valuable for peer learning and confidence building. Jisc offers a number of communities free to members, offering Teams spaces and drop in sessions on hot topics
  • In times of staff absence, it’s easy for development projects to go on the back burner. While this may not be completely avoidable, it’s good to keep innovation going in small ways. Celebrate any steps towards improvement during difficult times and don’t discount the impact that can be achieved through incremental changes to digital practice. Communities of practice such as our FE library LRC community are a great place to find much-needed encouragement and share innovation tips

Further resources

If you are looking for further inspiration, the following posts and guidance from our member support team may provide some suggestions:

How can digital offer a helping hand to teachers?

Preparation for unscheduled IT support staff absences

Don’t forget the human side of homeworking

Ensuring continuity of learning during enforced absence



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