The pandemic has ushered in a new era of work, one that forces Higher Education (HE) institutions to reimagine their approach to workforce management. No one understands this better than Antoinette Quinn, Director of Human Resources at Trinity College Dublin, who has led the way in building a sense of inclusion and belonging in the era of hybrid work.
Antoinette met with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to talk about her unique career journey, the importance of prioritising employee wellness, and the challenge of fostering a culture of learning and growth.
I’m the Director of Human Resources at Trinity College, Dublin. We’re Ireland’s oldest university, with over 20,000 students and 4,000 staff. It’s a challenging place to work, but it’s incredibly rewarding. There’s always something different happening, and there’s a myriad of activities on any given day.
I started my career in the Irish Export Board, which has since become Enterprise Ireland. I moved into HR following a merger; I’d been the trade union negotiator for staff. From both a staff and management perspective, the merger was a success, and I was asked to come on board the HR team. I was responsible for 26 offices worldwide, from Australia to New York. It was a fantastic experience: although recruitment, leadership development, and staff engagement were all key, the most important thing was understanding people.
From there, I moved to DAA, which is responsible for all airports in Ireland. I led a recruitment team for Dublin’s second terminal: in less than three months, we hired 500 new people. After that, I worked with ARI, which operates in the airport retail sector. Then in 2017, an opportunity came up at Trinity. I was very impressed by the work going on here, and excited to get involved.
Like many organisations, we’ve seen an increase in hybrid work. Before the pandemic, everyone was in the office from nine to five, and you knew where to find them. Now, each section can decide when to work in the office and when to work from home — it provides great flexibility, but some people find it easier than others. Getting people back in the office was a challenge: we needed to make sure employees felt safe and comfortable. After the pandemic, staff are more aware of their personal wellness and that of their colleagues. During the lockdown, we tried hard to stay in touch with staff, but some people still felt isolated — so we’ve put a huge emphasis on mental health awareness to help those in need.
Well, we’re still in the early stages. We’ve been telling managers that they need to actively engage with employees — you can’t rely on running into people at the coffee machine anymore. In my department, we do a few things to build togetherness: for example, every month we run a “birthday half-hour” to bring people together. We’re trying to make the office more interactive and to build the fun back into the workplace. Being in the office shouldn’t feel like a chore.
That’s a really interesting question. Coming out of the pandemic, our university had a change of leadership. So for almost two years, we’ve been working closely with the new Provost on building culture. We’re not a for-profit institution, so we measure success in different ways — and the well-being of our staff is our absolute priority. If people feel like they belong, then they will give their best. So we have an initiative called Healthy Trinity, which engages staff and students on well-being topics. In terms of culture, we’re working on a new set of cultural behavioural values. One thing we learned during the pandemic is that society can’t function unless everyone plays their part. We need to treat everyone with the same respect, regardless of their job or title.
We need to meet them where they are, not where we want them to be. Different groups of staff all have their challenges and issues. At Trinity, we’re doing a lot of work on reward and recognition. We’ve established a series of citizens’ assembles: in only four sessions, we’ve engaged with over 400 people, both on campus and out in the community. It’s not enough to just talk about inclusive values: you need to actually include people. During the pandemic, we also set up a weekly wrap-up which gets sent out every Friday, keeping readers up to date with life on campus. It’s a great way to help the community stay in touch and listen to what people have to say.
In Ireland, the HE sector is very different from the rest of Europe. We just don’t have the same level of funding, so we need to be creative in how we support the wellness of our staff. However, we benefit greatly from a lot of in-house expertise, which we can use to help develop our own people. We might not have a lot of money, but we have a strong community, and people are willing to help out in other ways.
You need to respect the culture of the country you’re operating in. Don’t assume the culture is the same just because people speak the same language. It’s not just about location: you have to understand that culture differs across organisations, too.
Provide a safe space. People need to feel comfortable being who they are. If people feel safe and confident, they’ll make better decisions. If things don’t go to plan, don’t treat it as a failure: see it as a learning opportunity. Give people the wings they need to fly.