Remote work has opened up new possibilities for collaboration and networking but also raises profound questions for the future of Higher Education (HE). Kerry Law, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Professional Services) at the University of Leicester, has been instrumental in leading her institution through this unprecedented change in the way we work and learn.
Kerry sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss her journey into HE, the benefits and challenges of hybrid work, and the importance of communication and creativity in leadership.
I’m the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Professional Services at the University of Leicester. We’re a research-intensive university based in the East Midlands. We’re an inclusive institution with a highly diverse student body — about 60% of our students are from minority ethnic backgrounds.
My background is in marketing. Over 25 years, I’ve held a number of leadership roles in HE within External Relations covering marketing, communications, student recruitment and external engagement. I’m lucky to have worked in different types of universities: I started my career at De Montfort University before I went to Pearson, a FTSE 100 company who were entering HE to establish a private university. It felt like an agile start-up, even though it had the resources of a large organisation behind it. Working in the private sector showed me a different side of education. After that, I worked at the University of Nottingham, which is part of the Russell Group, before I arrived at Leicester four years ago.
In my last few roles, I’ve been on the Executive Board which has given me broader remit and a wider perspective of University strategy and campus life. When I joined Leicester, I was given responsibility for some major projects: for example, I worked closely with two colleagues on the Covid lockdown and the return to campus. I also led the University’s approach to hybrid work, called “WorkSmart.” We wanted to take the benefits of remote working and incorporate them into our working culture to create an effective hybrid model. My experience with large institutional projects has prepared me well for this wider role, and I was excited to rise to the challenge.
Whilst our new hybrid working model has many benefits, it does raise some questions about how we continue to create a sense of team and belonging. Many of our colleagues now work in hybrid roles, and others are on campus full-time — it varies depending on the role. If you aren’t seeing your colleagues every day, it can be hard to build and maintain that sense of togetherness. It’s an issue that lots of universities are grappling with right now. For me, the critical part of inclusion is talking to and, most importantly, listening to colleagues from across the University. If we want to engage the community and work together to drive change, then we need to listen to a diversity of voices and understand different perspectives on life at Leicester. It’s an enjoyable process and I’m grateful to every team or person I meet who is open and honest in their feedback. But, like all organisations, we still have a long way to go.
During the pandemic, we started holding live Executive Board briefings which included a Q&A session. All staff are welcome to attend, either virtually or in person, and everyone is encouraged to ask questions. This was really valuable during the pandemic as it was a key way of connecting with people. Regarding ongoing engagement, we recently conducted a staff survey, which we’re following up with listening events. These provide an opportunity to get colleagues together in person and sit down to talk about specific issues and challenges. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to engage with their teams.
Getting the balance right of being on campus versus working from home (for those that can) is critical moving forwards. After all, universities are about people, and we all benefit from the vibrancy of our campus.
We’ve been thinking hard about how to manage workload and drive efficiencies. It’s important to recognise that every employee is different and has unique needs. So we need to work closely with managers and leaders: they know their teams and have a good understanding of what does and doesn’t work. If you aren’t careful, it’s easy to go into initiative overload. Staff already have so much going on, so we need to hone in on a few key measures which can make the biggest impact.
Here at Leicester, we have a clear strategic plan based on three themes: research-inspired education, world-changing research, and our citizens (which focus on people, partnership and impact). We’ve designed everything we do to feed back into that strategy through operational plans.
Operational excellence is one of our guiding principles: it supports the delivery of our strategy and focuses on people and culture, performance and process improvement.
Communication skills are absolutely critical. A lot of my work is about influence, negotiating, and understanding. You need to be able to articulate a strategy if you want to bring people with you. Marketing also demands a creative approach, and I’ve tried to apply that to everything I do here.
For me, it’s about being authentic and approachable. You need people to trust you, so openness and honesty are key. It’s important to consult others and hear different viewpoints, but ultimately you need to be a decisive leader to make those difficult decisions.
We’ve recently finished a staff survey for the whole institution, and we’ve developed an action plan around that. We have developed initiatives for all our professional services staff: for example, we had our first-ever Leicester Professionals Day in May, which offered training and workshops for our teams. Our employees have been asking for more career development opportunities, and we are working hard to deliver that.
We also have a number of big projects underway focusing on future growth, our digital ambitions and internationalisation. So lots still to do.
You need to make the time for it. People are busy, and their schedules are full, so it’s easy to let things fall by the wayside. We need to give colleagues the space to grow and the opportunities to work on their development.