The Impact of COVID-19 on the working lives of business, management and economics academics

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed significant stress on economically active individuals, who have had to suddenly and rapidly adjust to working remotely. Similarly, universities have had to rapidly transition from the ‘work office’ to the ‘home office’, and whilst they are ‘open for business’ at an institutional level, evidence on their ability to effectively perform their core functions in an on-line environment is only just emerging.

Understanding the key factors that are impacting academics’ work provides us with some valuable insights both for lockdown and for when a ‘new normal’ has been achieved. Equally, understanding the factors that impede or promote the successful application of on-line delivery, as well as how to better facilitate academic research, will help the sector to be more resilient and productive.

A recent survey undertaken by the Henley Business School provides large-scale evidence of how the pandemic is being viewed by lecturers working in academia that included over 2,600 participants. Their work focuses on business schools – an area of academia that has traditionally engaged extensively with post-experience students and has been at the forefront of developing on-line delivery methods with a minority of teachers who were already teaching exclusively. Given the business sector that also captures a broad set of disciplines from the humanities (e.g. business history) to more scientific domains (e.g. IT). As such, business, management and economic faculty are the authors argue ‘canaries in the mine’ for academics in other contexts where such remote work practices are introduced.

The initial findings from the report relating to each of the three themes of the survey are:

With respect to research,

  • on-line conferences were considered a poor substitute for face-to-face events.
  • participants are concerned that the pandemic may be crowding out research income and grant funding to other important research projects by shifting research efforts away from other debates that researchers would like to contribute to, and reducing their willingness to throw their ‘hat into the ring’ and apply for non-Covid related grants.
  • research methodology is important. In particular, those employing quantitative methodologies are likely to be less affected than those using qualitative ones (such as ethnographic and archival research), which are clearly more problematic during lockdown, with potentially damaging effects on multidisciplinary research.
  • he amount of time that is being devoted to teaching, assessment and administration has risen, which may make protecting time for research problematic.

With respect to teaching,

  • Respondents largely agreed that teaching online makes it more difficult to understand whether the students engage in learning and understand what is being taught.
  • Marking on-line was considered more tiring for faculty suggesting that it may undermine their welfare.
  • Both teaching and marking on-line was considered more time consuming, again increasing workload pressures.

With respect to work engagement and related determinants,

  • time pressures are unevenly distributed, but have typically risen in teaching, assessment, and administration in relation to work, as well as due to increased demands at the home (office) particularly parental pressures.
  • academics exhibited the same dedication to their work, and suffered the same tendency to work long hours, that they did prior to the pandemic.
  • respondents have struggled to maintain the levels of mental resilience and energy they had prior to the crisis.

The findings of the survey also have important direct implications for policy and practices. The following tentative and non-exhaustive list of suggestions flow from the survey findings.

  • Probation and promotion committees should explicitly account for Covid-19 related circumstances.
  • Grant bodies should ensure and communicate clearly that support for funding for projects that relate to topics beyond Covid-19 is maintained.
  • Future research evaluations, such as the Research Excellence Framework, should also be conscious of the differential effects the pandemic has had on some individual’s circumstances.
  • Given the additional time pressures placed upon staff by remote work highlighted in the study, university managers need to be conscious of these in response to the pandemic by not making unreasonable demands of staff or setting unrealistic expectations to applicants in the upcoming academic year.
  • Students should also be made aware of the pressures that their instructors face.
  • Line managers and colleagues need to look for means to better enable their colleagues to be able to maintain engagement in their work.
  • Renewed energy and more precise evaluative should be developed and employed, examining whether the modes of teaching, such as blended learning, can enable better student outcomes.

A full report on the preliminary findings of the project can be found at Report on the Consultation on the Impact of Covid-19 on the working lives of business, management and economics’ academics in UK - 2020.

By Professor James Walker, Professor Chris Brewster and Dr Rita Fontinha, International Business & Strategy, Henley Business School. If you wish to find out more you are welcome to contact Professor Walker at j.t.walker@henley.ac.uk.

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