This piece was originally published on the Times Higher Education website on 25 September 2020.
As the new academic year begins in the northern hemisphere, universities are scratching their heads over exactly how to conduct this nerve-racking experiment in campus reopening. How many staff might already have been infected by SARS-CoV-2? What safety measures should be introduced? And, crucially, what support mechanisms will they most benefit from?
At King’s College London we have benefited enormously from the insights offered by a study of staff and postgraduate research students that we have been running since mid-April, just three weeks after the UK locked down on 23 March.
The study – named KCL CHECK (Coronavirus: Health and Experiences of Colleagues at King’s) – revolves around fortnightly confidential surveys on issues such as health, anxiety, resilience, loneliness and fatigue. We also provided participants with the opportunity to take part in a virology component that includes a home antibody test kit to measure evidence of previous Covid infection. Special care was taken to ensure that no identifiable information is accessible to senior management.
To assess how the King’s community is reacting to the pandemic, there are also questions about internal communications, challenges that may be faced while working remotely, virus-related concerns and work-related topics such as furloughing.
It was also necessary to put in place a rapid feedback loop that reduced the gap between research and possible remedial action. In practice, this meant senior management feeding in policy-relevant questions and researchers performing fast analyses to present aggregate data in actionable ways.
For example, on internal communications, the feedback was that staff particularly value open, reassuring messages that are sensitive to the challenges everyone is facing. They also like messages that help build a sense of community, and they appreciate opportunities to ask questions directly to senior leadership.
As a result of this feedback, “Ask the Deans Virtually Anything” virtual events have been running regularly to take questions directly from our community, and we have held a number of virtual town hall meetings to address specific issues raised. In addition, we are consistently acknowledging the hard work everyone is doing – including hosting seminars to showcase colleagues’ pandemic-related research – recognising that people may be facing a multitude of challenges, juggling workloads and adjusting to new ways of working.
From the start of the pandemic, we have been clear in encouraging flexible working around caring responsibilities, adopting a family-first approach. In response to changing working patterns, we have also issued guidance to encourage people to take short breaks between online meetings, have full lunch breaks and to try to keep Fridays meeting-free.
Research students’ priorities have been information and advice about their studies and their financial situations. Hence, we have created online Q&A pages for them, and they – along with other early-career researchers – are invited to regular online “Open Researcher Town Hall” events to encourage open conversation and allow them to raise any concerns. King’s has also made a hardship fund available to support those struggling financially and is providing regular, transparent updates on the latest financial position of the university.
These insights have also informed our safety measures and policies for working on campus from this month. The survey has highlighted concerns around juggling caring responsibilities, as well as ongoing worries about the virus, so any discussion about working on campus has taken these into account. The key message that has been communicated is that if you are able to work from home, you can continue doing so. The survey responses also indicated that face coverings on campus were very much acceptable, which has been mandated.
There are other challenges highlighted by the survey that we continue to try to address. Furloughing is one area in which clear communication was impacted by rapidly changing government advice. However, we have since provided furloughed colleagues with more opportunities to ask senior staff questions directly.
Increased workloads were also raised as a concern, and we have provided staff with additional equipment they may need and adapted our personal development reviews to consider the impact Covid-19 has had. Well-being is a priority and, in addition to the usual support services available, extra holiday days have been granted, and “well-being days” can be taken without notice or reason should staff need them.
With an average survey response rate of over 80 per cent and about one in five staff and postgraduate research students participating (around 2,800 people), our community continues to be engaged with this data-driven approach to mitigating the disruption and stress caused by the pandemic.
As employers and educators, we have an important role to play in helping our staff and students continue to feel part of a community, with the support that this brings. We must actively listen to the challenges that people are facing and take responsibility for helping.
There is still much to learn and improve as circumstances continue to evolve, but we believe that the mechanism we have created puts us in a strong position to respond to whatever the next few months may bring.
Gabriella Bergin-Cartwright is a project manager and Sharon Stevelink is a co-principal investigator of KCL CHECK. They would like to thank the whole research team behind KCL CHECK, as well as all the participants, without whose continuous engagement the study would not be possible.