The challenge of sustaining motivation post-pandemic

Whether we refer to it as drive, motivation, dedication or enthusiasm, one of the biggest challenges in any work environment is sustaining this behaviour in employees. Dedicated employees generally mean better work productivity, allegiance to the organisation and a willingness to embrace creativity and try new things.

Maintaining and improving employee motivation should be a permanent process in any organisation. However, preserving – let alone enhancing – this behaviour in the education sector has become a much more challenging enterprise over the past 18 months.

Academics, students and managers have had to deal with the physical and emotional stresses and rapid changes brought on by COVID-19.

Academics and students alike have had to rapidly learn and adopt a new way of working or learning remotely, while simultaneously juggling home schooling of children and trying to maintain some semblance of work-study life balance.

Academics have also had the added challenge of keeping students motivated, and helping them to adjust to the forced new mode of learning and deal with feelings of isolation due to a lack of physical interaction with peers and teachers.

Despite the various challenges the pandemic has generated, it has also initiated some really creative responses within the higher education sector.

Measures taken have been varied, with several designed to help university staff feel safe, secure and supported in their ongoing work, while others have aimed to generate enthusiasm by trying out new ideas.

Some institutions trialled the introduction of micro-credentials and short courses. Others identified new programme offerings and fresh research directions in response to changing societal demands.

Visible leadership

Apart from ensuring that both technological resources and pedagogical support were promptly and broadly made available to facilitate academics in their teaching, those institutions that appeared to fare best were the ones where senior leadership had a highly visible presence.

In some instances, different members of the leadership team took turns at holding informal conversations with different employee groups. These aimed to unite staff and demonstrate an identification with the new environment. It showed a willingness by leadership to listen to staff about how they could best support them in their work at this extraordinary time.

Such practices were further enriched by management follow-ups that encouraged academics to share teaching practices and observations and become part of the decision-making process.

These actions meant managers could quickly amend university procedures and set different work expectations to better accommodate the ‘new’ working environment. They also used the discussions to defuse some of the anxiety expressed about university campus closures and associated concerns about potential loss of academic positions.

Work commitment was greatly enhanced through recognition that flexibility was a paramount consideration in order to account for the various demands working remotely brought with it.

Enduring lessons

Hopefully the responsive discussions between leadership and staff that occurred out of necessity over the past 18 months will continue as will increased broad participation in institutional decision-making.

And hopefully furtherance of cross team collaborations that allowed for genuine and supportive sharing of knowledge and produced diverse and novel ideas will also endure.

Post-COVID will not see a return to pre-COVID ways of functioning for higher education institutions.

Further adaptations moving forward might include novel revisions to academic job descriptions, recruitment and selection practices, career development procedures, recognition and acknowledgement of teaching and research achievements and performance management of staff.

Faculty upskilling may become a priority area of investment for all higher education institutions. In a post-pandemic era it is likely that online learning will become a fundamental element in higher education. The future will in all likelihood factor in more flexibility in how work hours are made up and provide enhanced choice of work locations.

The agility forced on higher education by the pandemic will and must persist. It has shown that, when compelled through a crisis to make rapid changes, it can be done. But for any significant change to be successful, employee engagement is critical.

Staff enthusiasm for and commitment to altered procedures won’t just happen automatically; it must be worked at. Providing strong and considerate leadership is an essential good start. So too is making sure all staff are presented with practical fit-for-purpose guidelines that clearly address changes in conditions to help curtail confusion and chaos.

Going forward, higher education institutions will need to pay improved attention to employee well-being to achieve the desired results. Now is the time to challenge what may be some long-held behaviours, activities and systems to explore alternative possibilities.

The overarching goal should be to create a teaching and learning environment that values ideas and ensures the approaches implemented are meaningful and tailored to fit as best possible all relevant stakeholders, to sustain the dedication of both students and academics.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customised Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.