Last March, HEdSpace Consulting started to think about COVID19, the impact on the HE sector and what we could do to help. We talked a lot about it needing to be the right time to do the right thing. We also talked about the profound emotional and societal impacts of the pandemic. At that point we anticipated that there would be periods of reaction and reflection followed by reimagining and repositioning. And back in March, we thought that cycle would at least take until the autumn.
It is clear now, after new local lockdowns and the and the A-level results crisis that we are in for a long haul… Colleagues working in Higher Education institutions have never had to react this quickly to this many unprecedented circumstances. And the sector has shown that despite its reputation, it can be flexible, change quickly and work together across institutional divisions. What I suspect has been harder to do for many leadership teams whose main focus has been keeping operations running, is to make the headspace to reflect and to start reimagining.
The two activities are very different and in normal circumstances many leadership teams create time for both. Whether it is through an away day, extended themed quarterly meetings, time spent over a sit-down lunch, the commute into work, the walk between meetings space is made to focus on the medium and long-term. But at the moment there simply might not be the time, practicalities or frankly energy to think beyond next month. And yet we know that to lead well, we need to make time and space.
So, I have been thinking about the practical steps I would take to create the headspace for myself:
I would give myself permission to work less and fill up at least 1 day out of 5 in my diary with blank space. For many leadership teams this will be uncomfortable or even unthinkable. There is so much research now that shows the importance of unstructured time to creativity and resilience that it really should be a no brainer: it improves thinking, the quality of the decision-making, mental health and resilience. It will also reduce the stress on your teams: you are the cox setting the pace for your rowing team. The harder you work, the harder your teams will need to work to keep up.
I would limit the length of my own zoom meetings to durations ending in 5 (15, 25, 35 or 45 minutes) and encourage others to follow my practice. Easy! And finally… I would have time to stretch my legs, open the window, eat lunch and “take a comfort break”
I would make time to read a novel or poem, listen to a piece of music, watch a film, go for a walk, do some yoga, gardening, or my favourite: ironing. I have realised that I have few good ideas sat behind a computer screen. Most come to me when I am doing something completely different and again there is tons of research that explains this might be how our brains function best.
Now you may ask me: so Anna how much of the advice you are now offering as a consultant did you follow when you worked in senior management roles? And you are right to challenge me in that way. I was always aware of not having enough time to think, of rushing between meetings and of feeling exhausted, yet often being unproductive. When I worked at my best, I had diary free days, made time for lunch and a walk. What I found hardest was to maintain my own discipline and boundaries. Now some of that was because of my own tendency to take on too much, but some of it was also a structural problem: most leaders have back-to-back meetings, work 5 days/week and some live for their job. Within that context it is hard to maintain your own discipline. But what would happen if as senior leadership teams we changed our expectations? What if your vice-chancellor, COO or senior leadership team agreed on and stuck to a different way of working? Would it create better quality thinking, more considered decisions, more headspace to imagine and be creative? Is now a time to experiment, give it a go and try it out?
What examples have you seen where people have seriously adopted a new way of working? How do you create headspace for yourself to be more effective?
HEdSpace Consulting can help to create and hold spaces for conversations for you and your teams.