Hybrid Working Podcast: Transcript

Hybrid Working Podcast: Transcript

podcast mic

Hybrid Working Podcast: Transcript

In this special one-off podcast episode from the Disability Staff Network, Dr Kirsty Liddiard, from the School of Education and iHuman, explores the legacies of Covid-19 and employment during what is still a continuing pandemic, and the possibilities that lie in the new working practices and cultures that the global crisis has left in its wake.

Music kindly provided by Auka.

Podcast transcript


Welcome to this special one-off podcast episode from the Disability Staff Network. I’m Kirsty Liddiard, a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education and iHuman. I’m also the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Director for the School of Education and a committee member of the Disability Staff Network.

This podcast focuses on disability and employment during what is still a continuing pandemic, and the possibilities that lie in the new working practices and cultures that the global crisis has left in its wake.

Without doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic served to exacerbate the existing inequalities and oppressions in the lives of disabled people and their families. Since March 2020, over 186,000 British people have lost their lives to Covid-19; two thirds of these have been disabled and chronically ill people, with people of colour and people with learning disabilities being further disproportionately affected (Brothers, 2020).

In light of this, millions of disabled and chronically ill people routinely shielded themselves and their families. Shielding quickly became a widespread practice defined by Public Health England as ‘staying at home at all times and avoiding face-to-face contact.’ Shielding precludes leaving the house, and socially distancing from others in your household, making it the most isolative experience in the current crisis. It’s important to notice that many people are still shielding, despite the government formally ending shielding on 31 March 2021. The arrival of the Omicron variant also meant a return to shielding for some, emphasising once again that Covid isn’t over and remains a continued risk in the lives of many people. We must also recognise that, even as we jump into the so-called living-with-Covid, we start from an acknowledgement that Covid has always had differential impacts based on age, disability, health, class and ethnicity, and so is very much a social justice issue.

Looking back, multiple lockdowns and the routine management of risk meant a change to the ways in which many of us in the University worked – working from home meant online meetings, teaching, and research. For some of us this was done while also home schooling; caring for relatives and others; and we routinely got used to working from our kitchens, bedrooms, and sofas. Disabled and chronically ill employees – and others – have long been asking for flexible, remote and home working, as reasonable adjustments to ableist or otherwise exclusionary working spaces and cultures that often dominate, even in the wake of new strategies and policies towards equality, diversity and inclusion.

But what happens from here? How will our work continue to be shaped by what remains an ongoing global pandemic? Does hybrid working work? And for whom? Who is excluded by hybrid working? Who is included? Can hybrid working herald new opportunities for disabled workers and others? And what can it mean for creating fair, equitable and accessible workplaces for all of us, recognising that many employees need, or would like, flexibility in their work?

So, in this podcast we speak to two people to find out their experiences and views on disability, Covid-19 and hybrid, flexible and home working.

Interview 1:

Here we have Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole, who is a Chair in Education and Director of Research in the School of Education here at the University of Sheffield. She identifies as a carer of an adult child who has attracted the label of learning disability.

Kirsty: Welcome Katherine, thank you for coming on. What do you think are the benefits of hybrid or virtual working?

Katherine: I think there have been massive benefits of hybrid and virtual working, and I think that we’ve already seen a rise in that in the pandemic. But I do want to flag the fact that some of us have already been doing that kind of work before when we were working on research projects because we already knew that that was a much more accessible and inclusive way of engaging people in research.

So the first thing that I want to say is that it was always possible – it wasn’t always regarded as desirable, and I think that was because of a perception that it was only for a minority of people. But when the pandemic hit, and everybody was required to work in those ways, I think more people started seeing the benefit of it. For me one of the good things has been that it’s not a minority kind of way of communicating with people anymore and that it’s for everybody, and I really hope that it doesn’t return to that pre-pandemic status of being something that’s for a minority when it could actually be something that’s good for everybody.

Kirsty: How do you feel about hybrid working as a carer for a disabled person?

Katherine: I think it’s important to know the distinction between hybrid and flexible working. Throughout my career I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to have flexible working, so that means that I’ve worked outside of standard 9 to 5 times, I’ve worked in different ways and I’ve been supported to do that. I think the other thing that I was really lucky in my career, and that might have been because I was working in disability studies, but my role as a carer wasn’t seen as a problem in terms of the work that I was doing, it was valued as an experience that was really useful when working in research.

I think actually the experience that carers have is useful in all sorts of roles. When I think about the carers with disabled children that I’ve worked with in research, if I think about the advocacy skills, the organisational skills that they’ve developed as carers, those were all skills that I know I certainly bring to my role as a Professor. The ability to advocate, the meeting skills that you develop as a parent of a disabled child, they really translate to when sitting in research and scholarship committees and have been a really good training for me. I think we should really value the contribution that carers can bring to the workplace, and that hasn’t been done. I’ve always had that opportunity which has been great.

As I’ve said before, we’ve always had an openness to working in hybrid roles and we’ve been working online, such as through Google Docs, before the pandemic. I’m hoping what the pandemic has done is opened up those different ways of working for a great number of people and that we can see the value of those. I do think we’re going to need to keep a really close eye on what’s happening with hybrid working, and the last thing we want to happen is to say, ‘well, for some people we’re just going to give you hybrid working and we’re not going to make it as accessible.’ It’s not the case of ‘well, that’s fine, we don’t need to carry on,’ I think we need to think about the impact of not having those chance encounters around the water cooler, not going to conference and meeting somebody who’s going to ask you to write a journal article or invite you on a bid. I don’t think it’s the whole answer, but I do think if we do start to notice the impact of hybrid working on minoritised groups at the University, then we need to find equitable responses to that issue.

Kirsty: I think one of my concerns would be that if we do go fully with a hybrid approach, then that neglects the need to make physical spaces and physical meetings accessible, so there needs to be a balanced approach.

Final question for you Katherine – how do you think hybrid, virtual or flexible working reshape work for the benefit of all? I know we’ve touched on these things already, so I suppose the notion is the positive impact on many different kinds of work.

Katherine: I think it’s just given people much more flexibility to draw out their day how they want to, whether they are able to jump into an online meeting or maybe go for a walk in the middle of the day in a way that perhaps we wouldn’t have thought about doing before, and I hope that it’s going to support everybody in terms of wellbeing and managing a work life balance. I think with so many people working at the University, whether it’s academic people or professional services, they’ve got other stuff going on in their lives, such as looking after children or older relatives, or just having a life outside the University without necessarily being a carer. Anything that we can do to promote wellbeing and to value people’s whole lives and not just their work at the University is a good thing, and hybrid and flexible working should support doing that.

I think in general we need to keep equality, diversity and inclusion on the agenda. In every decision that we are making in the School of Education or the University more widely, I think we should always piggyback that decision to any EDIMs (Equality and Diversity Impact Measures). That means that every committee, every decision that we make, we need to have an eye on that. To give an example, thinking about a conference that we are going to run to launch our new research clusters which are part of the research infrastructure, we had a conversation about how we’re going to do that. We asked a question, ‘have we already raised any decision that is going to make it more difficult for people to attend this conference?’ and we had. By just choosing it to be on a Friday, and not everybody works Fridays, so what are we going to do about that? I think we need to see how flexible working is part of a wider conversation about the decisions we make, the systems and structures we have, and how they produce inequity.

Kirsty: Thank you. I totally agree, and thank you very much for your contributions today.

Interview 2:

We’re now going to speak to Laura Sanmiquel Molinero, who is an iHuman International Visiting Researcher at the University of Sheffield. Laura is a doctoral candidate at the University of Barcelona (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). She is undertaking her visit to the University virtually. Laura identifies as a disabled woman.

Kirsty: Welcome to the podcast, thank you for joining us.

Laura: Thanks for having me.

Kirsty: You’re undertaking a virtual visiting researcher role with iHuman. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Laura: Last year, or actually since I was taking my masters degree, I got to know your work at iHuman institute and your work at the University, and I fell in love with that. I thought it would be awesome to get to know you just as I progressed in my academic career I guess. When I started my doctoral degree and I started working on adjustments to disability and how I find disabled perspectives ad hoc, I thought that it would be awesome to get to know your perspective on that topic and to get to know you to be able to care with you on what you have to say on this topic. Last year, I felt that I was ready to get in touch with you and ask you to do a research stay. But then the pandemic came and everything fell apart. I definitely felt it wasn’t the right time to do that. I had to wait until the circumstances were moving a bit better, and then some months ago now I think, I got in touch with you and I was ecstatic when you replied to me from the iHuman institute.

Then you told me you were ready to have only a virtual researcher. At that time, I got kind of an ambivalent reaction because I thought, ‘oh my gosh that’s great, they have replied and I’m going to have this opportunity,’ but then I’m not sure about my university’s reaction to that and how it’s going to be in general because when you imagine it, when you think about the research stay, you just think about being there, doing things with other people in another country. I thought how is it going to be when I’m going to be here – is it going to be considered an appropriate research stay? Then I was incredibly happy when my university said that because of the pandemic, they have started virtual validating research stays.

For me, it’s been great to have this opportunity because as a disabled person, when you have to get into an unknown space, due to ableism you take for granted your belongingness in that space – you always have to navigate a lot of barriers. The fact that this research stay has been virtual, that emotional and physical labour of having to figure out how I’m going to deal with everything that comes with inaccessible or potentially inaccessible spaces.

Kirsty: I think I share that as the host. As a fellow disabled academic, I feel like the connection we’ve had virtually has been almost more meaningful because I haven’t had to worry about the external barriers at the University and the things we might have had to navigate as a team otherwise. So yeah, I absolutely agree with that.

What is the ability to have this virtual visiting role or for you as a disabled academic, past that?

Laura: The official answer is that virtuality allows me to keep on doing field work at home and be more productive, but then the actual, and I think the more truthful version of that answer is that it has spared me of the anxiety of having to navigate all those barriers that we were talking about before. As you said, the fact that I don’t have to worry about those things, has allowed me to stay more focused on the contents and discuss them in a more relaxed way. It’s interesting for me to explain what a virtual research stay is and why it’s evolving right now – we are undertaking these weekly meetings in which we are discussing theoretical frameworks and empirical topics. I wanted to say this because maybe the people who will listen to us are not so sure about what this means.

For me, this arrangement is very accessible, which doesn't mean virtual research stays are accessible for everybody. I think we shouldn’t assume that since disabled people can have virtual arrangements, we don’t need to make physical arrangements accessible because they have these ‘second-class’ options for them. I don’t think this would be a good approach because this will normalise this kind of separation between ‘first class’ in person and the inauthentic ‘second class’ virtual opportunities.

Kirsty: I think you’re right. There’s a real risk there in these contexts that virtual departments can become the only option, and as you say that’s quite exclusive or inaccessible to lots of people. So how do we make virtuality an additional option alongside other forms of participation?

What do you think, if anything, is missing by the nature of your visit with us being virtual?

Laura: Notwithstanding what I’ve just said, for me personally being present is actually very important. In ableist cultures, people don’t expect that anywhere. We are not expected because oftentimes we are not even there because spaces, rhythms and arrangements are inaccessible for us, so we are not there. So, people end up not expecting us there – it’s like a circle. Being present is in itself an anti-ableist value.

Kirsty: It feels like a political statement, doesn’t it? It shouldn’t, but it does with our very presence.

Laura: Yeah. I think that by being physical, by putting our bodies in places, we are challenging the idea that we shouldn’t be there.

Kirsty: And particularly in educational spaces.

Laura: Yeah, definitely in higher education institutions it’s pervasive, the idea that we don’t belong there. Also, I think that when you’re physically or in person in a space, you just get to grasp some elements that may be much harder to pick up on in virtual environments. Those subtle dynamics that govern a workplace, the work climate. And also those more informal contacts that you make, such as when you’re offended at your working day, you just go and have some drinks with people there. I don’t think it’s impossible, but maybe we’re not so ready to have these more leisure, social interactions.

Kirsty: Last question for you – how important is accessibility to you as a disabled academic and researcher?

Laura: Well, of course, for us to be present in the academic space with all its assets, it has to be accessible, and if it’s not, we’re not going to be there, and it’s going to look like we don’t exist. I think that it’s very important that we don’t take accessibility for granted. It’s also difficult for disabled people ourselves because we tend to think or we may think that if it’s accessible for us, since we’re disabled, it’s going to be accessible to other people as well and it’s not true.

I think it’s important for everyone to rethink what this means and start playing more with these virtual and in-person options just to make it more accessible for everyone at different times. For example, for me, it may be accessible to be around through virtual arrangement, but then it may be that in the future, it may not be accessible for me anymore. I think universities tend to require a lot of flexibility from us but they’re not that flexible in return. We should start turning the tables and start demanding this so-called flexibility and adaptability for universities to make arrangements that may change over time.

Kirsty: And I think we’ve seen, haven’t we, through Covid that these things are now possible or were always possible but much more socially acceptable in point of context. We know we can have productivity and virtuality, if you want to put it in those words, how those two things go together quite well and how that then encourages a cultural attitude towards accessibility in universities.

Laura: Definitely.

Kirsty: Brilliant, thank you so much Laura, it was wonderful. It’s lovely to have you at iHuman.

Laura: It’s great to be with you.

Kirsty: Thank you.


So to sum up then – firstly, it’s critical to recognise that, for many staff and students, the Covid crisis is not over, but continuing. We remain working in a continuing pandemic, with new and existing variants putting people at risk every day. This not only includes clinically vulnerable (CV) and clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) staff and students, but their close others, families and dependents.

Secondly, we need to broaden attitudes and understandings as to what hybrid working means. What is hybrid working? Hybrid working certainly doesn’t mean never being on campus or not contributing to academic and teaching communities face-to-face. Rather, we need to come to understand hybrid working as a way of organising our workloads in the most sensible, environmentally-friendly and accessible ways that meet business and service needs. Hybridity is about presence, not absence!

Thirdly, the University of Sheffield can and has done it. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown University staff to be adaptable, supportive and collegial to one another in the face of crisis and rapid change – hybrid working environments are built upon these qualities. They emphasise the University as a generative and supportive intellectual space for staff and students to thrive. Moreover, Covid-19 has shown that relatively rigid university cultures and normative ways of working can move and change quickly as need requires.

Fourthly,  I think hybrid working can emphasise the University’s reputation for world-leading intellectual innovation, research and scholarship. Brilliant critical race, disability and gender scholarship do not happen in exclusionary working environments. We need to champion flexible, remote and hybrid ways of working to ensure we retain and recruit the best and most diverse interdisciplinary scholars and researchers at the University. This is emphasised in new movements in the funding landscape whereby UKRI, Wellcome, NIHR and other funding bodies are now requiring universities to evidence their inclusive research principles and cultures in order to qualify for funding and meet research excellence.

Lastly, hybrid working isn’t just a ‘disability issue’ but an intersectional one, driving diversity and inclusion. Hybrid and flexible working benefits all workers, but particularly women, or those with predominant responsibilities for childcare, disabled and chronically ill staff, neurodiverse staff, staff with caring responsibilities, staff who are parents, etc. Research by the Office for National Statistics relates hybridity and flexibility strongly to wellbeing – hybrid workers report improved work-life balance (ONS, 2022). Thus we already know that flexible and hybrid working is deeply valued across all worker groups (Taylor et al. 2021).

Thank you for listening to this Disability Staff Network podcast.  You can keep up to date with our work by typing ‘disability’ into the Staff hub search bar. Or feel free to email us at disabilitystaffnetwork@sheffield.ac.uk. We’d absolutely love to hear your suggestions, ideas and experiences. Thank you!

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