Jane Fawkes is the Deputy Principal and University College Secretary at the University College of Estate Management.

The University College of Estate Management (UCEM) is a leading provider of supported online education on the built environment, with over 100 years of experience in providing the highest-quality learning opportunities.

In her role as the Deputy Principal, she has oversight of all HR matters including; employee engagement strategies, wellbeing surveys, and the institution’s response to the pandemic. Jane also leads on ensuring a safe return to work.

She oversees the institution’s 5-year strategy, regulatory compliance, data reporting capabilities, and work around corporate and social responsibility.  We spoke to Jane about her pioneering wellbeing work. She shared their core wellbeing strategies, the impact of the pandemic on wellbeing, how they ensured a safe return to work and provided recommendations for creating a workplace that puts wellbeing first.

MGC: Hi Jane, can you introduce yourself, your role and your institution?

JF: My role is Deputy Principal and University College Secretary at the University College of Estate Management. As part of that, I am responsible for the Deputy Principal role for HR, which includes all the wellbeing strategies for the pandemic, as well as what happens post-pandemic, and all the wellbeing and staff issue sides associated with that.

I am also responsible for strategy and planning and regulatory compliance. With the University College Secretary role, I’m responsible for everything to do with board governance, ensuring we fulfil the terms of our Royal Charter, succession, planning for trustees, and making sure all the boards and committees are functioning in line with our regulations.

The University College of Estate Management is an online provider of education for the property and construction sector. We’re over 100 years old and were established in 1919. We have a long history of delivering distance learning. (…) We actually sent out material to people when they were in prisoner of war camps in the Second World War.

(…) Now, all our programs are delivered online, and we’ve invested very heavily into the technology and design of those modules. We have about 4000 students. They are 70% in the UK and 30% international. Our average aged student is 31. We have a range of degrees and postgraduate courses and we’ve actually become quite a large provider of degree apprenticeships, we have over a thousand students on degree apprenticeships, so that’s a big area for us. But we’re a registered charity and our mission is to be the Centre of Excellence for Built environment education.

MGC: How have you gone about embedding wellbeing in organisation culture?

JF: We put a big focus on it during the pandemic, Wellbeing was always important to us, but I think the pandemic really caused us to think about what we needed to do for staff and the wellbeing challenges that brought. So, we integrated it in quite several different ways.

Jane Fawkes discusses core wellbeing strategies

JF: For us, this was a really important tool in tracking wellbeing. We spent a lot of time going through all the comments and looking at what was said.

(…) In the first few meetings with staff, we had to make it really clear it wasn’t just about hitting a target, it’s because we cared about people’s wellbeing. It became a monthly report and people knew that we were going to be looking at it and talking about it. Through that, we put out institution-wide solutions to looking at wellbeing and really embedding it.

We thought about resources and how we could use them knowing that we have a tight budget. We spent time thinking about systems and digital and how they could help us with wellbeing. We thought a lot about support for all our line managers because without the line manager support, it’s just people talking and nothing happening.

So how we could work with our line managers to really embed it with their teams and work with their team? Simple things like encouraging them to always speak one to one at their team meetings. Then we looked at the culture and we found that there was a real challenge with people basically logging off at the end of the day.

So, we decided to just put in a few simple things to really make people stop and think. We introduced no-meetings for Wednesday afternoon and asked everybody to really stick by that so that everybody knew on a Wednesday afternoon they could catch up with all the work that they needed to do without having meetings put in there.

Now within that, there’s obviously always the emergency that happens. There’s always a thing that does come up and must be done in the evening. It helped in terms of people’s mental, wellbeing and health and that they didn’t feel so much that they could never switch off and that they could have a space.

We brought in wellbeing days. We then did a lot around mental health and we trained staff to be mental health first aiders. We used sessions with Mind about remote working, and wellbeing, and these were available for all staff.

Finally, we posted a lot on our SharePoint site in terms of resources for staff to use to support their wellbeing. We have an all-staff meeting every Wednesday which always has a slide that says we’re in this together, be kind to each other, feel supported. We really tried to embed it from the top of all staff, senior management all the way down.

MGC: How has the pandemic impacted the wellbeing of your staff?

JF: We monitored wellbeing every month and I have to say, you can see now when you look back over the data, that there were certain times when wellbeing definitely did drop off.

We found wellbeing dropped by 11% back in October and November 2020. That’s when we recognized that people were really struggling with their workload. There was a lot of feedback coming back from line manager meetings and team meetings and people were really struggling,

It showed in our wellbeing survey, and we really recognised that we had an issue there. Unsurprisingly, we also had a big drop in January 2021 when we went into the second lockdown, and people really struggled with being back in lockdown. Within that, we had moments where it went up and it improved through things that we did.

Those were two points where we really noticed that we were having problems, both due to the external circumstances and to the internal workload. I think tiredness is a real big part of that. From senior teams downwards, everybody got very tired because of the additional support required by students in terms of what they were suffering with and struggling with and trying to get the assessments right for them.

Fortunately, all our learning was remote and online anyway, but we still had to think about how we could adapt and help students. Then obviously from a senior team in terms of looking after the staff, thinking about the challenges around budget and about what it meant about that side.

I would say we also have seen an increase in wellbeing issues, that are not all are work-related. People have had difficult personal external circumstances. Some of it has been due to the things that are going on personally due to relatives being poorly, caring for people, finding it difficult, being remote all the time.

MGC: What virtual tools do you use to support staff?

JF: I have to say because we are quite limited on our budgets, we haven’t got lots of really amazing technological tools, but we’ve used what we’ve got effectively.

MGC: How did you ensure a safe return to work?

JF:  This was quite challenging in the sense that we have headquarters based in Reading, which is where the majority of our staff are based. Most people were fully office based five days a week. There was some home working, but it was mainly office-based prior to Covid.

We took the view last summer that we were going to make the most of what we’ve learned through remote working, thinking about the flexibility it brought to us and how things worked effectively. Some meetings worked more effectively when everybody was online compared to before when it was a mixture of hybrid in the room. We were also very much aware of people’s wellbeing the travel time.

MGC: What does your institution do to ensure that teachers and academic staff don’t have an overwhelming workload?

JF: We do have a workload model that we’ve continually adapted through the pandemic in terms of how we allocate academic teams to students and staff. We’re fortunate enough to do some additional recruitment which did help. The board of trustees gave us some additional money because they recognized the challenge for our academic staff and that we needed to recruit.

There’s a lot to be said about listening and understanding what the issues are. It’s not just making a decision from the top senior management level that this is what we need to do and get on with it. It’s actually being on the ground and finding out what’s going on and listening. Making those people feel valued and heard.

We haven’t cracked the problem completely. It is an issue, but I think it’s an issue across professional services as well as the academic team. And by the nature of our students, they are all working online. Most of our students are full time employed and study in the evenings. Often, our academics, even pre-pandemic work and answer emails in the evenings because that’s when our students are there. But it means that staff have flexibility with working hours at different times of the day.

MGC: Finally, what would be your key recommendations for leaders in higher education institutions, to ensure that their staff feel supported?

JF: I’ve got several for this. I think it must start at the top, highest levels in the institution. I think you have to have senior leadership bought into it. If you haven’t got senior leadership into it, you’re not going to get anywhere. Within that, the senior leadership needs to be visible and transparent over the issues and what they’re doing about wellbeing and workload, really showing that understanding.

If you haven’t got that at the senior leadership team, that will not go down further down in terms of the institutions. I think senior leadership really must show an example in terms of being visible and being transparent issues.

JF: Finally, what we’ve learnt most is that no matter what you do there will always be something that you could do more for wellbeing. We did an awful lot but there was always something more and I think in the end you also must recognize that people have to take their own personal accountability for their wellbeing.

You can put in all the things in place you want to support people like employee assistance programs, mental health first aiders, encouraging people to go out and take a walk during lunchtime or in the evening. But in the end, if people don’t take those opportunities or look after their own well-being in different ways it won’t make a difference.

(…) Within that, it’s how you keep the energy focused on wellbeing and ensuring senior leaders and down, keep thinking about new things to do to promote workplace wellbeing.

Key Takeaways

The UCEM is an institution that works hard to prioritise staff wellbeing, especially during times of crisis. The key takeaways from our conversation with Jane, that other leaders in HE should consider are:

  • Ask your workforce how they are doing through surveys and open discussions
  • Think creatively while ensuring a safe return to work
  • Always consider the diversity and inclusion needs of your workforce
  • Ask staff what they want out of work and what would make their experience better
  • Utilise pre-existing technology to build team morale to save on budgets
  • Remember that no matter what you do, sometimes it will never be enough – the individual also has to prioritise their own wellbeing

[1] Fawkes, Jane. 2022. Deputy Principal and University College Secretary, University College of Estate Management

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While supporting university students has gathered a lot of media attention during the pandemic, teaching staff have also needed increased wellbeing support. We heard from Jane Fawkes, Deputy Principal and University College Secretary at the University College of Estate Management about how they have embedded wellbeing across the university.

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