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topical, what I think, work

Why flexible working should be the norm

Man checking phone on the toilet. Image credit: Thinkstock

If you take away the suit and replace with jeans and a T shirt, this is totally my husband!

Way back when, when I was a cub reporter, it was the done thing to turn up to work before my editor arrived and leave just after they left (I say they, not because I had more than one editor at a time, but I have had both male and female editors and they covers both nicely). I digress… So, I’d rock up at 8.45am and head home around 5.15pm ish.

But times, they are a changing. I no longer subscribe to the set hours routine – not only because childcare arrangements mean it’s not possible, but also because it’s an outdated concept.

As a rule, those who are at their desks 9am to 5pm, five days a week, are no more productive than those who work flexible patterns, take time off when work is slow or work into the small hours when deadlines are looming. It just makes sense. Obviously, work rate varies according to each individual, their role, their ability and their ethics, but the pattern of working has moved on a lot from the traditional nine to fiver – to the benefit of us worker bees and the small businesses or larger organisations we work for.

Do you reply to work emails on the loo?

Today is Flexible Working Awareness Day, flagging up the pros of flexible working. Obviously. But the word flexible is also flexible in its meaning too – this can mean the hours and days we work, how we work – office, home, on the toilet even (my hubby replies to work emails on the loo frequently) – and how we float between work and home life at the touch of an app, scrolling our Facebook feed one minute and chatting with a colleague about deadlines via Messenger the next. And the image I’ve used below gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘flexible worker’ entirely. Ouch.

Research suggests nearly half the UK workforce, to the tune of 14 million people, want to work flexibly to fit around modern life. They key word is modern here, the way we work – made easier (to our benefit or detriment, you decide) by digital technologies.

Work-life boundary blur

The Digital Brain Switch project looks into these very things, the boundaries between work and home life, and how we juggle whose time we’re on. It’s difficult to know exactly how much work stuff I do at home and how much personal stuff I do at work (a phone call to sort a plumber for a leaky boiler, for example). For me, it’s a fair mix and I don’t sweat it it either way. I am, after all, the proud owner of good work ethics and get satisfaction from ‘good, big shit’ at work.

Young acrobatic businessman split while using laptop and phone. Image credit: Thinkstock


For me, being able to work a flexible pattern means I’m able to contribute more to my place of work – and get more enjoyment out of doing that while fitting that around childcare and other commitments. I work 31 hours per week, so not far off the full-time equivalent of 37.5 hours, but it’s spread over 3.5 days. That’s three days working 8am to 6pm and an 8am to 12pm shift on a Friday, leaving Mondays completely clear for children, washing and all the other things I don’t want to spend my evenings doing.

I’m lucky to be able to do this – in many organisations, such flexibility is still frowned upon, seen as messy, confusing to staff and unproductive.

Where I work, pretty much everyone is working some kind of flexible pattern, even the full-timers with long and short days, every other Monday off etc. It doesn’t confuse us (much) and we still get stuff – a lot of stuff, actually – done.

While there are specific organisations  aimed at recruiting parents (mostly mums) into part-time work, flexible or agile working is no longer for parents juggling childcare, it’s for anyone. For those who want to run a second business on the side like my friend Sarah who’s about to open up her own shop in Bridgnorth after upcycling furniture on her ‘agile Mondays’. Another friend uses a day a week for study. My husband, too, is a flexible worker – on a Friday, for example, his eight-hour working day begins when I arrive home at 12.15pm.

And it’s right for me, someone who wants to work full-time (or close to) but is restricted by family life and committed to wanting to be one of the two people largely responsible for raising my kids.

Are you a flexible worker or chained to the 9am to 5pm approach? What would work for you?




social media, Technology, topical, work

A report from CASE 2012 (a conference for higher education bods)

Whenever you intend to do something a little bit whizzy, technology inevitably fails. I had every intention of live blogging this year’s annual CASE conference but Cover it Live dealt me a body blow when it withdrew its freeness in favour of a business model. Great for them, not so great for me; I’d have to cough up money if I wanted to use it. Pah. To cut a long story short, no suitable solution could be found and here I am blogging the old fashioned way, after the event… so enjoy this less whizzy contribution…

Higher education bods from across the country and overseas descended on Birmingham for the biggest case conference of its kind so far, with more than 1,000 delegates from 34 countries. The aim? To share best practice, learnings, research, case studies and passion for the sector. Oh yes, and how universities are each tackling a new fees regime and a catalogue of changes to the future of higher education. It’s at this point I should point out that I work for The Open University, hence my attendance.

We arrived for middayish registration on Tuesday 28 August at Birmingham’s ICC and after a fork buffet – don’t make the mistake of asking for a knife as my colleague did – it all began with an opening by Mark Damazer, of St Peter’s College, Oxford, who described the creative mess that lies beneath every higher education institution.

And then the sessions began, each following a different strand – marketing, communications, alumni relations, fundraising, strategy or schools.

Here’s a short summary of some of the stuff going on in the sessions I attended… (and if you just want the quick Storify version, here it is!)

CASE conference 2012


What excites the public about universities?

Well, quite a lot actually, according to this panel of expert communicators and educationalists:  Jack Grimston, assistant news editor at The Sunday Times; Catherine Hearne, BBC Midlands; Colin Hughes, former associate editor at  The Guardian and now at Middlesex University;  Alice Roberts, author and professor, science presenter on BBC’s Coast and from the University of Birmingham; and chaired by Alistair Jarvis, University of Birmingham.

A news story is “something that makes our audience feel mad, sad or glad, “ said Catherine Hearne, emphasising the need for an emotional connection to a story. Her BBC Midlands patch covers 12 universities. So what makes people mad in HE? Answer: tuition fees. What makes people sad? Answer: the debt gained from university study. What makes people glad? Answer:  Great A Level results, new inventions and things that make people proud of their local area.

Colin Hughes said the most trafficked area of The Guardian site this time of year was league tables. What excites people is how good universities are; their reputations matter.

Alice Roberts – one of the presenters of the Open University/BBC co-production Coast – added: “Any civilised society in the world has had a university in it, going way back in time. Historically, they’re a very real strand in our society and they depend on the public being excited about them, people depend on universities. They’re not just repositories of knowledge they are generators of knowledge and that’s pretty exciting.”

Catherine Hearne then covered what should be obvious to most university press offices – make connections, keep in touch and give as much notice about as possible.

“It’s hard for communications staff to keep connected with people and tell their stories,  it’s a constant sweat,” added Colin. “It’s less evident that unis have great stories to tell about the public engagement of their student body, but it goes without saying that unis have good research stories. Students doing things in the public eye make great stories, which is massive positive about the student body; it’s not just about the academics.”

Someone in the audience then piped up and – using the word inherently much more than necessary – said universities were often behind the majority of news but never got the credit for their news stories. Sound familiar?

“There are lots of things going in at universities,” added Colin, “that people what to hear about, they are newsworthy. But people want to read miserable new stories, that’s the reality, and it’s harder to place positive news stories. Broadly, yes, bad, news sells, but that doesn’t mean positive university stories are not newsworthy.”


Improving student communications

It’s a fairly new-ish thing but since around 2009 – Nottingham possibly being the first – universities have been appointing student-specific communications officers. Better student comms can be traced back to the launch of the National Student Survey in 2005, explained Kathryn Jones, director of comms and marketing at Birmingham City University.

She said while engaging with students is much easier since the birth of social media, budgets, human resources and a lack of systems were the biggest barrier to effective communication with the student community.

HEA research shows that one in 12 students leaves after the first year of study and one third think of withdrawing. Those are pretty big numbers and stresses the point that good communication shouldn’t cease as soon as students sign up. They’re the best ambassadors universities have and they need to be nurtured for the whole of their student journey, and beyond. They need a sense of belonging at core level, subject level, faculty level and university level.

Kathryn then handed over Tom Thompson, a student comms officer at BCU, who’d conducted an audit across his university and made some recommendations about how students are communicated to from accepting an offer to study, right through to graduation. (Would it be mean of me at this point to point out, as a BCU student myself, I get lots of campus-related emails when I’m a distance learner based two hours away?)

So, BCU has 25,000 students in six faculties on eight campuses. Tom met with students, focus groups, Student Union groups, staff across faculties to gain a better insight into student communication. He hijacked student council meetings, society meetings and quiz nights to talk to core students but confessed it was hard to engage with the less engaged, i.e. those who aren’t active members of the student community.

Each department had a different way of communicating with its students – for some it was the noticeboard, for others pigeon holes on campus, eNewsletters for others. And Tom’s goal was to draw upon those ‘local’ solutions and implement a plan that worked for everyone. No mean feat, huh?

To cut a long story short, Tom has lots of ideas and is currently implementing them, including work on a new online magazine in which students will play an active role, producing content, designing the pages, marketing the site. This not only helps with communication, but also adds to the professional development of the students involved; it ticks a lot of boxes. And students can visit the site when they like, in order to get the university headlines, rather than being bombarded with often irrelevant messaging. One of BCU’s priorities is employability and this initiative will give students ‘real world’ experience.

Personalised content on the site was also mention and this is something I know a lot of us – either students or HE comms bods – would cry out for.

As part of his work, Tom has built an active community on LinkedIn for student comms officers – check it out!


Live social media demo

There’s not a lot I need to say about this as the presentation is online so check it out for yourself.


Communication, confidence and making internal politics work for you

If you don’t think universities are highly political and complex organisations, you probably need to take the cotton wool out of your ears.

Birkbeck University’s Pro Vice-Master for Student Experience Tricia King says: “It’s not what you do in universities, it’s how you make it happen. The challenge is getting permission to operate where you are.”

Here are her top tips…

  1. Know the value of a crisis, never waste it. (and if there isn’t a crisis try to invent one, harness something, take it to your boss and present them with an answer.)
  2.  Identify and work with powerful people. Power doesn’t always sit where the structure says it should sit. Don’t fight them, you’ll always lose, try and help them so they can help you. Also find a champion or advocate on your senior team who can help and support you. A lot of nodding and agreeing doesn’t mean things will change. Get the person in power to present your ideas and solutions as people will listen and it will make more of an impact. Universities are about power.
  3.  You have to be of the culture and in the culture to influence the culture. Dress appropriately for your audience; if meeting a donor then dress like them. At Birkbeck the team dresses down because that’s how their community dresses so it’s shorts in summer and jeans in winter. And remember not to use jargon when talking to them, you need to make yourself of that culture.
  4.  Buyer behaviour. We’re used to using language to suit the audience and engage in the right way, but we rarely use those skills internally. Use professional skill sets and turn them on your own staff, what type of people are they? What will work for them?
  5. Sometimes, just do it. It’s often easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission. Risky but sometimes you can get away with doing it.
  6. The importance of story. Good stories are key, you tell stories all the time and they’re powerful. Our job is about storytelling. Tell stories to different people for different purposes and tell those stories back to yourself. We’re so focussed on bitter business we forget what an extraordinary institution we are, that we’re carriers and pursuers of stories. Tell them internally and externally, and remember the emotional hook is at the heart of what we do.
  7.  Is this superhuman effort worth it? A good university will never be anything other than a creative mess and our job is to work in that chaos and not getting frightened by it. We’re creating the future and leaders of society, that’s what wedo everyday and they need what we do more than they ever have done, whether realise it or not. Don’t give up the fight, it’s not just you, it’s the way it is.

There is positively LOADS more to say on this conference, but if you’re not asleep by now you will be soon. For the full story in bitesize pieces, check out #ceac2012 on Twitter.

Just stuff, Life in general, topical

Kate and Wills join the cocker spaniel club

Ralphie chewing a slipper on a sunbedI’m not usually one for blogging about the Royals, but it seems I have something in common with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

They’ve just adopted a black cocker spaniel puppy which means they’re signing up for a lifetime of happy bum wiggles, being beaten round the legs by an endlessly waggy tail, the mystery of the quiff that won’t stay down, lots of cuddles, squirrels chases, squeaky toys and a spot of bad breath. Excellent choice!

When I saw this picture of Kate and Wills with the new member of their family I thought, just for a minute, that Ralphie had upped sticks, packed his squeaky duck, a chewed up tennis ball and box of gravy bones and hauled his furry ass to Anglesea for a stroll on the beach with Kate and Wills.

To be fair, Ralphie has it pretty good at home (although he probably thinks he’s hard done by) but I’m not sure we could compete with royalty. Thankfully, the pupster in the pic is just a Ralphie lookalike and my cocker spaniel buddy is curled up on the single sofa in front of the bay window, on guard duty. His job, you see, is to bark at anyone who dares to walk past our house so Kate and Wills can sleep easy knowing they have someone to protect their turf. And poo on their floor.

Just stuff, Life in general, Media, Serious stuff, topical, what I think

It's all about dogs…

Dogs have been hitting the headlines this week… or should that be pawing? Either way, it’s only Tuesday and already this week I’ve listened to debates about dangerous dogs following the mauling of another wee child; semi-scientific reasoning behind why our four-legged friends might being psychic; bid farewell to my latest MA assignment which is very much doggy related; and digested the sad, sad news that my sister-in-law’s dog Dylan went to doggy heaven today.

The latter made me sad to the core; the death of a dog, no matter how expected, knocks you off your feet and it takes time to get over the loss of one of your family. So big love to Dylan up in doggy heaven.

Over to the dog-themed headlines: the first utterly ridiculous, the other no laughing matter.

So let’s deal with the silly first: psychic dogs. BBC Breakfast yesterday gave the seriously lightweight example of a dog escaping from his sitter and finding his way home on the exact day his owner flew back from a holiday. This doesn’t spell psychic to me, more coincidence. And if the dog had been psychic surely he would have ‘seen’ sense to stay put and wait for his owner to collect him and save a massive and dangerous trek home? Others agree with me.

I have no doubt that dogs have a sixth sense: how do they know when another dog passes by the house, even when the curtains are closed and they can’t see out the window? And that’s pretty clever. But they’re not psychic, surely?

Robyn and Ralphie walking by canalRalphie knows when he’s about to get a walkies, not because he reads my mind but because he’s cottoned on to our family routine. And he recognises the out of routine walks because I might put my shoes on or go to the cupboard where his dog lead is kept. Dogs are clever and they pick up on cues, this doesn’t mean they’re psychic.

The second dog-themed headline of the week is much more serious: another dog owner charged under the Dangerous Dogs Act and another child left with permanent scarring, no doubt physical and emotional.

One of the guests on BBC Breakfast, the mother of a child lost to a dog attack, suggested that all dogs be muzzled, in public and at home, when around children under 12. The second guest, from The Dogs Trust, flagged up all the good that dogs do; helping people, guiding the blind, saving lives and offering companionship to the elderly or lonely.

What they both agreed on is awareness and responsible dog ownership and training. I’d bet my bottom dollar that if we hadn’t taken Ralphie to training classes he’d be running rings around us right about now. Instead, he knows he’s at the bottom of the pack and that he has to behave.

Ralphie’s a cocker spaniel and his forever swinging tail is the most dangerous thing about him but he has snapped at other dogs, never a human.

We’ve met dog owners on walks who don’t have friendly dogs and recognise the fact their pet doesn’t like other people or dogs and might snap or bark. But they pre-warn us before we pass by,  so we can keep Ralphie out of harm’s way if he’s off the lead. Or they’re muzzled. And that’s fine; I don’t expect temperamental dogs not to be out and about, they need walking like any other, but it’s more about the owner and how they react. And having the control over their pets to deal with a situation should something go awry.

What did shock me was one cyclist’s extreme views in dealing with dogs as I caught part of Radio 2’s lunch time slot with Jeremy Vine yesterday. He had clearly been pestered by bicycle-chasing dogs for many years and taken extreme offence to it. He listed pointing at dogs and shouting them, hitting them with sticks, kicking them in the genitals and punching them in the head as recommended tactics to avoid being attacked.

What a dog trainer then pointed out was this man was doing everything possible to provoke an attack, his list clearly illustrating deep misunderstanding of our canine friends. And they are our friends, for the most part.

Journalism, Life in general, Serious stuff, topical, what I think, work

Graduates not getting the job they want straight away? Ah, diddums…

Pens in hair by Evil Erin via FlickrWhile the UK trend towards rising unemployment for young people has been building since 2000, I have to confess to being a tad unsympathetic.

“Lots of young people are downgrading their aspirations and taking second best. We’re seeing graduates who take on possibly not the job they hope to achieve,” says Paul Brown, director at the Princes Trust, in this article.

And when I left college I wanted to be editor of the New York Times, live in Manhattan and sip cocktails after an exciting day on the news desk. It was never going to happen.

So young people shouldn’t be defeated when they don’t get the job they aspire to straight away or if they have to settle for second best; we all have to start somewhere and that’s usually at the bottom. That’s certainly how it was for me.

What’s missing in this day an age – a time where school sports days are seen as stressful and unnecessarily competitive – is the sense of reality, the bigger picture. That if you want to become a fashion designer, a corporate director, a banker, then you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. And you have to start early.

Walking out of university with an English Literature degree and saying “hey job market, I’m reading for that career in publishing now” isn’t going to work. What experience do you have? What qualifications do you have? And best of all, have you got a combination of experience and qualifications that absolutely support the path you’re choosing to take?

I’ve read CVs from people who say they’re desperate for a career in media, yet their qualifications and experience say they’re more interested in marketing and sales. The two need to tie up.

And experience is a must. 14-year-olds should be working in some capacity, whether it’s sweeping up hair in a local salon, serving customers in the mini market or waitressing in a café; it adds to your perception of the world of work and teaches you valuable skills, whatever profession you choose to go in at a later date. And it teaches you the value of money, that sometimes you have to work quite hard for not very much.

Yes, it’s potentially stressful to think about a career when you’re just 14 but if getting onto the job market is becoming increasingly competitive – and figures seem to suggest that’s the case – then it’s so important to make sure you stand out.

This isn’t a an attempt to blow my own trumpet but read my CV and you’ll see that all I ever wanted to be was a journalist. From work experience on the Kidderminster Shuttle when I was 14, to the subjects I studied at A Level and to the trainee reporter job I started out in when I was 19, and everything I did in between to support that ambition. No one reading my CV could misinterpret that I wanted to be anything else – so not only is it about qualifications and experience but there needs to be an element of passion there too.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I knew I wanted to be a journalist from very early on – after dismissing the idea of being an FBI agent and then an Olympic runner, of course – and did everything possible to make that happen. And I didn’t see it as stressful at the time, or pressured, or even unrealistic – not even when the careers advisor almost fell off her chair laughing at the fact I thought I could become a journalist, rather than the dog groomer role a useless careers-type survey had predicted for me.

So, I made sure I did my work experience (arranged via school) at two local newspapers and, despite being painfully shy at 14 I asked the reporters there what to study at college, whether to go to university or not, and the best options for getting a job. And that’s what I did.

I also whittled off letters to lots of local newspaper editors and asked them the best way to get into journalism. And I got lots of feedback, from the people who knew, the people who’d already been in my position and were now doing the job. You can’t get any better advice than that! And I’ve been working as a journalist since I was 19 – so it worked.

It’s tough out there, no doubt about it, and I’m not suggesting every case is as cut and dried as I’m making it sound, but there are things you can do to give yourself the best possible chance and that means making connections, creating opportunities and gaining experience as early as possible. And social media is a great enabler.

PS I know this doesn’t apply to all graduates and that there are some super talented folk out there who can’t get a job and it utterly sucks. And I’m only referring to journalism here because that’s the career path I chose. It’s tough deciding what you want to spend the rest of your life doing and I am lucky, I knew from an early age and followed a path. For those who don’t know what they want to do, it’s even tougher.  So maybe the title of this blog is harsh; my lack of sympathy is only towards those who expect the world for very little effort. If only.

Picture by Evil Erin via Flickr under Creative Commons licence

PS Be grateful for opportunities presented to you, make the most of them and be prepared to start at the bottom. And NEVER get your mum to write your work experience letters for you!