Staff Whereabouts

There’s been a predictably strong reaction from academic colleagues to an announcement by the University of Edinburgh that it is introducing a new staff monitoring policy that will require employees to tell management if they leave their “normal place of work” for half a day or longer.

Some have argued that this is measure is simply unenforceable and that the University concerned will have to employ extra people if all academics have to notify a management person every time they travel somewhere off campus. Perhaps the plan is to have all staff fitted with microchips like we do with pets so we can find out where they are if they go wandering off, or get temporarily adopted by friendly neighbours.

I did some time ago draft an April Fool email in which I claimed  my current employer was going to extend the attendance monitoring we perform with undergraduate students (which is partly to assess usage of teaching spaces and thus improve timetabling efficiency) to include academic staff, so we could assess usage of office space on a similar basis. I never sent the email because I thought too many would think it was real and get very angry. Although being at least slightly credible is an essential part of an April Fool, causing a riot is not.

Here at the University of Sussex academic staff are obliged to inform the University (via an official form) if they are travelling elsewhere in the course of their duties. In practice this form comes to the Head of School, which is me in in the case of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. This bit of bureaucracy is primarily for insurance purposes, but also means we have a record of where to contact people in case of emergency.

Most staff comply with this procedure  if they are travelling abroad, but they don’t always do so when they’re travelling in the UK for a day or so, e.g. for doing a PhD examination or something like that. Staff also often fail to let us know if they are working from home, which some (especially theorists and mathematicians) do a lot in order to get on with their research without interruption. Although this doesn’t often cause problems, I think it is reasonable that we should be able to get in touch with staff when they’re doing that (in case, e.g., one of their academic advisees has a problem) but it seems to me excessive that they should have to inform someone at an official level every time they work off campus for whatever reason. Leaving a contact phone number for use during working hours is quite adequate.

It seems to me that behind this move by the University of Edinburgh there’s the managerialist suspicion that everyone must be a shirker at heart. In fact one of the problems I have as a manager is not persuading staff to work longer hours, but to  stop working  excessively long hours.  I don’t think I’ve succeeded, largely because I haven’t found a way of doing my job at the same time as achieving  a sensible work-life balance.

Anyway, the point is that academic contracts do not usually specify where staff should work. There is a good reason for this, which is that the job is very diverse and replies flexible work arrangements. Academic contracts do not usually specify fixed hours of work per week, either, for the same reason. Some don’t even give a specific holiday entitlement. Staff in technical and professional service areas generally have contracts that specify both. I floated an idea at a staff that academics should file an official log of official leave. It wasn’t a popular suggestion because academic staff thought there was an implication that they were skiving by taking excessively long holidays. In fact my motivation was quite the opposite: to try to ensure that they take all the leave to which they are entitled.



21 Responses to “Staff Whereabouts”

  1. Defiantly a controversial issue with arguments for and against, extra bureaucracy is never wanted, but being able to find out where people are is also important. When I worked as a civil servant I was required to keep my calendar upto date with where I would be if I was out of the office incase someone wanted to look for me in person, which worked well and in my current place I should keep IM on all the time.

  2. […] “There’s been a predictably strong reaction from academic colleagues to an announcement by the University of Edinburgh that it is introducing a new staff monitoring policy that will require employees to tell management if they leave their ‘normal place of work’ for half a day or longer …” (more) […]

  3. This is rather silly and managerialist. It strikes me as another step in the power shift from universities as communities of scholars run by such to big education & research businesses where the academics are just another, difficult, set of employees to be managed, disciplined, hired and fired at managerial will.

    Not impressed.

    Everyone has mobiles so can be called if needed.

  4. Adrian Burd Says:

    Here in the US it is standard practice to have to inform the University administration when one is away from campus. Although many who work from home don’t, if we are traveling, then we have to. Unlike Peter’s situation, this “Travel Request” goes through multiple levels of administration — my last request went through 7 levels of approval including the department, contracts and grants, and the college Dean’s office. Under a previous regime, they went all the way
    to the Provost who personally vetted every single travel request. As Peter says, there are legitimate reasons for having to go through this rigamarole, but (as with when these requests went through the Provost), there are less legitimate reasons. It is still an additional layer of administration that takes time and effort — we even have to provide detailed justification for the travel.

  5. Two points:
    As a member of “professional services” at Sussex. I have no set hours and would estimate a 60-70hour week on average – 48weeks a year… I am required to specify my location when not in the office even if elsewhere on campus.
    A cynic might say (given the rational approach to Home office rules across the Scottish establishment) that this may be trying to recruit further support from the academic community below senior management and convey the idiocy of some of the reporting required for e.g. PG students from outside the EU.

  6. I wish I had a manager like Peter.
    In the Institutes of Technology here in Ireland, staff have a very heavy teaching load (typically 18 contact hours/week) and yet are expected to be research active. Management rarely ask exactly how and when that research gets done…the result is that a huge amount of overtime goes unacknowledged and uncounted

  7. At Durham have a database run by the department (not central admin) – where you can put down where you are/contact information/etc whenever you are absent from the department during the normal work week (with reasons: illness, etc). It provides “automatic” authorisation for absences of a few days.

    The secretarial staff all have access to it so they can provide information about the whereabouts of someone if you urgently need them.

    Its not particularly onerous and it means people who have justifiable reasons for not being contactable (ill/on vacation/etc) aren’t harassed with phone calls/emails by their colleagues.

    • …and I should have added we also a (central admin) insurance system for overseas travel, which is more onerous than in needs to be. Every authorisation needs a web-page login and three buttons pressed on two separate pages. This doesn’t spund a lot but if you’re responsible for ~100 people it soon adds up. But Iif you had a clever coder you could in principle write a mail script which parsed the whole thing automatically.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Staff also often fail to let us know if they are working from home, which some (especially theorists and mathematicians) do a lot in order to get on with their research without interruption.”

    The key need of such people is solitude, in order to think. But you don’t get your own office until you are fairly senior – certainly not at research student level. Most research students live, however, in a room to themselves. If universities are going to start down the path described above, senior administrators must be told in no uncertain terms that university facilities are inadequate.

    • my experience is when you get “fairly senior” – your chances of working uninterrupted in your (single occupancy) office decline precipitously. which is why i try to work from home once a week to get an uninterrupted day.

      [gone back to my usual style to bug phillip]

    • telescoper Says:

      My idea of a dream job would be like a Cambridge professor, split between department and college. Then I could tell the college I was at the department, tell the department I was at the college, and then just piss off down the pub.

      • You said a while back that it wasn’t clear what you would do after your stint as Head runs out. Now we know. 🙂

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        That works for dealing with admin. As for research, the trouble is that we love our subjects.

      • “we love our subjects”

        That’s what all the royals say. 🙂

      • Speaking of which, reminded by her birthday, allegedly Queen Elizabeth II was once talking to someone when the other person’s mobile phone rang. “Go on, answer it; it might be someone important” she is said to have said. Whether she was amused, I don’t know.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The story I’d heard is that one female minister’s mobile phone went off during a meeting of the Privy Council. This minister rummaged in her handbag, eventually found the phone and, of course, switched it off. The Queen looked at her with a twinkle of amusement and said “Oh dear, I do hope that wasn’t somebody important.”

      • Maybe the same story. On the other hand, the retort is so good she might have used it more than once.

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