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Homeworking workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018, 15:16

On Monday 13 March 2017, I attended what I think was the first ‘home working workshop’. It was held at on the university campus in Milton Keynes. Since the regional centres have closed, many staff tutors and faculty managers have become ‘designated home workers’. I’m sharing this quick blog of the event for two reasons: (1) so I remember what kinds of things were covered, and (2) on the off chance that anyone else might find it of interest.

Workshop objectives

Before the workshop we were asked to reflect on a set of key questions (which I’ve briefly edited for brevity): (1) what boundaries do you currently set to separate work from other parts of your life (e.g. having a designated workspace at home to which working is limited)? (2) how we implemented these boundaries? (3) how effective do we find these boundaries?, (4) Have we experienced difficulties with setting boundaries, and what makes them challenging?

The objectives for the workshop were to: identify strategies for managing the potential adverse impacts associated with homeworking, to consider the importance of recovery and switch-off time, and the implications for setting boundaries when homeworking. Other objectives were to help us to reflect on our own patterns when using technology, with a view to setting up effective practices. In essence, it was all about finding a way forward.

Thoughts about home working

Home working isn’t a new thing. Over four thousand part-time associate lecturers are already home workers. It is, however, a new thing for full time staff (like myself) who used to be office based. 

I have to admit to being a bit grumpy about the whole thing: I miss my colleagues. A month or so into being a home worker, and I’m beginning to feel pretty isolated and ‘semi-detached’ from the university, and I'm spending a disproportionate amount of time looking at motorcycles on eBay.

On a more serious note I am, however, beginning to really appreciate the flexibility, but I haven’t yet fully started to take advantages of the flexibility that it affords. I do have a worry too: I can’t help but feel that there are some days that I seem to work too much; I know that I shouldn’t be still looking at email at nine o’clock at night (but I do justify this by talking to my inner ‘time guilt clock’ after taking a couple of hours off to go shopping).

I attended the workshop since I was curious: what could the facilitators in the workshop tell me? Also, were there any words of advice that would help me to settle into a new way of working?

Group discussion

The first activity was a group discussion, where we were asked to discuss the positives, negatives, and thoughts about anything that could be done to overcome issues that we might face. I made note that ‘switching off can be a problem’; that you could work all the time, but (as mentioned above) it gives you flexibility. A particular challenge might be if you’re new to the job: you might not be necessarily exposed to all the machinations of the university and have a reduced opportunity to ask questions.

A particular theme was the fear that we might become invisible; others might not know what we do. Also, because we’re not ‘in the office’ there is a fear that things that we do might not be valued.  Another theme related to support: ‘watercooler’ chats don’t happen anymore; you can’t just pop your head above a partition and talk over potentially difficult issues with colleagues.

There are some key points: HR, Faculty and School policies need to be clarified. Also, I can’t help but feel that the subject of home working will become more important if the discussions surrounding the new associate lecturer contract comes to pass.

Personas

The next activity was to have a chat about two hypothetical members of staff, or personas. One member of staff was very experienced, whereas another member of staff was new. We were asked two questions: what would you say to the people in the personas? And, what advice would you offer to someone who is about to become a home worker?

Our group came up with some good advice: agitate (positively, and within your school or department) as much as you can, do be cheeky (since that can get you recognised), and attend meetings that are relevant to you and your job (whether they are face to face or online). Other thoughts are: be visible; volunteer for things, tell other people what you’re doing (maybe have a blog?), and don’t be afraid of asking questions. 

Setting boundaries between work and private life

The next part of the workshop was a short talk by Svenja Schlachter, a PhD student at the University of Surrey. As Svenja talked, I made notes of points that jumped out at me. This bit of the blog is an edited transcript of the notes that I made.

A question is: ‘how do people recover from work?’ A point is: you need to be active in setting your own boundaries, and you need to be active in terms of planning your own recovery from work. If you don’t ‘recover’ properly, there are implications, such as: fatigue, mood, sleep problems, reduced performance, and risk of cardio-vascular death (I remember that Svenja supported this final point with some references).

We’re faced with a challenge: how was we properly recover from work when we’re surrounded by way to ‘get to’ work (such as, through our mobile devices and laptops)? The answer might lie in the concept of boundary management: there are different domains in our life, and we need to maintain mental fences for ourselves.

There is the idea of different boundary management styles. One idea is that there is a continuum: on one hand there are people who use segmentation (keep work and different domains separate), but on the other hand there might be people who integrate work with everything that they do. 

Segmentation means that it is easier to switch off from work and there might be less work-life conflict. Integration might mean longer hours but the possibility of work-life enrichment; the argument is that if you keep things apart, you prevent good things that happen in the work domain permeating to other aspects of your life (I’m guessing that the opposite is also true). Interesting, there is also the concept of ‘cyclers’ (or cycles), where you might move across the boundary continuum depending on what is happening at a particular point. A really important point is that it is important to feel in control of things; feelings of control influences well-being.

We were given some questions: how do you set your boundaries, and how do you separate your work from other things? Also, how do you implement your boundaries? An implicit point was that having an office or designated workspace was a natural way to manage work-life boundaries; we were now faced with the challenge of rethinking how to do things. These thoughts led onto a discussion about different types of boundaries.

Space-based boundaries: this could be a dedicated working space at home. A point was: avoid working in a living space (such as using a dining room table). This was a really good point; I have this habit of moving from my study to the dining room table simply to have a ‘change of scene’. On reflection, this might not be such a good idea.

Time-based boundaries: the thought behind time-based boundaries is to set firm work hours, and find ways to keep tags on the hours that you do (and establish working times with other). This was also thought provoking: I think I have an internal ‘work clock’, which means that if I stop working within my work hours to go do something else, I try to make those hours up a bit later on (or at another time). A reflection point is: I need to work on figuring out my time-based boundaries.

Technology-based boundaries: the idea here is ‘use different devices for different boundaries’, i.e. perhaps think of taking a non-smartphone on holidays so you’re not tempted to access your email. Other tips might be: turn off function, such as data connectivity, during ‘down times’. Use features such as out of office reply to tell others when you’re not working.

Psychological boundaries: the key point is ‘don’t spend the whole day in your pyjamas, even if you are able to do so’; consider ‘getting dressed for work’. Consider having a ‘wind down routine’, and take time to plan your non-work time (social gatherings, exercise, hobbies; whatever it is you like to do outside of work). A really important point was that this planning of non-work time is important; if you don’t plan and just end up watching nonsense on the television, your mind might wander back to work issues.

Reflections

A key point I took away was one about difference: everyone’s situation is different, and everyone chooses to work in different ways, and everyone places different emphasis about how work features in our lives. 

I, personally, found the discussion about different types of boundaries most useful. The discussion about the different ‘segmentation strategies’ within these boundary types was thought provoking. I have also concluded that I am a ‘cycler’, and this is down to what I need to do within my job at different times of the year.

The biggest take away point, for me, is that I need to work harder at planning my non-work time. I don’t think this is necessarily such a bad thing.

References

Kossek, E. E. (2016). Managing work-life boundaries in the digital age. Organizational Dynamics, 45, 258-270.

Zijlstra, F. R. H., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). After work is done: Psychological perspectives on recovery from work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15, 129-138. 

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Day in the life of a MCT staff tutor

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Mar 2020, 08:26

I’ve written this blog post to complement a presentation that I have given (or are just about to give!) at a faculty student support team meeting on 17 June. The aim of the presentation was to share something about what staff tutors do on a day to day basis. Since I thought that other people within the university might find the presentation (and this summary) of interest, I’ve decided to share it more widely.

I’ve written this summary from my own perspective; other staff tutors within the Open University (and in other faculties) are likely to have very different days simply because of how their role might be split between central academic work and regional academic work.  There will be, of course, common themes: working with module teams, working with student support teams and working with tutors (and doing research, when time permits!)  We also, of course, can and do speak with students.

If you’ve accidentally discovered this post, you might not know what a ‘staff tutor’ is.  It’s a job that is half academic, and half management.  The management bit means we manage tutors.  This management bit can and does directly feeds into the academic bit: we represent the interests of the tutors during module team discussions.  A staff tutor is what is known as a ‘regional academic’. We are currently spread across the whole of the UK, and we might do a whole bunch of different things, ranging from outreach, working with local industries (if time and opportunity permits), and playing a role in marketing events.  I’m based in the London region, and work for the MCT faculty (which is the faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology).

Before I go on and describe ‘a day’, I should perhaps make a quite note on how I wrote this somewhat eclectic summary.  I began by writing what I got up to during an entire day.  I then thought about other important tasks that hadn't cropped up during the day that I sampled.  In fact, the below narrative is a collage of aspects from different days.  I’ve written it this way so give a sense of the diversity of things that we do.  It’s not representative, since every day is different, but it does give a taste of what kind of things a staff tutor gets involved with.

Blitz the inbox

I usually get up between 7 and 8 in the morning, depending on what I’ve got on.  If I’ve got to travel to Milton Keynes (the head office) I usually set my alarm clock for 6.30pm so I can comfortably catch a couple of trains.  Most of the time, however, I tend to work either at home, or in the Camden regional centre. On this day, I was up at around half seven, had some breakfast, and was in my study around three quarters of an hour later after quite a bit of early morning faffing about. 

When I boot up my laptop in the morning I usually have a single objective: to get though as many inbox messages as I can, as quickly as I can; this way I can figure out what is important and what is not.  I delete unnecessary calls for papers and scan through a ‘geek newsletter’ looking at new tech headlines.  I then delete a load of messages from Milton Keynes.  This might be: fire alarm notifications, messages about cakes and something about a pathway diversion. There is some stuff that I just don’t need to know about.

It’s important to keep everyone in the loop about what you’re doing, so one of the first things I did was to email our London faculty assistant to tell him what I’m doing.

I have a load of folders to manage my email load.  I see one email that corresponds to an on-going issue (a complaint).  I open up a folder that corresponds to the presentation of a module that I’m looking after, and I drag it in, to create a ‘virtual paper trail’ of an issue.

I see a university conference announcement that relates to an eSTEeM project.  This is a university scholarship initiative; I’m becoming increasingly interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning and I received a bit of funding to run my own project.  I read the conference call and wondered: could this conference be useful for dissemination?  Perhaps it might, but I then decided the timing didn’t work: I needed to concentrate on finishing the project which is about understanding the tutor experience of TT284.  I’ve got loads of other ideas; the challenge, of course, is trying to find the time.

One message reminds me that I need to send a message to all TU100 14J students.  One of my roles is to support the level 1 computing undergraduate tutors.  One thing that I’ve been doing is trying to encourage as many students to come along to the face to face tutorial sessions.  To do this I send them neat, concise messages about their day schools – this means they have all the information they need: information about the venue, information about travel information, and information about the room that they need to go to.  I compose a message to our faculty assistant, asking him to send it out later that day.

One email is interesting: can I help out with postgraduate events (because apparently I was some kind of IT curriculum programme lead?)  This was news to me!  I used to be a postgraduate computing student, but I’m certainly not a curriculum lead.  I sent an email to the regional marketing contact (who is always lovely) agreeing to run a ‘demo tutorial’ for any prospective students who might be interested, suggesting that we had a face to face chat when I’m next in the London office.

A colleague sent me a message that demands a response: Could I contribute to an associate lecturer’s CDSA (or, appraisal)?  Yes, I can!  He’s great!  But there isn’t much to say at the moment since he’s currently on a year out, but I’ll happily write a couple of paragraphs that might be useful.

One thing that I do in the region is help out with the associate lecturer development conferences which offer all tutors on-going professional development and training.  These events are very important: they give tutors an opportunity to meet each other, help tutors become familiar with new educational tools and approaches, and help the regional academics to more readily appreciate any of their worries and concerns. I’ve been helping to organise a session where the tutors would work with two actors who are running a session on dealing with difficult telephone calls.  After sending and receiving a couple of messages, it has been decided: the actors are going to invoice the region.

Releasing monitoring reports

It doesn’t seem like there are any really urgent crises to deal with this morning, so I decide to set another objective: to sign off all off on ALL the associate lecturer monitoring reports that have arrived into a faculty inbox over the last week or two. 

I’ve always held the view that signing off on monitoring reports is an important job.  I hold this view for two reasons: firstly, it’s a really useful way to get an understanding of the correspondence tuition that is delivered to students and secondly, as a tutor, I really welcomed the personal comments that used to come from my line manager.  Here’s what I do: I look at the comments of the monitor, and then the PT3, and then the script, and then add some ‘mediation’ comments.  Some monitoring for other staff tutors who are located in another part of the country has ended up in the London inbox, so I emailed it them a colleague who looks after those.

After a couple of hours of work, I decide it’s time for a well-earned cup of tea.

Academic stuff

During my break I idly browsed the BBC technology pages and discovered an article about a new computing initiative that uses something called the ‘Microbit’.  This takes me down the path of looking at (briefly) some of the history about the BBC’s computer literacy project that ran in the 1980s.  I start to read about someone (who is now a fellow of the royal society) who had helped design the ARM chip instruction set.  Since I often help at the London degree ceremonies in the Barbican I started to idly wonder whether this could be someone to put forward for an honorary degree. From my perspective, their contribution to computing is pretty clear.

I decide to park this, since I’ve already said I would recommend someone else to the honorary degree committee, but haven’t (yet) managed to find the time to write a biography of the candidate that I was thinking about.

A few weeks earlier I had attended an event that was run by the Higher Education Academy (HEA website).  The event was all about teaching introductory computing (personal blog), which is an interest of mine.  I also have an awareness that the faculty will soon start to consider how to replace TU100 My Digital Life (which will take a couple of years).  I’ve got this habit of writing ‘blog summaries’ so I can keep notes of interesting events and share these notes with colleagues.  I finally find the time to finish writing my summary, and I upload it to my personal OU blog after a bit of editing.

Dealing with a module issue

I receive a call from a fellow staff tutor about a student who is persistently unhappy with aspects of a module. We swap student ID numbers, and I look up the student record.  We have a chat about the student, and by looking at the student record, we figure out a way forward.  We both manage the tutors who are delivering the module in question, and between each of us we figure out what needs to be done: my colleague agrees to speak with the student to try to offer some further guidance and explanations.

I send my colleague copies of some emails that I had safely filed away.  I remember that after starting as a staff tutor, I soon realised that effective record keeping is really important.

Working with the student support team

The computing and IT student support team is located in Birmingham.  The members of the Birmingham team respond to student’s learner support queries and help students choose their next module on a programme of study.  When it comes to helping students with certain issues, we sometimes ask students to ring the SST, or we create what is known as a ‘service request’, asking the SST to give students a call: there are things that they can do that us staff tutors can’t do.

I receive a call from a colleague in Birmingham about a particular module, TT284 Web Technologies. My colleague has a very precise question about the module, and it’s a question that I can easily answer (since I work with the tutors who deliver that module, and have worked with the module team).  From my own perspective, it’s great to have that contact with someone who is offering advice to the students.  Also, I feel that due to changes in the way that tutors are managed (staff tutors are now managing smaller number of numbers), we’re able to specialise a bit more, and this will help us to more easily respond to detailed academic queries.

Towards the end of the day

As well as being a staff tutor, I’m also a tutor.  In MCT I tutor on M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  In the previous presentation of M364, I ran a module wide revision tutorial.  I didn’t have to do this (this isn’t something that the M364 module team explicitly ask tutors to do), but I thought it would be a good thing to do; plus, it would help me to get more OU Live experience.  I decided to do the same for the current presentation. 

When I announced that I was running a session, another tutor said that she would come along and help out, which was great news. After quite a few email messages, we chose a date and time. There will be two sessions, and we agreed that we would work together on both of them. Our two sessions will tackle the subject of revision in different ways.

After a bit of a delay, the first stage of the Locations Analysis is out. I discover there are a huge number of documents to read through.  I skim through the main document, which seems to be over eighty pages in length. I quickly become tired.

When I get back I check my email again. There an extension request from a fabulous T320 tutor. I’m very happy to accept their judgement, and I appreciated that they asked me about it.  I offered a couple of suggestions about what to say to our student.

It’s the end of the day.  It has been a busy one. I make something to eat, and then caught a train to the middle of London to meet up with some friends.

On the way back, at Charing Cross train station, I noticed that I had missed a call.  There was a voicemail.  It was from a student of mine. I called the student back and we had a chat.  The student was asking for an extension. I agreed to the extension, and highlighted some sections of the assignment so our student could just focus on completing what he needed to do. I also emphasised a really important point: that there are no extensions to the final TMA. 

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