Remote Working

On Thursday 12th March 2020 we held our usual weekly staff meeting/development session in the Centre for Innovation in Education (CIE) at the University of Liverpool.

The session was being delivered by Dr Anna Chen, who is our Chinese cultural specialist, and was an introduction to Chinese language, culture and customs (particularly useful for colleagues in CIE who are often supporting programme teams who have large cohorts of Chinese students studying with them).

I has asked Anna to reduce her session to 45 mins instead of the usual 60 mins because I wanted to discuss something with the team. At the end of the session I announced to the team that on Friday 13th March 2020 the Centre for Innovation in Education would be working entirely remotely.

A couple of days before this I had been pondering on the issue of what would happen if there was a campus closure due to the coronavurius (as I am sure many other department leads had also been thinking about). I wanted to be sure that as part of our business continuity planning CIE were able to provide as much of our service as possible (especially considering that in the event of any campus closure or suspension of teaching it would be our department that would be at the forefront of any support activity).

This announcement came as a complete surprise to the team (as was the intention), I hadn’t even shared it with all of the senior leadership team in the department as I wanted for this to as realistic as possible. I tasked the entire team to review our current commitments for the Friday and challenged them to run the department entirely remotely.

As a bit of background, CIE have been early adopters of Microsoft Teams at the University for over 18months. The University rolled out MS Teams to all staff and students in September 2019 but we have been users for much longer. It was quickly agreed that Teams would become the CIE communication and collaboration hub for this remote working experience and colleagues went their separate ways to put everything in place.

So what happened?

Whilst I had every confidence in the team, I can honestly say I was absolutely amazed at how effectively we were able to operate. Overall this was very successful and we will be evaluating it more formally at a later date but the headlines are:

  • We were able to operate entirely remotely for the day (of course longer term might require additional planning) but there was not any planned aspect of our service we weren’t able to deliver on that day.
  • We used Teams as our communication and collaboration “hub” and used it connect with each other and with colleagues across the University (and outside) – it was very robust and reliable.
  • We also tested remote access (via VPN) to on campus desktops for where direct offsite access is not viable (e.g. Terminal 4 access to edit our services pages) and this was also successful (but required forward planning to make sure it was accessible).
  • We were able to fully remote access departmental email addresses (e.g. cie(at)liverpool.ac.uk) and we also used the “One Number Reach” system to twin some offices phones to mobiles (but we might need to consider purchasing some department mobiles for longer term).
  • We have already moved one of our face to face events next week to fully remote (through Teams) and the team are also now putting in place plans to deliver all of our currently scheduled workshops remotely.
  • We were/are able to support staff in the University remotely and some of our forthcoming meetings (individual or group) are either being rearranged or planned as a remote meeting.

I think part of the success of this was the fact that we have already embedded the use of MS Teams into our daily activity and so the use of that platform was not new to us at all, we just made more use of it in different ways and were able to hit the ground running. This highlights for me the need to embed the use of these tools and not expect colleagues just to be able to use them in cases of emergency!

I think it made us all realise that actually we can be really flexible in the way we work and very supportive of each other as we try new things and share those experiences. It was also useful to think about what aspects of our work can be done “digitally” and what works better “physically”.

This experience has helped me recognise that in an increasingly digital world it’s important to recognise the value of face to face interactions, not lose site of them. In fact we should actively identify those valuable face-to-face interactions and make sure we do more of them.

Yesterday (Saturday 14th march 2020) the University of Liverpool announced that it was moving all of it’s teaching online (https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2020/03/14/university-moves-2019-20-classes-online/) . This will mean that CIE will no doubt have an extremely busy period as we develop guidance and support colleagues to provide a remote teaching experience (see separate blog post on remote teaching guidance: https://blog.digis.im/ed-tech/remote-teaching-guidance/). Whatever the the circumstances I know that colleagues will rise to this challenge, but when it’s all over I hope that we can all take some time out for reflection.

There will be many lessons to be learned from this, identifying what went well, as well as what we could’ve done better. But what I am certain of is that this experience is an opportunity for us try new things as we find ourselves in unusual circumstances and that perhaps some of those new things that work really well we can keep doing long after Covid-19 has passed us by.

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