Karen Heaton: Flexible futures

by | Jan 14, 2021 | PSLT, SLT | 18 comments

Director of HR, Karen Heaton, discusses how the ‘great homeworking experiment’ of 2020 is being used to shape the future of flexible ‘hybrid’ working at the University. 

When we all moved to working from home back in March 2020, I’m not sure that any of us really expected that we would still be working remotely in 2021. As I write this blog post we are once again in lockdown, and it is highly likely that there are many more months of full-time homeworking to come. 

The great homeworking experiment 

This period of time has often been referred to as a ‘great homeworking experiment’. But when organisations normally adopt remote working they usually do so in a strategic way, with much planning and organising. Like all organisations the pandemic forced us to adopt remote working at speed and in difficult circumstances. Our ‘What Works’ survey last year clearly told us that many of you have faced real difficulties when working from home, and this is especially true of those staff that were also trying to undertake childcare and homeschooling at the same time. Yet despite this, you also told us that you have found many benefits along the way too. From increased productivity to more time for family and exercise; homeworking, even during a crisis, is something we know that you want to retain. Our staff predominantly want a hybrid or blended approach – as well as more autonomy and choice about how they work.   

Our future strategy 

As well as those personal preferences remote working also brings us organisational opportunities in terms of attracting and retaining talented individuals, and this needs to be part of our future strategy. Our strategy will also be broader than just remote or home working; this is of course just one form of flexibility that can benefit staff and the University.   

As we’ve discussed in previous open meetings, we have been carefully considering our approach in the last few months. How can we embrace the potential of more flexible forms of working and meet the desires of our staff, whilst also ensuring that we operate effectively and efficiently, meeting the needs of our colleagues and students? Our organisation is large and complex and finding this balance will be a challenge – but one we are keen to meet. There is one other key balancing act; how do we ensure that we have a broad consistency of approach whilst also providing sufficient flexibility for departments and teams so that they can make new policies and approaches work for their specific context? These are issues that need careful consideration in the next few months.   

Revising our existing policy 

Some of our response will be about revising our existing policy, and that work is already underway.  It also requires us to think differently about how we collaborate, lead and manage, train and develop, and build effective team relationships.   

Whatever the final policy contains, there are some commitments that we can make right now in relation to our new approach: 

  • A new flexible working policy will launch in the first half of 2021.   
  • The policy will be supported by guiding principles for flexible working.
  • Training for managers will be available to help them with handling requests and leading hybrid teams. 
  • Consideration of flexible working requests, including requests for home or remote working will be based upon the nature of the work that the member of staff undertakes.   


We have already received a great deal of feedback from staff about their future working preferences. We have extensive data from our What Works survey, and several departments have also been taking feedback from their teams about future ways of working and have shared this with us. We are engaging with Athena Swan committees and will of course also consult with our trade union colleagues in due course. We are engaging with both PS and academic colleagues, including some who are already involved in writing about and researching flexible working.  

Later in January we will be holding a small and focused meeting with colleagues to discuss specific proposals and to gain any further suggestions for the new policy. 

We will continue to share our thinking with you all as we develop our approach in the months to come.   


  1. Steve Ward

    Obviously good ideas. This will create a lot of unused footprint and therefore creates opportunity to achieve significant savings. It is also worth considering other implications. If someone wants to work in eg Georgia for 6 months then it may be possible for the University to offer employment to a Georgian national (lower wages etc and therefore more potential savings)

    Remote working will allow some employees to achieve flexible employment but it also create opportunities for the employer to offer posts to overseas/remote workers worldwide wide.

    • Gemma Dale

      Hi Steve – remote working can certainly open up a range of opportunities about employee location. There can however be tax and national implications depending on the country in which the work is undertaken and duration that the individual is working outside the UK. This is a complex area so we have to think carefully about the implications of this.

  2. Charlotte Lee

    It’s an interesting read and great to see the archaic attitudes of having to be in the office 9-5 for work are breaking down.
    It would be interesting to see just how remote the remote working policies will cover. With countries such as Georgia offering a “Remotely from Georgia” working visa for 6 months where the individual continues to be employed by their UK organisation but can live in Georgia for that period, I feel it presents an opportunity for those feeling claustrophobic and struggling with mental health to expand their horizons whilst still having the security of their jobs at the University. Is this something UoM is looking to consider?

    • Caroline Fellowes

      Hi Charlotte, a working group for Staff Working Overseas has recently been set up and we have a meeting this week. I will raise your query as a discussion point.

      Kind Regards


      • Charlotte

        Thanks Caroline,
        I would be very interested to hear the response 🙂

  3. Charlene Linton

    These positive and long awaited changes are great to see. Many thanks for taking on the complex challenge to develop a new approach. I notice that the ‘small and focused meeting’ is full, and note that you specifically mention engaging with Athena Swann committees. Flexible and blended ways of working often has particular relevance to disabled staff, could I ask how you are engaging with this stakeholder group? Many thanks.

  4. Grace Turya

    Hi Kate,
    I’m really happy to hear about the Flexible Working Policy. There are many ways it can help staff wellbeing, with our different lifestyles and commitments. Hand in hand with this, the University would see benefits from staff wellbeing and continuity.
    For example, with Flexible Working,colleagues may need less leave to deal with something off-premises. Sometimes we are able, willing to and well enough to work but travel and the chance of interruption or being called back away from work makes taking leave more practical. E.G. a child sent home from school or unwell family member / the colleague who is too ill or injured to travel/ sit in office but would like to work from an adapted, comfortable environment at home. This can help with continuity at work, relive the team from extra workload and relieve the potential stress of catching up on things after an already demanding event. Of course there are situations when time away is needed and it is great to have options to handle both.

  5. Sofy Lam

    This is a lovely blog and I am (also alongside others) happy to see the positive outcome from this pandemic. This is a positive sign that the future is less scary and will become more stable. As i have become a newly parent, I know how scary it can be, trying to juggle childcare along with work, but with this flexi/hybrid work policy, I am sure many females will feel less anxious about coming back to work full time and not having enough time with their little ones, this will certain motivate those who still wants to progress with their career path but now without the hinder of guilt they adopt when they start their family. I see a lot of positivity with this approach as we move into a more virtual world of working, we are able to still stay in contact with each other no matter where we are in the world and have that better work/life balance we have always dwell on. It seems that impossible idea of career vs family balance can be made into reality.

  6. Fiona Devine

    This is an excellent piece Karen. The flexible futures approach will be really well received by academic and professional staff alike I am sure.

  7. Emma Kane

    I think this is great that there could be a positive change to flexible working due to the current situation we were forced into.

    If I could in the future work from home more this will actually save me 2 hrs plus each day in commuting time and I can also start work so much earlier which would be very beneficial to me.

  8. Antony Kay

    An interesting read and entirely the right thing to do.

    Hybrid-working will likely mean less travelling to work via public transport as season tickets don’t provide value for money. It may also cause people to question their use & ownership of private vehicles too. Will the University consider its bicycle & locker facilities to accommodate any potential increase in demand?

    • Gemma Dale

      Hi Anthony,

      Changes such as the ones we are currently considering will require us to look at a wide range of associated issues. Some of these will be practical ones like the ones you suggest such as how people will travel to work. Others are more fundamental in nature, such as how may we need to communicate differently, or how might our managers need to lead in new ways. It will inevitably take us some time to work through all of the implications, but they will form part of our plans and thought processes.


  9. Dr Kelly Pickard-Smith

    Anything that supports more equitable access and opportunities for all is a great way forward and flexi working has so many opportunities for all staff to be more productive (if properly resourced at home), balance work and home and engage in additional opportunities. Looking forward to seeing the new Policy and how it integrates with UoM EDI commitment.

  10. Tim McKenzie

    Thanks for this informative discussion piece. I agree that a hybrid approach is likely to offer the best of both on and off-campus working.
    I think your point about the need to balance operational needs with the along with those of students and staff is an important one, especially given the numbers of staff for whom the option of home-working isn’t available to them. I’m thinking particularly of lab-based staff and those in Estates and IT (Maintenance, Cleaning and Security staff especially) who by the very nature of their roles, flexibility in the time and place of work is all the harder to come by.

  11. Kate Mudriczki

    Totally agree, I am less stressed travelling and the 3 hours I do spend stuck in traffic I now spend working most days so it feels more productive, very happy the university are introducing this model – thank you UOM!

  12. Sarah Williams

    I am so pleased to see a positive outcome of the pandemic and really welcome this new way of working which I think has lots of benefits to staff particularly for work/life balance and wellbeing. I have personally really benefited from not commuting into Manchester – this has given me an extra 2-hours a day that I can spend with my family and means we now all eat tea together every night. Also, I often go for a walk at lunchtime with my sister which is great for my wellbeing. As a manager of a small team I know that this will be well received by my colleagues and look forward to a hybrid model of working where we can have the best of both worlds.

  13. Kate Mudriczki

    The longer we are working at home can the university consider re-introducing flexible working. At the moment if we require time off for medical appointments which takes longer than a few hours we only have our holiday entitlement to use which defeats the object. Some departments which have not been furloughed can easily accrue 1 day a month during busy periods to use this for appointments if possible

    • Caroline Fellowes

      Hi Kate, the Flexible Working Policy is still available for staff to apply for if you wish to take a look, however it wouldn’t typically be used for the purpose of medical or dental appointments. Ideally colleagues are expected to arrange medical and dental appointments outside of working hours wherever possible. Where this isn’t possible, then efforts should be made to try and arrange appointments at either end of the working day to minimise the amount of time away from work, however we recognise this isn’t always possible, especially in the current climate. Any requests for time off to attend an appointment should be discussed with your line manager as you may be given paid leave to attend, where this is considered reasonable.


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