Debate: is ‘hybrid working’ the new normal?

Last term, Palatinate revealed that trials will begin next academic year to assess the viability of a ‘hybrid working’ approach. Now over a year into university online learning, Palatinate Comment asked two contributors for their opinion on the proposal.

For: a well-considered new working regime would bring net benefits

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As we start to enter a post-coronavirus world, many will be wondering what we should take forward with us into the ‘new normal’ that is set to follow. Very little will likely be the answer, with many keen to jettison social distancing, lockdowns, and mask-wearing, not to mention ‘vaccine passports’ being the latest political battleground. However, there is one key thing we will take forward with us into the new normal: hybrid working.

The business case for hybrid working is clear, offering greater flexibility for staff and reduced costs for businesses. Many companies will now be asking themselves how necessary some business trips are, as the pandemic has demonstrated the viability of online working. In the US, nearly 450 million business trips occurred in 2018, with domestic trips at a cost of nearly $1,000 per person. While not all of these trips will be eliminated due to hybrid working, for businesses looking to save money, this is a clear starting place.

Even on small scales where price is not a concern, people still value their time – how many students would be keen to trek from the back end of Gilesgate to the Science Site for a half-hour dissertation meeting they now know can be done over Zoom?

Hybrid working isn’t going away any time soon

Many may argue that the pandemic has shown the viability of Zoom to eliminate ‘one-off’ events, such as business trips or dissertation meetings. But can hybrid working really present a sustainable model for everyday working? Lloyds Bank seems to think so, with reports suggesting they will axe 20% of their office space by 2023, encouraging staff to work more at home and make the office a place of meaningful collaboration.

As well as reducing rent costs, there is little to suggest that productivity will be negatively impacted by a purposeful shift to home working. While the ONS did say that in the second quarter of 2020 productivity per hour worked dropped by 1.8%, this is in the context of overall major disruption to the economy, and it is still less than the 3.3% drop seen in the third quarter of 2008 due to the financial crash.

Further to this, productivity is linked to workforce morale, a concern for business when two-thirds of workers in January 2020 “dreaded” a return to work after their weekend break. With just under half of UK workers enthusiastic for hybrid working, could businesses not be presented with an easier way to boost the morale of their workforce, while reducing rent and simultaneously seeing little to no impact on productivity?

This is all without mentioning the clear environmental benefits such a shift would have. In 2019 nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK arose from transport. Only so much of this can be tackled through methods that maintain the status quo, such as carbon offsets or improvements in fuel efficiency. Hybrid working alone will not solve the climate crisis, but it’s a good start and an effective tool in the arsenal of policymakers.

There is little to suggest that productivity will be negatively impacted

Hybrid working isn’t for everyone. This is something the University recognises, and the door has been left open for individual staff members to reject these proposals. Further, the University acknowledges the importance of a lively campus as the beating heart of the University community. So even if hybrid working becomes mainstream, still expect packed lectures and Billy B all-nighters from students.

It is important to recognise that everyone is still figuring out what sustainable ‘hybrid working’ means, and this will differ between organisations and even between individuals. Whatever your stance on hybrid working though, the University should be praised for its collaboration with staff (including focus groups and discussions with trade union representatives) on exploring these proposals, rather than shutting the door on any dialogue on the matter, like Goldman Sachs CEO David Soloman has.

Hybrid working isn’t going away any time soon: it’s good the University recognises this and is working constructively with staff to achieve a sustainable hybrid working regime that works for everyone.

Against: online learning was a last resort and shouldn’t continue

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Although it (mostly) hasn’t been the fault of the universities themselves, 2020-21’s university experience has been immeasurably worse than previous years. A key factor in this has been the introduction of online learning.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve found online learning significantly less effective, efficient and enjoyable than in-person learning. Oh wait, I do know about you, because a Palatinate survey earlier this year revealed that overall student satisfaction with teaching is down 50%.

Seminars and lectures held over Zoom just aren’t as useful a learning tool as in-person classes. It’s easier to switch off and not participate and harder to build coherent discourse or relationships with your peers and lecturers. They should be an absolute last resort for students paying £9,250 to study.

Seminars and lectures held over Zoom just aren’t as useful as a learning tool

So, imagine my surprise to learn that the University is looking to make online learning a permanent part of Durham life. As part of a wider hybrid working trial across the University, staff members coming onto campus looks set to become optional. It’s just another reminder that not even our universities care about our student experience and learning, as long as grades are going up. I know they’re not talking about online learning still being full-time, but even part-time is far too much.

In principle, hybrid working sounds like Durham are taking a step into the future. A lot of the big firms are doing it to lower costs, so why shouldn’t we? These are the sentiments of university administrators who have forgotten that university is for educating students, not financially exploiting them. Whilst businesses only care about the productivity of their workers, measuring the success of students and lecturers is far more nuanced.

Palatinate’s initial report on the hybrid working trial had a great line in it. We were told that “the trial is a recognition that some may prefer to continue to do their roles remotely or not be on campus for all working days.” Yes, and I’d love to be on a Caribbean beach with a mojito and a good book. We can’t all have what we want. Durham should pride itself on providing the best education possible, in person, rather than the bare minimum through a computer screen.

Hybrid working has some benefits. I’m sure it can be effectively implemented amongst Durham’s administrators. Short meetings, like for dissertations, may do well from being moved online. However, this should be as far as it goes.

In-person seminars and lectures provide a better education, which is what students are paying for. We can’t allow online learning to become the new normal. It might save us a bit of time, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many students who would trade a poorer education for a 15-minute walk.

Hybrid working’s environmental benefits through lowering transport rates are often mentioned. Whilst this might hold true for big businesses, and may well do for Durham’s around 2,500 administrative staff, the environmental impact of the teaching staff and students travelling to lectures is really negligible.

University is for educating students, not financially exploiting them

A minute number of students drive to their contact hours and I’d like to think that lecturers would still be on campus at least two or three days most weeks. I understand that every little helps, but the saving from 1,500 lecturers not driving to work a couple of days a week, a lot of whom use public transport anyway, really isn’t worth a stark drop in student satisfaction.

Some elements of hybrid working have a place in the new university experience. As long as it doesn’t infringe on our learning, the University can knock itself out.

However, we have to remember that online learning was brought in as a last resort and cannot become part of our new normal. What works for big businesses does not necessarily work for universities. We’re students, not clients. Durham will do well to remember that when deciding on their Hybrid Working policy

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