Are our roles sustainable? Challenges for Professional Services Staff

Development Monthly | #3 November 2021 | Challenges in sustainability for professional services staff

Lydia Crow 

Independent Freelancer and Manager

In sharing this piece we wanted to start a conversation around the challenges we experience in our professional environments and the impact that they have on us as HE professionals. Lydia has shared some of her thoughts on the role that language plays in shaping this environment. What are your thoughts?

In November 2019, I hosted a session at the AUA Autumn Conference focusing on Challenges for Professional Services Staff, badged broadly (to encourage another way of thinking about the conference theme) as Sustainable Staff.

Focusing on sector-wide structural issues, I was interested in critically analysing the language used to describe and communicate with Professional Services staff, considering the effects of certain words and phrases on the morale of individuals and teams and the development of a group identity; identifying situations where resourcing decisions, rather than workload management, are affecting an individual or team’s ability to thrive within their working environment, and; considering the role that resilience plays in delivery of Professional Services in Higher Education.

Within six months, the world as we knew it had changed; yet, reading back on some of my earlier thoughts on these challenges, they seem more relevant than ever. Since then, I have also spent time working in another area of the public sector, meaning I have had the opportunity to consider and apply recent comparative experiences to these earlier notes.

There are practical considerations and initiatives to consider that could improve what is increasingly an almost unmanageable environment for some, such as focusing more overtly on Service Level Agreements and less on the fallacy of inbox zero, which seems to have inadvertently embedded itself in the psyche of the sector. Encouraging such approaches and strategies as default would help staff undertake more realistic assessments of their workloads in order to establish where the requirement for professional resilience is fair and merited, and where (a perceived lack of) resilience has become weaponised against individuals. Oliver Burkeman has much to say on the pitfalls of “bone-deep burnout” as a result of productivity techniques and the “efficiency trap”, pursuing achievement of the wrong measures.

Similarly, in some instances more could be done to manage change in terms of both communication and ensuring that initiatives are appropriately resourced. There are certain project methodologies which have proved popular in the Higher Education sector over the last few years that, when misapplied or under resourced, have resulted in a feeling of squeezing as much as possible out of individuals and teams without the level of respect that is theoretically embedded within the methodological framework. This can have a doubly critical effect on staff already suspicious of the impact of certain planned change when their concerns are realised: it becomes hard to separate the design from poor delivery, and thus assure colleagues of (what are hopefully) good strategic intentions.

It is hard to find a sector which can surpass the dedication and commitment shown by Professional Services staff. These things – this passion – are what see people through. But there is a rhetoric occasionally allowed to develop (not dissimilar to that which arises at times of proposed strikes) which encourages staff to think of the students, and thus discourage critique of workloads, resourcing and realistic expectations. At times, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that this is tantamount to emotional bullying. In my experience, Professional Services staff want to support students even when their own institutions do not have the resources and structures in place to allow them to do so as expected.

But by far the biggest challenge still relates to identity.

Professional Services staff find themselves in a curious place from an identity perspective. As Susannah Marsden noted recently, the role of Professional Services can be hard to understand and convey, meaning that understanding this exclusivity can often create more questions than answers. This perspective – particularly from those outside, looking in – is absolutely correct. But is enough being done to reflect internally on how we perceive ourselves as a group?

It does not help that Professional Services are often linguistically referenced using a negative construct, with the term “support” often used. Support in a Higher Education context must surely feature academic and Professional Services as two sides of a single coin, supporting a student’s learning and associated infrastructure. “Support” might be a technically accurate term, but its use for only half the coin sets a tone.

This is made worse by the UK media (including, unfortunately, certain high-profile sector-specific publications) focusing disproportionately on academic staff rather than the many other experts who make up the Higher Education community. Recent examples include the (apparent) pivot to online learning from an academic’s and student’s perspective, with little comment dedicated to the effort of the Professional Services staff who facilitated and guided – who led – this. Similarly, reports on medical students persevering in these troubled times to graduate to enter the NHS workforce at a time of crisis have barely mentioned the exhausting preparations put in place by Professional Services colleagues in Medical Schools across the country who, overnight, needed to redesign and deliver quality-assured examination processes to appropriately meet internal and external requirements and thus graduate doctors fit to practise.

There is seldom a sense that there is a co-ordinated voice for Professional Services staff. Yes, there is much being done at institutional level and occasionally on a more widely co-ordinated basis, but one thing that events of the last five or so years has taught us is that narrative is everything: and Professional Services staff are still being left out of the(ir) shared Higher Education story.

True to its nature, the media is most often interested in acknowledging Professional Services when pay concerns or scandal are introduced, which in turn unfairly leads to an impression of an overpaid sector bloated with unnecessary managerial positions and unnecessary processes inflicted upon academic staff.

A little respect goes a long way, and the sector is risking a perfect storm where Professional Services staff are as much affected by resource cuts and limitations as other staff, but are grouped in a single category which is not granted sufficient respect from their colleagues in the same sector or more widely.

Part of this is down to the invisibility of Professional Services staff: even linguistically, there is a public understanding of tuition fees, which does not help educate the general public about the many varied and crucial roles that are required to ensure that research and teaching are appropriately delivered, and other University educational priorities met. This has been highlighted by HEPI, whose 2018 report recommended the language of student fees be adopted instead, but progress is slow even within the sector.

This points (somewhat ironically) to the need for education. More can be done to present an outward-facing representation of what Professional Services staff actually do. The traditional platforms which are available to those in Professional Services are often only available to those in higher paid positions, but it is important that we give a voice to all levels of staff, and that we project that shared voice loudly into the sector and beyond.

We should hear from staff across all grades and all roles. I would love to see a project that mapped where the many areas of expertise provided by Professional Services staff contributed to the delivery of a single student process. This might help demystify the many roles undertaken – especially those out of sight in non-front-facing roles which the switch to digital in recent years has further prevented from being understood by staff and student colleagues.

Professional Services need to establish a voice and communicate a shared narrative as widely as possible. Organisations such as the AUA are well-placed to facilitate this. There are excellent examples of this already happening in the sector, but much more can be done.

I don’t pretend to have the answers – this is a starter-for-ten, some initial observations and thoughts to keep the conversation going – but the right questions surely start by acknowledging these key points. Next steps may range from building on some of the best practice already established in certain institutions, championing Professional Services at micro level not just in words but in tangible actions and resources; they may include scoping what a co-ordinated manifesto might look like at macro level. One size will not fit all, but agreeing a shared direction of travel in terms of basic principles should be manageable. It’s not just sustainable staff we want, but staff developing and thriving in their own Higher Education communities, empowered and trusted to critique their own workloads and professional resilience, and proud to share a broad identity with colleagues across the country – and world – who are respected by academic and student peers and understood by those outside the sector.

Join the discussion! – Comments below

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