Richard Brooks' HR blog

Updates from the Director of Human Resources

Silence

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Poetry isn't about the words, its about the spaces between the words. This was an observation by my wife. It reflects the power of silence - either creating spaces to think or to allow others to contribute.

Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have once written a story in six words. "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn". I enjoy a bloated airport paperback as much as many other people, but which creates the most powerful, enduring images? Which inspires creativity?

When I was involved in multi-national Governmental meetings in Europe each nation took its turn to speak. I was taught, very early on, that sometimes remaining silent was a good tactic. It encouraged others to fill the vacuum, and perhaps more progress would be made. Its a great approach in negotiations as well. Remaining silent can give the other party time to extend their ideas, and develop that sweet spot where both sides are able to agree.

Much of the training offered to me in my career has been about how to make an impact. When best to intervene in meetings. How to do an effective presentation. But I don't remember any training about creating spaces; silence; listening. As our world becomes more infested with infotainment, and we are encouraged to fill every waking hour with consuming information, perhaps we are losing something by crowding out the spaces and ignoring the power of silence.

Try it. Its ok to daydream.

 

Change

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Through gritted teeth, there is always someone who says that they love change. That is until a particular change comes along which causes them to worry. I suspect, a bit like Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984 where people are subjected to their own worst nightmare, fear or phobia, we all have a vulnerable point when it comes to change in our lives. This week we are moving offices. On the surface its only a shuffle round in the existing offices to create a bit more space following a restructuring. Surely no-one can be worried or anxious about that?

One of the subjects which has come up at the University Equality and Diversity Committee recently is how change – re-organisation, relocation, restructuring – can particularly affect people with a disability. Such discussions tend to start out ensuring that some of the more obvious, physical disabilities are catered for such as access to buildings, availability of specialist equipment etc. In today’s age most managers are already very sensitive to this. But sometimes the less visible disabilities are, well, less visible and perhaps forgotten in these situations. A friend has dyslexia which, for her, is very sensitive to different lighting conditions. A move of desk could easily create concern, and not everyone wants to speak up. I have worked with colleagues on the autistic spectrum, for whom certainty about their work surroundings is vital if they are to be able to work effectively and not suffer stress. I once led a business restructuring which had a huge effect on an employee with bipolar disorder as the anxiety about change seriously affected her mood and ability to do her job.

These are just some of my experiences. With over 10 million disabled people in the UK, and nearly 7 million of those of working age, it is likely that many of us will either experience disability ourselves, or work with people with a disability. Its something that that BBC are highlighting in the coming week. If you are facing organisational change, either as a manager or a member of staff, do consider what support everyone needs, but especially those who may be finding the change even more difficult. Its always a good idea for managers to meet with people before embarking on change, and for those with a disability help is available through the usual University channels.

Looking up

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So this blog could be a cry for optimism in the dystopian, post-truth, alternative factoid future being presented in most of the media. But its actually far more literal. As I walked across an icy car park this morning I glanced up to the clear sky to see that someone had scribbled across it. The most amazing contrail, which was linear at one end, following the line of the aircraft, but had broken into dashes, each of which was starting to bend and twist the further it was down the line. Scientifically I suspect that its something to do with vortices, vapour pressures, shear and stuff like that, but aesthetically it was very uplifting. Did the pilot know what impact he/she was having?

And there's more. While watching the contrail with a colleague, we then spotted a drone hovering over 9 West. It was probably doing something quite prosaic such as taking pictures to support the building work, but who knows? While we may have started taking the technology for granted, as observers we couldn't determine its intent - a useful tool for the construction industry or something more sinister and intelligent?

Given the fog down in the valleys which made today's journey to work rather less joyful, it was real pleasure to climb out of the gloom (both meteorological and on Radio 4) up the hill to the University, and be entertained by looking up.

Richard

 

Books

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I am reading a book I was given for Christmas called The New Philanthropists by Charles Handy. He has developed a whole series of short studies of modern, often smaller scale philanthropists in contrast to the picture we often envisage of Rothschild, Gates, Wellcome etc. What I found more interesting was that he asked each one to put together a still life of five objects, including a flower, which represents them, and their journey.

We have just spent the weekend in Hay-on-Wye, an annual treat exploring secondhand bookshops. On returning home, and scattering my purchases on the bed, I wondered what the set of titles I had chosen said about me:

  • The Complete Book of Plant Propagation
  • Six Easy Pieces : The Fundamentals of Physics explained by Richard Feynman
  • Home sausage making
  • The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Cancel the Apocalypse : the new path to prosperity
  • The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid

The last one was a 50p paperback in an honesty bookshop beside Hay Castle, and will probably end up in book sale fairly soon. But the others will find space on the shelves at home and become part of my life. As I visit people around the University, there are books and other personal items which adorn their workspace. Things they have elected to keep. Things which are important to them. What do these things say about us to those we work with and live with? Are we conscious of what they say about us?

I am really interested in authenticity, particularly with respect to leadership and management. Are the objects we keep around us a clue to the authentic individual, or perhaps just another artfully arranged layer masking the real person? I don't know, but I will be looking even harder at the bookshelves in future.

 

Thoughts

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The summer season has arrived and the nature of the University has changed for a couple of months – another new experience for me. While the media rejuvenates their ‘silly season’ stories, here’s a few thoughts, none of which really warrant a full blog…..

At 07.10 this morning, as I was heading off to catch a train for London, my wife started a conversation about trans-personal consciousness and wave-particle duality. She is a Minister of Religion, not a psychologist or physicist, but its interesting to see how academic fields are crossing boundaries even more than ever. I suggested that Schrodinger’s cat needed feeding and hurried out of the door.

I changed my car recently and am enjoying having a SatNav for the first time. I’m still excited enough to use it for my journey to work each day, and press the buttons which say “Favourites”, then “University of Bath”. It reminds me that this is somewhere I have chosen to come and work; that we spend so much of our lives ‘at work’ that its really important to find something we enjoy doing. You can make up your own minds about what sort of person enjoys being an HR Director.

How does our work environment affect our performance and enjoyment of what we do? The HR team still sit in breeze-block cells behind grey doors on an ill-lit corridor. Yet today I’m working online on a train using my phone as a WiFi hub (which is starting to get very warm in my pocket). Much of our work is still focussed around offices, desks and desktop PCs and I am keen to explore new ways of using space to improve the way we work. I would welcome the opportunity to visit any parts of the University you think work really well.

 

Referendum

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To: all staff at the University of Bath

It is inevitable that, in what may be a prolonged period of uncertainty following the referendum result, you will have many questions about your own personal circumstances and the future of our University and the UK Higher Education sector as a whole.

As the Vice-Chancellor’s message makes clear, this is a time to remind ourselves of our many strengths as an Institution and to remember that any change will not be immediate.

Clear answers to your questions about the implications will take some time to emerge.

My commitment is to communicate with you as soon as we have more to say. If you are hearing rumours, or are uncertain about decisions regarding the emerging picture, please do contact the HR team for a response. We will keep the staff homepage and University Update email updated with new information as it arises.

Questions are inevitable on the future employment and residence status of staff from the remaining 27 countries of the European Union, the future of research projects funded by EU grants and the implications for the future recruitment and retention of staff in parts of the organisation with a high proportion of colleagues who are EU citizens. There are also many as yet unresolved questions about the future direction of UK government policy in relation to employment policy among other issues.

The process to leave the EU is expected to take two years, and hasn’t yet started. Advice from Universities UK is that immigration status, employment terms and conditions, and grant funding from EU bodies is not expected to change during that two year period. Any changes may take some years to have effect. You may find this update on the current Government position from the Minister of State for Universities and Science of interest.

What we can do is support each other over the next few months as the answers become clearer. Tolerance and respect for each other is really important. And where at the University we have a choice, or can influence direction, we will be doing all that we can to reinforce our status as a truly international University which offers great opportunities to a truly international workforce.

 

Strike

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Yesterday I visited the National Composites Centre, an R&D centre owned by Bristol University. On the way over there, an American Professor was on the radio pushing her new book in which she claims that ‘grit’ is the key success factor in leadership. I have been told that there are over 75,000 books on leadership in the British Library, so I guess that this is just one theory, but she defined ‘grit’ as a combination of perseverance and passion. I visited the picket lines at the University this morning, and I saw some of that grit in colleagues trying to hand out leaflets to those arriving, some of whom were clearly more intent on getting to work. The issues the TUs are raising are important ones and whether you agree with the Trade Union or not, I did have respect for the committed way the small group was representing their cause. I do have to make a special mention of Tim Barrett from UCU who remained cheerful despite the way in which some drivers treated him.

My other observation around the current industrial action relates to the use of information. Perhaps it is what the military call an information operation, we might recognise as propaganda or spin,  or perhaps even the ‘selective use of facts’ (though an unselective use of facts might be a rather long document). The national message has been that this action is about ‘fair pay’ but the local message has been a bit more nuanced, so here are my thoughts on two of the subjects other than pay which have been used in recent communication.

  • UCU have said that “female academics are paid £6,103 per year less than male counterparts”. On the surface this is quite shocking and if taken at face value, would mean that women are paid at the bottom of the pay scales and men at the top. If we look slightly more deeply at the data at the University it shows that this isn’t the case. In three of the academic grades, men do earn slightly more than women, but the biggest differences are in Grade 6 and the Professoriate (and this doesn’t include senior management who are in a grade known as ALC6) where, on average, women earn more than men. It all depends how you perform the calculations, and a simple headline such as this doesn’t provide that information.
  • UCU have said that “the University of Bath is one of the heaviest users of zero hours contracts”. This is probably one of the most confusing sets of data to interpret, but UCU have recently produced an interesting report on the subject. The Union have used the data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency on what are known as ‘atypical’ contracts. The University of Bath fails to make it into the Top 50 of users of such contracts (Table 1, p13 if anyone is interested). It all depends on what dataset you use, and, once again, this headline doesn’t tell you that.

If this sort of analysis interests you, I find Tim Harford on Radio 4 an excellent guide through some of the ‘facts’ presented in the media. I like to think that, as an academic institution our natural approach would be to question the facts, look at the sources of data and in particular understand the motivation of who is presenting them. These are very important issues which are firmly on the agenda for discussions with the Trades Unions. There is much more for us to do and I am hopeful that we will continue to make progress in resolving them.

 

University culture

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1980s                     Courier

1990s                     Times New Roman or Arial

2000s                    More Arial with a regrettable excursion into Comic Sans

2010s                     Tahoma, Verdana, and just discovered Blackadder

 

Over the next few months we will be writing a replacement for the University's People Strategy which was born in 2013 and comes to the end of its life this year. I expect the new document to be a "Workforce Strategy" as it focusses on the people employed by the University, rather than students, who are also people (most of the time). The University is also setting out a new strategy for the next five years, building on our strengths and achievements of the last strategy. Important for me is that our Workforce Strategy fully responds to, and helps us deliver the University Strategy. But one of the most important outcomes of a Workforce Strategy is that it delivers the culture we want. So what's that?

The term 'organisational culture' seems to be used very loosely in management circles to try and describe and codify the things about an organisation which we sense, feel and experience, but which are actually quite hard to define. There are all sorts of models of culture which can give us an insight into organisations, but in my experience none of these really capture the essence. And its often the little things which give us clues to a culture -such as what fonts people choose to write in and how/if an organisation controls this.

Our organisational culture is precious. Its often what attracts, retains and motivates people and why we enjoy working here. While culture is always evolving naturally, we can also change culture by the changes we make in the University. Just imagine what our staff and students, both current and prospective, might say about the University if we only allowed people to write in Comic Sans font! Perhaps not the image we would want to create of a serious academic establishment? While this may be a trivial example, changing things such as our grades, promotion processes, reward practice, employment terms, all of which could be in our workforce strategy, will impact our culture. So how can we make sure that any such change is positive and supportive of the overall University strategy? Managing culture is not easy, and culture change programmes rarely achieve what they set out to, but we can at least be cognisant of the effect of any changes on the culture as we write this new strategy.

Over the next few weeks I am running a small number of focus groups to get a better understanding of University culture in the context of developing the workforce strategy. Not to produce a definitive answer, but to prompt discussion and understand individuals' perceptions across the range of grades and jobs. I am looking forward to these discussions, but it wouldn't be practical to run these workshops for everyone. If you haven't been asked to come along to one, and want to offer me some views, I can promise you a response (and perhaps that is a positive part of our culture?).

 

First lectures

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My thanks to Chris Archer-Brown for inviting me to one of his lectures on digital marketing this week. I learned about the 'Paid Owned Earned' model of content marketing and how social media has blurred the lines. Also got to enjoy a Carlsberg (other lagers are available) viral YouTube video which demonstrated some of the key points of this marketing approach, such as the use of humour and subtly encouraging people to drink beer in cinemas. Great mix of material - I don't remember my old Mechanical Engineering lectures being that interesting, unless someone now wants to prove different!

A different type of lecture, but immediately after I went to the AthenaSWAN lecture by Melanie Welham (ex of this University and BBSRC Chief Executive). What struck me was the interesting data she shared about the number of grant applications made, and those which were successful by men and women. Despite a strong female population in the Biology/Biotech field, it was surprising that, of all the Research Councils, women submitted fewer grant proposals and had a lower success rate. Clearly many cultural factors at play here, and there seemed to be no single reason but it will be interesting to see what Melanie's further investigations turn up and what lessons there are for us.

Sitting in my cell in HR, its easy to forget why the University exists. It has been great to get out and see people teaching, people learning and the application of academic ideas to real life problems. Any other invitations to get out and see the breadth of what we do and broaden my education will be very welcome. Any offers?

 

A different type of diversity

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Diversity, in the legal sense, tends to revolve around what are known as protected characteristics (gender, religion, sexuality etc.) and in my opinion society is now much healthier for this recognition. However, one of the nice things about being HR Director is that I get to take a macro look at the workforce at the University. So I thought that I would share some of my findings which, for no reason I can adequately explain, I found mildly interesting. Deeper social insights welcome.

  • Among our employees there are 587 different female forenames. That is an average of 2.6 employees per forename. The most common are Sarah, Emma, Elizabeth, Alison and Susan.
  • There is less diversity in male names - 533 at 3 employees per forename. The most common are Christopher, Andrew, David, Stephen and James.
  • There are 2214 different surnames - 1.4 employees per surname. The most common are Jones, Williams, Evans, Smith, Taylor, Lewis, Brown, Martin and Harris.
  • The most common birthday is 24 May, with 19 people sharing this  (which always remind me of this maths problem). 16 people each share 15 Sep, 10 Mar and 10 Apr.
  • Our employees claim 69 different nationalities. Among the 23% who aren't British, the most common are Polish, German, Spanish, Italian and Chinese.