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Hybrid Higher: 'hybrid working and leadership in higher education'

20 May 2021 | Doug Parkin Ahead of two webinar workshops exploring hybrid working, Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, reflects on ‘what next?’ for the higher education operating model "as the shadow of COVID-19 begins, we hope, to lift."

This piece looks ahead to two webinar workshops that Advance HE will be facilitating for the sector on 16 and 17 June to explore hybrid working through generative discussion.

From five to 50

In a matter of weeks, between March and May 2020, the UK workforce went from five to 50% working from home (Royal Society for Public Health, February 2021). Even if some of that 50% was for a relatively short period of time – and there were considerable variations linked to the use of furlough and other measures – that represents a staggering shift in the operating model for UK plc. And around the globe similar rapid shifts to remote working occurred. The US was already ahead of the UK in terms of the gradual long-term trend towards home working, with an estimated 12% of workers engaged remotely pre-pandemic, but led by the new technology giants of Silicon Valley who were well prepared for the shift, the US quickly climbed to over 44% as COVID struck. Recent polls suggest that trend will remain, with one in four Americans working remotely in 2021, and by 2025 an 87% increase expected from pre-pandemic levels (Upwork’s Future of Workforce Pulse Report, as reported by CNBC, December 2020).

In Japan the number of companies that implemented some form of remote working grew from 17% to 56% between March and June 2020, dropping back to around 35% by January 2021. And here again the impact of an enforced and sustained large-scale experiment with homeworking has caused a longer-term shift, with companies like Fujitsu moving from paying for commuter passes for employees to subsidising improvements to the home working environment. In terms of similar rapid and radical shifts in employment policy, as far back as May 2020 Twitter was making headlines for telling its staff that they can work from home “forever” if they wish.

Whatever your view of these rapid developments – and feelings about the nature and pace of recent changes amongst employees are strong, both for and against – the truth is that we are looking towards a future where remote working will no longer be an exception or an experience restricted to a privileged and trusted few. These developments herald a future of flexplace systems where employees will be empowered to choose where and how they work, and where the nature of interdependent teams and their effectiveness will be closely scrutinised by organisations. The question ‘what are teams good for, and how should that be enabled and facilitated?’ will in many work contexts replace assumptions about fixed functional groups and departments.

Pivot back or pivot forward?

There is much to celebrate about the speed and success with which higher education institutions (HEIs) pivoted to online learning and teaching. This took place at different times in national and regional HE contexts around the world as the COVID virus spread, with March and April 2020 being the key months for transition in the UK. Alongside this headline achievement professional colleagues put in place new and adapted systems, student services specialists rapidly innovated good practices, research groups discovered new ways to collaborate, and leaders at all levels strived to balance freedom and control as the COVID pandemic brought the need for both urgent change and longer-term adaptation. The higher education sector achieved not only an unprecedently fast change of core delivery methods, embracing at scale online technologies, it also burst several of its underpinning paradigm bubbles.

That was the pivot. The digital pedagogy pivot, as it has been termed, was brought about by a fundamentally practical challenge, to close the campus and go on teaching and supporting students. For the university itself the urgent priority was to:

“…encourage and support academic professionals, as well as their students, to decouple HE pedagogy from physical co-location so that effective learning and teaching can occur regardless of the availability of physical space.” (Anderson, 2020)

This challenge was made doubly uncertain by the lack of any clear timeframe. With optimists, including prime ministers (UK), asserting that things would be back to normal by Christmas, and others gloomily predicting a much longer journey back to some form of ‘new normal’, the digital arrangements put in place at haste became virtually standardised. The HE sector’s short-term digital pragmatism has ended up with an extended shelf-life, whether or not desirable. And this applies equally to hastily created home-working and home study arrangements, which leads us back to the key question ‘what next?’

In mastering the pivot, institutions variously had three things: points of readiness, points of potential and points of weakness. These could be classified as pivot points. A well-structured and utilised VLE could be an example of the first, pockets of established good practice in online education might be an example of the second, and fairly commonly a lack of training for academic staff in online course design has been observed as a clear example of the third. It was around these pivot points that institutions hastily developed their newly embraced digital pedagogy, with both staff and students embarking on something of a roller-coaster ride of confidence and uncertainty.

Individual colleagues experienced these pivot points, too: readiness, potential and weakness. Staff with home-working arrangements already in place, one-day a week, perhaps, already possessed a level of readiness. Those with personalities more open to experience, independent planning and proactively developing work relationships may have had a greater potential for adapting to the challenges of virtual teams. Weaknesses and vulnerabilities have taken many forms, from caring responsibilities to anxieties regarding underlying health conditions, and some have felt more able than others to reach out and seek support.

And the pivot keeps on turning as the unpredictable world around us continues to change. There is a sense in which things may pivot back to how they were before, pre-pandemic, with welcome norms returning and the social connections so important for both effective work and study reasserting themselves. There is also a sense in which things may pivot forward to new norms and relationships, harnessing the momentum of innovation, opportunistic discovery, and emerging new work/study paradigms. A hybrid combination of the two seems most likely, welcoming back the familiar whilst embracing the new, but such a fusion of elements can never be a one-size-fits-all approach, and a high level of thoughtful planning, creative design, flexibility and emotional intelligence will be needed from those leading institutional change.

Hybrid working and leadership

Hybrid working is suddenly a major area of conversation in the media, on phone-in radio shows, in management journals and websites, and on HR forums. The ‘what next?’ question has rushed into sharp focus in countries like the UK and US where large scale COVID vaccination programmes have been successful in significantly reducing both infection and transmission rates combined with extended periods of social lockdown. At long last the prospect of opening up society and rebooting economic activity and employment is upon us!

For some employers the hybrid idea is a way of hedging their bets as they wait to see the way the wind is blowing in the economy and the employment market; for others, such as Twitter mentioned above, hybrid working is being embraced for all of its liberating potential linked to what is probably quite a close natural affinity with the organisation’s core business model. Most employers, however, are looking to remodel their employment practices by extending their flexible working provisions to capture the opportunities presented through hybrid working and to safely meet changing employee expectations. Research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, UK, September 2020) shows that “before the pandemic, 65% of employers either did not offer regular working from home at all or offered it to 10% or less of their workforce. After the crisis, that 65% is expected to fall dramatically to 37%.” Other research looking at employee experiences, such as the intriguingly titled ‘Disparity Begins at Home’ report from the Royal Society for Public Health (February 2021), suggests that whilst working from home brought with it many difficulties and challenges only about 6% of people want to go back to full time office working.

Focusing on Higher Education and hybrid working, for both individuals and institutions there are two key question areas, how are you right now (as constantly evolving cultures, institutions have feelings, too) and what are you looking to achieve? The following are a few of the likely responses:

How are you right now? What are you looking to achieve?
Exhausted but relieved A fresh start
A bit isolated Balance and flexibility
Less connected with colleagues Efficient at home, creative on campus
Concerned about my students Purposeful engagement (but safe)
Struggling to switch off Being valued and belonging
Proud of what we’ve achieved Clear goals but less rigid structures
Yearning for some normality A better quality of life

How are you right now? What are you looking to achieve?
Excited but uncertain A fresh start
Anxious about the future A lively campus environment
Unsure of the ‘competition’ A strong sense of place (but safe)
Concerned to get things right Operational effectiveness
In need of some stability Fairness and inclusion
Prepared to adapt Motivating work/study environments
Proud but not complacent Cost efficiency (linked to a vision)

This presents purely a snapshot to illustrate the complexity of emerging from the COVID pandemic into a hybrid working world from both perspectives. There will be many more feelings and desires, contextual and nuanced, than those listed here.

An exercise sometimes used in career counselling involves exploring what the individual would like to leave behind and take forward. This helps to achieve more detailed clarity around aspirations and next steps. Based on this a discussion format for reviewing pandemic impact for groups and leadership teams is ‘What’s better? / What’s worse?’ The discussion structure includes the following:

Pandemic impact
What’s better? What’s worse?
Questions: Is it really? Better or different? Questions: Is it really? Worse or different?
Contrasting stakeholder perspectives Contrasting stakeholder perspectives
Actions – understand, value and integrate Actions – lessons to learn, options to review
Inclusion and unintended consequences? Inclusion and unintended consequences?
Keep – take forward Stop – leave behind

Another key variable (or enabler) in the choices to be made around hybrid working is leadership. In this regard it is easy to talk about ‘new and different’ leadership, but the truth is likely to be closer to ‘better normal leadership’. This is not to diminish leadership, far from it, but it is important not to constantly change what leadership means or make it feel like the rarified preserve of an exceptional few. The good practices that matter in leadership, the nourishers, are fairly constant in most situations: creating meaning, allowing appropriate autonomy, enabling people to develop mastery, showing appreciation, ensuring safety, providing social support, and achieving progress (Amabile and Kramer, 2011). These nourishers can and should remain the key focus of leaders whether working with colleagues virtually, in person, or a combination of the two.

The key challenge as regards leadership development may well be to cultivate two modes of engagement and consider how they can operate in a complementary way. As one suggestion of how this might work, Robert Hooijberg and Michael Watkins (2021) contrast a virtual coordination leadership mode with what they term a face-to-face collaboration mode:

  • Virtual coordination mode – “This means establishing goals, monitoring progress, driving information sharing, and sustaining connections among colleagues working remotely.”
  • Face-to-face collaboration mode – “When… teams periodically come together to engage in true collaboration… fostering deep learning, innovation, acculturation, and dedication.”

Hybrid Higher

A webinar workshop from Advance HE (16 and 17 June), followed by a rapid publication for Advance HE members. Please note, member institutions will be contacted directly by Heads of Membership for representatives to participate

Hybrid Higher - hybrid working and leadership in higher education: This rapid, generative project will be an opportunity for senior colleagues with responsibility for planning future work and operational models to come together to discuss the 'hybrid' question. Through facilitated discussion with colleagues from across the sector we will develop a picture of the challenges and opportunities involved, share insights, and consider how to achieve a purposeful hybrid balance between virtual engagement and in-person collaboration.

The aims of the project are:

  • To enable high-quality conversations,
  • To share information, inspiration and intelligence,
  • To explore ideas and co-create possible solutions and approaches.

Webinar workshop –

The same half-day event (09.00 to 12.30 BST) will take place twice, first on 16 June and then repeated on 17 June.

The workshop will begin with a carousel of speakers, following which there will be three parallel sessions of facilitated group discussion. The three focus areas for discussion will be:

  1. Operational effectiveness,
  2. Leadership, team cohesion and motivation,
  3. Fairness and inclusion.

As part of the booking process participants will be invited to select the above in order of preference, and the groupings will be arranged accordingly, so far as is possible (to keep the groups balanced we cannot guarantee to give every participant their first choice). Feedback will be shared in plenary by the group facilitators as the final part of the workshop. 

Leadership intelligence report: Drawing upon the information, inspiration and intelligence generated by these workshops a Hybrid Higher leadership intelligence report will be produced for Advance HE members within three weeks of the workshops taking place.

Register your interest here to be notified when the Leadership intelligence report is published.


Amabile, K. and Kramer, S. (2011). The Power of Small Wins. Harvard Business Review, May 2011.

Anderson, V. (2020). A digital pedagogy pivot: re-thinking higher education practice from an HRD perspective. Human Resource Development International, 23:4, 452-467.
DOI: 10.1080/13678868.2020.1778999

CIPD (September 2020). Embedding new ways of working: implications for the post-pandemic workplace. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Available at (accessed May 2021).

Hooijberg, R. and Watkins, M. (2021). The Future of Team Leadership Is Multimodal. MIT Sloan Management Review, February 2021.

Royal Society for Public Health, February 2021 – Disparity Begins at Home: How home working is impacting the public’s health. London: RSPH.

Upwork’s Future of Workforce Pulse Report, as reported by CNBC, December 2020/February 2021 – available at (accessed May 2021).



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