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Turning on the ‘human side’ in the digital world

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Published on 22 May 2020

Professor Monika Foster, Head of School of Business and Management
Professor Monika Foster, Head of School of Business and Management

In order to be effective in my role as Head of School, I rely on communicating with a variety of colleagues and stakeholders. Pre-pandemic, I have established networks internally and externally to help me stay current and to lead the School. I supplemented meetings with people with technology and so email, Skype, Twitter, Linkedin, WhatsApp was the way I operated. Now that we are in 100% digital world, what I would normally do over a cup of coffee I do by a video call, and I have barely any time for my networking tools such as Linkedin or Twitter. So how does this change affect my role?

Video calls have their limitations though. If you know the person you are talking to, you can read up to 70% of their body language, if not, then this drops to low percentage and so not very effective. We also lose those spontaneous moments, and ‘corridor catch ups’ to express ourselves, not in a formal way, but with a laugh, a handshake or a hug. I really like the idea of ‘corridor meetings’, a brief (15-20 mins max) relaxed space for pre- or post-meeting catch up, just to express how we feel, with no agenda or specific tasks to discuss.

I’ve been thinking how to overcome the shortcomings of relying on online to continue to support my colleagues in the same way as before. I’ve thought of a space where we can focus on talking more personally – about one’s family, how they feel about work, what they do when not in work – and less on achievement of tasks. I have set up virtual Tea Breaks in the School every 3-4 weeks on Wednesday afternoon.

There are two simple ‘rules’:

-          any topic goes but we avoid talking about work,

-          bring your own cuppa/cold drink, and a biscuit!

I try to listen more carefully and draw out everyone’s stories to get an idea of their real life, beyond what we cover at a meeting on MS Teams. On a video call, it is good to see inside people’s homes or watch a dog walking past, as it brings us all closer. It’s the human side we miss in the digital world. Someone’s advice on online working has resonated with me well, they said: Be Human. Bringing the human side to our video calls and to teaching and learning is so important. For example, we can adapt the standard ‘guest lectures’ to be an ‘On the Couch’ session with industry experts, to ensure a more personalised and relaxed exchange.

So what about my Linkedin, Twitter and WhatsApp networking tools. I still use them and they are as important as ever to stay up to date with the latest good practice in online learning and teaching, and how universities adapt. As we have so much online presence in our lives, they‘ve somehow lost their prime ‘online value’ for me, but there are new sides to them I’ve discovered. I now tend to focus on just 1-2 subjects/developments, rather than every topic that is remotely useful. Networking doesn’t have to be just in the professional sense, it can be a way of connecting with the old friends or a group of like-minded colleagues developing new thinking online. It feels good to be connected to people that make us feel positive.