What I’ve learnt from leading an organisation from home for a year

Posted on: 12 March 2021

A year ago today, Thursday 12th March 2020, I was supposed to have the day off. I remember the day quite clearly; the week had been quite packed and I was looking forward to a day off. I’d been working at both the London and Winchester offices, working with our local and national teams. I remember noting how quiet the train was on my commute to the London office.

As Network Director at the time, I’d been mulling over what we needed to do to keep our staff teams safe as they were out on the ground delivering activities at our partner universities. On Wednesday evening, Pippa, our CEO at the time, and I decided it was time to enact plans to keep our staff, students and community partners safe, and that meant getting all our staff working from home as soon as possible. On Thursday, I spent the day reviewing risk assessments and writing guidance for our staff team so they fully understood what we were doing and why. Over the next few months, the team pulled together and continued to deliver high quality programmes in new ways, supporting communities impacted by the pandemic and students who wanted to put their skills to use.

What I learnt about work

I’ve worked at Student Hubs for five years, and every year I learn more about the organisation, the people I work with, and the sector. The past year was no exception;

  • Being passionate about your job is really important: I’m not the first person to note that motivation and drive has been very challenging this year, that’s why it’s so important that you know what you’re getting from your role. You might be passionate about the cause, or it could be your team, or a certain project, but it’s so important for you to know what your passion is so you can keep focused and motivated to go to work. It’s also okay for that passion to change over time!
  • We had, and continue to have, good processes in place to support staff wellbeing: Student Hubs has always had an emphasis on putting people first (we even made it on to The Escape 100 this year recognising our commitment to our people). We had many policies and processes in place that helped transition staff to working from home full-time. Our teams have always had the choice to work where it fits best; individuals could choose day-to-day if they’re working in an office, at a university partner campus, in a coffee shop, a park, or at home. Our internal systems have always been set up to support flexible working and staff are inducted to know how to work productively in different settings when they first join us. Our personalised line management support, combined with wellness action plans and personal development frameworks meant we knew what support staff needed. Our established flexible working and minimum leave policy meant staff knew they were in control of how and when they were working. These processes have all stood up to the test of 2020.
  • Taking breaks is important, but the team can be hesitant to take them: Pacing yourself when you work from home is key to not burning out. I don’t have a commute anymore and it was really easy early in the lockdown to think ‘hey, I should use my commute to get ahead of my tasks’. Actually, that led me to overworking, and instead taking regular breaks during the day and having regular days off meant I was more productive on the days I was working. Unfortunately, that’s hard to convince other people of, and when people are passionate about their jobs they’re less likely to take leave. Checking in with your colleagues and reports regularly to make sure their energy levels are good and they’re taking leave when they can is really important to ensuring they have a good work/life balance and are bringing the energy they need to all of their responsibilities.

What I learnt about myself

As everyone has experienced, not only have our work worlds changed but so have our personal lives. Here are the top three things I learnt about myself:

  • Sometimes you just have to make a decision: I’ve been in a senior leadership role since 2019, but this was really put to the test during 2020. It can be very easy to be wrapped up in what if’s, personally and professionally, and that can hold you back from moving forward. Sometimes you just have to make the best decision you can with the information you have, and I’ve become far more comfortable being the person making that decision.
  • There is no difference between your work life and your personal life, it’s all the same life: This is something I believe very passionately in and this was really highlighted over the past year when most people had to adjust to working from home for the first time. I am one person, how I feel (positive or negative) at work will impact how I feel in my personal time, and vice versa. If I slept poorly, it will impact how on top of my workload I am that day. If I have an unproductive day where I feel unsatisfied, it will impact the energy I have for my hobbies in the evening. Looking at your time more holistically allows you to find better balance. When I started looking at my time and energy all together, I was able to bring more of myself to my work and to my personal activities (like calls with friends and hobbies) resulting in me feeling more satisfied each day.
  • Boundaries are important: Though there might not be a difference between your work and personal life (see above), you still need to draw boundaries between your time and mental space, especially when you’re working from home. When your sofa becomes both your office and your movie night spot, your mind can tend to wander and you’ll find yourself thinking about work tasks and to do lists when you’re watching Inception. Having clear boundaries, like you only work at the dinner table or you finish at 5pm everyday and put your laptop away, can go a long way to protecting your personal space and energy.

What I learnt about the world

2020 brought to light lots of inequalities within our society and communities, inequalities a lot of us were already aware of. The pandemic also exacerbated lots of systemic disparity, the impact of which we’re likely to be seeing for many years to come. Going forward, we need to be listening to each other and our communities to provide better support. It’s also more important than ever that we’re supporting young people and students to be engaged and empowered to take action and make change. Our approach must be intersectional; we can’t make progress unless we are all making progress together. The world can be a big, scary place, but there’s lots of good out there too and we should keep doing what we can to facilitate that.

What will I learn next?

One of my favourite things about working at Student Hubs is the fact we are a learning organisation. When you are open to being challenged and growing, you never know what your next learning opportunity will be. No-one knows what the next 12 months will bring, but what I do know is that I’m excited to learn and grow, both professionally and personally with the support of Student Hubs.

This blog is part of our #ChooseToChallenge series for International Women’s Day; you can find our Sales Director Fiona’s blog on the #ChooseToChallenge theme by clicking here.

If you would like to learn more about our Hub model and training opportunities for your organisation, get in touch with our Sales Director, Fiona Walsh at fiona.walsh@studenthubs.org.

You can also sign up to my webinar in June on this topic, titled ‘Developing Your Approach to Staff Culture’, at our Eventbrite page by clicking here.

Simran Dhanjal

Sim Dhanjal is Student Hubs' CEO. She leads on strategy, governance, finance, fundraising and external relations. Sim started her social action journey as a student volunteer with Southampton Hub.

Tags: News, Opinion, People and Culture, Third Sector

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