4. New/Normal? – The Return

New Normal - The Return

The looming new academic year
In July 2021 do you know what is making me feel anxious… its actually the looming new academic year 2021/22. In my head I feel desperate to be back on campus. Impatient to return to the buzz of the open office and unplanned informal interactions with colleagues (miss our work kitchen and communal eating space). But when I think of the logistics of getting up and out of home by 7am to catch the train into the city. How did I do that? Do I even need to do that now? Why was I leaving the house so early previously? I wonder where I will find the time for the daily 1.5 to 2 hour commute, mainly via two trains?   #11

My desk beckons me …
Overall there have been advantages of working from home in terms of lack of travel and wasted time walking in between meeting rooms/campus sites. It has also been nice to model my working day more flexibly so that I can accommodate family support. I have missed face to face contact with people though and my desk beckons to me each time I walk past it. All this talk of going back in September for two days a week terrifies me. To be in a room with lots of other people in close contact. I know it’s got to happen, but it seems so irresponsible to me. Working from home was the best strategy, even though it has been isolating. And impractical for a lot of people, you know, working at your kitchen table or on the edge of a dining table with your children at one end and your partner at the other.   #5

From ultracareful to carefree in the blink of an eye
Things are changing and supposedly returning to normal. I’m not sure that’s what we should be aiming for. My institution seems to be giving out mixed messages and it makes me uncomfortable. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see students back in the lab, working closely with each other and enjoying their time with colleagues and staff. But the lab isn’t that well ventilated, aisles are narrow, and we don’t have enough equipment to ensure no one needs to share things. We’re supposed to enforce physical distancing in labs, but social distancing has been removed in all other situations on campus. Face to face teaching includes lectures, seminars, and tutorials where classes are <50 students in lecture theatres with no enhanced cleaning between sessions. Face coverings are mandatory indoors, except in social spaces when eating/drinking. One-way systems have been removed, as have maximum capacities in lifts. It feels like we’ve gone from ultra-careful to carefree in the blink of an eye and I worry there’s going to be huge confusion for staff and students in semester 1. It just feels like someone has just snapped their fingers and decided. And there seems to have been no consultation with staff to say are you comfortable with this?   #26

I feel like a freak when I wear a mask
I’ve looked at my schedule, it’s probably three times a week I need to go in for teaching. All our teaching they wanted to be in person, which I’m realising as I’m talking about it is giving me quite a lot of anxiety … it does feel on the cusp; next week I have to go in one day and the week after I have to go in three or four days. We just got an email from the VC yesterday that masks were no longer mandatory. I feel like a freak when I wear one because I’m the only one, and it’s going to be the same at university now and that’s just like, “Ah crap!” So I don’t really want to be in the office. I work better at home anyway and I think before the pandemic I was still living quite far away from work and was commuting an hour and a half each way. So I tried to minimise going in just to my teaching days.   #9

A safe environment to return to
Particular people and their approach to health and safety and risk assessments have made an enormous difference to me. We’ve got quite a proactive approach to risk assessments where I work. The lead is very pragmatic, he’s very forward thinking in terms of what’s coming down the line in terms of planning. I felt reassured knowing that he’s got our back, that when I go back to work or when I went back to work, that it’s a safe environment to go back into. Him and his team have been there throughout because they’ve been in the building sending stuff out to people and making sure that bits of it are up and running, so that yes, we can be responsive to students. They’ve made it work from the off. I didn’t mind going back in in September 2020. I felt fine in safety terms.   #13

I think there are some good things that have come out of this in terms of saying do you know what, you can do some of your work from home and you don’t have to be on campus or go and see a participant or whatever and that, I think, opens doors for a whole range of different ways of doing things or also for disabled academics, for example. There’s been some new openings in terms of accessibility and people saying we can do it like this and I know for myself, for example, I’ve learnt quite a bit about how to make teaching materials more inclusive for students that might have vision issues or hearing issues or whatever it is.   #27

It’s a juggle of a day
I’m not properly set up back in the office – webcam and screen are at home; office is still pretty dusty. So it’s a juggle of a day – at home and then dashing in for a couple of face-to-face meetings. There is increasing differentiation of on and off-campus meetings. I am going in today to meet my line manager and a couple of direct reports. But in doing so, the team tea break, one of the levelling social sessions of the pandemic, will be missed. New scheduling challenges and juggling of priorities, new challenges in perception and reality of care and engagement are really coming to the fore. When the online meeting overruns … I have to message a colleague and ask them to hold the fort. I dash for the car and the commute into the office, accompanied by the sound of the Teams alerts continually beeping as people add comments to the chat. I’ve not quite got back into commuter mode yet – forgot to put the radio on. But the time away from screens was a welcome one, some thinking and consolidating time, away from the frenzy of immediate answers and responses that the ‘pings’ were implying needed to be made. No kids playing games, no sound of my husband in a call next door. Quiet. On-campus meetings feel strange – less focused and direct. And there are the oddities – of chatting to someone in person but then having to dash to our respective offices to join a call with a third person. Another new normal emerging, along with the ordering of hand sanitiser for each office, the rota of on-campus working, the social juggle of when to wear masks and when not. By the time I get back in the car to head home I’m utterly exhausted. While I’d found the constant ‘being on’ of the lockdown meeting schedules tiring, the return to navigating real-world interactions is going to take some getting used to and confidence.   #21

A challenge I’m not sure I want to embrace again
We did vast amounts of planning for many different scenarios and took the first semester of the year at a pace. The time up to Christmas was massively challenging: my new role featured a very steep learning curve and perilously little feedback from anyone; new safety protocols took a long time to bed down; many of our international students couldn’t travel to the UK to take up their places and were learning from home, necessitating yet more planning to ensure they could access learning opportunities in a different time zone; building community within a cohort who had never met in person was a challenge I’m not sure I want to embrace again. I think the staff at the School were experiencing the same sort of disengagement. All the online social meet ups that were in place over the summer had been discontinued, and the previously cramped staffroom became a place of danger and vector transmission so, when they were on campus, staff tended to work in isolation in their workshops.   #13



Participants’ accounts
What the university did
The return
Future flexibility