Podcast Ep 19: The Workload Challenge

June 5, 2020 Arun Bharij

How can the Human Resources department assists in solving the matter of excessive workload? As the new Ofsted Inspection Framework drew new attention to it, Christina Ponting (North Tyneside & Northumberland Council) is helping schools address the cause of the issue.

You can access the presentation at this link.

📎 Supporting Schools to Address the Expectations within the Ofsted Inspection Framework: Workload

  • Consideration of the workload challenges and how these can present conflict that can be avoided
  • Effective change management including how best to manage both employer and employee expectations
  • Employee engagement and shared ownership
  • External tools to help to measure and support employee wellbeing/welfare and safe working environments

💡 Christina Ponting, Senior Manager – Schools HR, North Tyneside & Northumberland Council

🏫 This session was recorded live on 14th November 2019 in the Recruitment & Workforce Theatre of the Schools & Academies Show at the NEC in Birmingham.

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Transcript

Christina Ponting
00:28

I am an HR colleague, and I work for two local authorities in the northeast of England, supporting over 160 schools with HR services. So what I'm going to talk you through is a little bit about what we do with our schools and how we are supporting them to work through and the new challenge within the Ofsted framework. So what I would say to you first and foremost is the workload challenge is not new. It's been around for a long time, and schools are actually very good at dealing with it. I think what some of our schools struggle with a little bit is actually pulling it all together, and clearly explaining and articulating the story. And it's not that they're not good at it. And we work with different schools. So we I don't have any city schools. I have a lot of town schools. I have a lot of rural schools, and I have quite a lot of spa schools.

 

Christina Ponting
01:22

So if any of you actually know the northeast of England, and I am at the seaside next to Newcastle, but I also cover Northumberland and we have a place called Lindisfarne Holy Island. So I have the challenge of title when I actually need to go and visit that school and give them some support. So we cover quite a lot of different schools and, and your schools are yours, they're not my organisation, I don't understand you, and you are all very, very different. So we spend a lot of time working with schools to understand who they are and what they actually do. But that's what I'm going to actually share with you a little bit today. And this is all said this is what it said it came through in the new Ofsted framework document. What I've highlighted to you here are the things that we see as an HR service are the more important ones. And the key points are the words engage and engaging. And as I've said to you already, schools already do an awful lot to support and school teachers and support staff in schools with dealing with pressures of work life balance, and the work environment and having busy jobs and busy lives. And we don't have any magic answers. I don't have a magic wand here today. I'm not going to give you a perfect solution. What we will do, as I've said is talk you through a little bit about what we do. I think for some of our schools, this has created a little bit of unnecessary anxiety, because they are actually very, very good at what they do. This is just heightened it a little bit.

Christina Ponting
02:51

So the way we work with our schools is what we've asked them to do is to look at what are the workload challenges, and are they absolutely crystal clear on what it looks like? For their school, you can see we ask nice simple questions about where are you now? Where have you been? Where are you going? What are your challenges, and we get our schools to think through both head teachers, leadership teams, and governing and management boards, because not everybody will come at it from exactly the same place. And often, that's what causes some of the confusion around different perceptions or different interpretations of situations. And it's a little bit like a SWOT analysis, if that makes sense. We get them to work independently. And then the aim is that we get them to come back together. We're also trying to work with our schools a little bit at the moment on what we call reverse mentoring. And it's quite a scary experience. And I've been through it as an individual. And and I've learned an awful lot from it. I can't say it's the most pleasurable thing that I've actually done, but it's okay. So actually what reverse mentoring is, is that you were mentored with someone who was on the receiving end of your initiative and you actually ask them what they thought, what they felt and often it's different to what your intentions were. And it is really, really good. It isn't pleasurable. And you know, but you do gain an awful lot out of it as an individual. And we're trying to get schools to understand because I know what I know. But I don't know what you know. So there is that different perceptions of different situations. It's a little bit of a reality check as well. And, yeah, so again, that might be something if you take away and you've not tried, it does work really well.

Christina Ponting
04:32

We sometimes from an HR service, we go in and work with students, sometimes in support schools, that is a little bit more rare, but we do do it and I love feedback from students. And because colleagues will often give us feedback, and that's adult and it and they might soften some of the messages wherever students don't do that. So you get absolute killer feedback, and which you will totally deserve and it's actually quite good to learn from that and move on. So this is how we're trying to work with our schools. And so again, when we actually ask a specific questions you can see there from what those questions are. They're pretty straightforward. There's nothing in there that's complicated. And there are different perceptions, we will challenge. So you know, if a head teacher or a governing board member describes a situation to us will really push them to say, How do you know what really, are you really, really sure that that's the way that other colleagues are perceiving it. So we work through an awful lot of that looking at a little bit of evidence and getting them to maybe think outside of where they've been, because as you know, yourselves, a lot of employee engagement, and a lot of managing challenges or conflict is a hearts and minds as opposed to a fact conversation. The facts often speak for themselves, but whether individuals want to believe those facts, or what their interpretation of those facts are or where you sometimes we'll run a little bit adrift

Christina Ponting
05:59

We will work with schools, we we actually often feel that some of our schools and also professionals as well we look at the symptom and not the cause. And actually, if we just deal with the symptom, then it will never go away. It may water down, and it may drift off in a different direction, but it won't disappear. One of the things that we've said is that sometimes what our head teachers will often do, because they are extremely busy people who have an awful lot to do during the school day, and they'll often dash off to deal with the thing that's causing the issue or causing the problem. And but often really, the thing isn't what isn't, that isn't what needs fixing. It's usually something else that's got nothing to do with that. And then when they step back at the end of the day and think why did that not go the way I wanted it to go? it's usually because what they've been tackling or challenging isn't what they've actually needed to tackle a challenge. So that's the kind of thing that we're trying to get them to, to work through. We also are starting to actually ask them to stop, to not react to not always think that they have to deal with that situation in the moment. And that's hard. We're all very, very busy people. And you know, if you think I can get this fixed today, I can get that off my to do list I can move on to do different things, then ultimately, it's just about what what are we doing? Why are we doing it? What does that look like? What does that feel like?

Christina Ponting
07:20

So when we actually get our heads to look at what it is they think their challenges are the governing board, we will sit together and try and come up with some commonality. And then when we look at that commonality, we would think, Well, why is that not working? Or why is that causing the difficulties that we have in the school environment on a day to day basis, particularly around perceptions or feelings around workload And, I think the big issue is we have to accept, and we actually encourage our schools that we can't avoid conflict. It is an whether you call it conflict, whether you know, you call it challenge differences of opinion, it will be there in an environment, it can be healthy, and it could be good debate, but it's actually some time when it drifts one side or the other, that it can cause its difficulties. We always say that whenever we put an initiative in a school or we put in an initiative into the organisation, it will have been right at that point in time. But that point in time could be today and tomorrow it may not be right. And actually, we are only human, we don't make mistakes on purpose. And we do do the best things that we can at the time that we've got. So we always talked to our heads about there's no such thing as a perfect plan, you will be able to plan something for 70% or 80%. But you will always have the unexpected that you have to work through. And we don't actually all know the answers to the problem. And we work in a learning environment in schools. And I think sometimes we we are harsh on ourselves in terms of what we expect were able to fix or resolve.

Christina Ponting
08:48

We also talk very much to schools a little bit around what's the difference between leadership and management. And if they are really, really clear on who the leaders are in their organisation versus who the managers are in their organisation and and I'll come back to why that's important. At a later point. We also talk to schools about their understanding a little bit of people and the psychology of people. That's my day job. That's what I do. That's what I specialise in. And we talk to them about, you will always get some individuals who engage with the process and run off with that process. We describe it a little bit like a rowing boat, and we'd have 10 individuals in the boat to a rowing like fury at the front, six in the middle are not quite sure, but they're happy to go with those two at the front. And the two at the back are putting water in the boat. And we've said to them, that's normal. It is normal, you know, that isn't unusual. It's not unique to your school. It's not unique to your setting. It is just people and people are different. And you won't have two people who are exactly the same, but you are maybe trying to move lots of individuals in the same way in one direction. And that's the bit that we kind of tried to talk them about you are allowed to make mistakes, and we have to make mistakes. We learn from it. mistakes. As humans, we often analyse our mistakes, but we never actually analyse our successes to quite the same degree. And it's about our learning environment, can we actually work together to do some of these things? So when we've done all of that we actually work with the schools a little bit about what is your culture in your organisation? We all have lots of different beliefs, perceptions, values, we all come to the table with a different set of perceptions, a different reality on one situation. So again, we would say to our heads, really what is your culture in your school? And I think we describe it is, you know, a safer working culture or a safer environment, but what does that really mean? And we get them to think about what that looks like. And, you know, we'll often say to them, you can describe and you know, if you look at culture in the Oxford English Dictionary, it would give you a couple of different definitions. And it might talk to you in quite a different way. We actually like them to focus on the biology side of it. So if you think as a culture, what is a culture from a biology point of view, it grows and evolves and it doesn't stand still. And we also get them to think about it from a society point of view. So if in a different country or a different organisation, they had a culture, how would they describe it, it will be fundamentally different to yours. So actually, if you struggle to determine what your culture is, and you struggle to understand it, then you will struggle to find a solution that will work in that organisation. So we do spend an awful lot of time just going below what it is they're actually trying to do. We often find as well that in our schools, they are closed environments. And I mean that with the most respect, a lot of the activity in schools happen behind closed doors. It happens in a classroom with a teacher with support staff, and they very rarely would get to be in a forum like this. Whereas some of our work environments are much more open. And you know, if I'm standing here and a colleague of mine was watching my presentation, and they thought, I think could improve on that, which no doubt the word, they would give me some feedback. And then I might watch them and I would learn from them. And that's how I am, gain some of the skill set that I've got. But in schools that isn't always possible to do that, and it is a lot more structured, it's not always possible to take someone out of the work environment and have a conversation with them. And that's sometimes then stops progress being made as rapidly or responding to the moment as we would like it to occur.

Christina Ponting
12:27

We also use as individuals, those learned behaviours, we all have preferences, we all have types, and we've sometimes under times of stress or pressure would default to those more than what we would like. And they're the kind of conversations that we have. We also are honest about historically, we may personally have made a poor decision, we may have inherited a poor decision. And when you are trying to unpick that, particularly if it's the way someone's interacted or behaved for a long time, then you will get a challenge to whatever it is you're trying do, even if what you're trying you're asking them to do is perfectly reasonable and acceptable. So it's just about a little bit of that people dynamic, the people in management of it that we try to work with, we respect that our head teachers, and our governors have often arrived at where they're at, not through the HR route, and not through the people management route. And yet, we're expecting them at times to be very experienced people, managers, and we find it difficult as professionals. So you know, it's part of their day job, whereas for me, it is my day job. So again, it's just about working with them a little bit, to help them to understand a little bit more. We then also talk to them about is this such a thing? Is there such a thing as effective change management? If there is I would love to find it? And I think it goes well, most of the time, but not all of the time and I think again, it's about working through where we're at what we do, how we work through a number of different things. That bit their about managing expectations. I think that's the real hardest thing to do. If you've got a staff of 100, or 150, staff, every single one of those individuals may have a slightly different expectation, and therefore, how do you manage that? How do you work through it?

Christina Ponting
14:12

I think as human beings, we're all emotional beings as well and that is often what's brought to the table. And that's what you're often trying to deal with. And a lot of that emotion can be part of who someone is, and that it's unlikely to change. And it's how you actually get some of the behaviours that you want in the work environment, and not necessarily some of the behaviours that an individual an individual wants to give you in the work environment. There's that little bit about when an individual gives you feedback is an attitude or is it an opinion? And actually, how can you decide and a lot of emotion will often make you react to that scenario or situation. And it is also there's some stuff there around your own sensitivities and your own understanding of a specific topic or what someone is presenting to the table. So when you're out there trying to work through what it is that's causing individuals to feel pressurised, what actually is it that's leading to that pressure?

Christina Ponting
15:10

We often will see it in a number of our heads as well plan for the reaction. So if you're going to go and present, what's the worst that could happen. And if you go to one extreme, and the other extreme, maybe you will overthink and you know, doomsday will, will arrive, and then you will be there. But sometimes if you actually think about the worst, and it happened, something similar happens, or that happens here a little bit prepped and prepared. And therefore you're not working on instinct all of the time and reacting in a way that actually in hindsight, you might not have wanted to react. So as you can see, a lot of this is around how we get our head teachers to understand what it is they're wanting to do, and where different people are coming from in their work environment. We also then talk to them about what's out there. There is absolutely masses of stuff out there on CIPD on ACAS on other schools, and it can be really overwhelming. And someone's good idea might work for them, but it might not work for you because you are all very, very different. We often I'm sure, as individuals, I do it as an HR person, I do Google, I go and think I wonder what somebody else is doing out there. Let's go and see what I can find. And what I forget to then stop and have a conversation with myself is actually I don't know if it's any good. And I don't actually know if it was successful, or it worked. So we tried to stay ahead, there could be information out there, which could be really, really helpful. It could be overwhelming at the same time as well and you could be trying to implement a Rolls Royce kind of facility when actually you've only got the funds for something a lot smaller than that all the time for a lot smaller than that.

Christina Ponting
16:47

One of the big things that we really, really strongly advocate. And obviously my role with our schools is advice and guidance. I don't tell my schools what to do. It's not my role, and I will strongly advocate and that they have survey and they have a staff survey of some description. And that they baseline that survey because if you don't draw a line, you lose success or you lose what you were aiming to achieve in the first instance. So we will talk to them a little bit around. What are you wanting to measure? Why are you wanting to measure it using all the information that's come through before. And we will also talk to them about sometimes as head teachers, and governors, leaders and schools, managers and schools, we can create our own scenarios or situations that don't work well. We sometimes will have a tendency to overlay what we're asking our staff to do. So we actually asked them to think about when they are going to talk to staff, how do they go and talk to staff? How do they ask for information? And a living example is often a new head might come in and say I need to prep a report. I need to do something and these are the things I need. When actually the better question might be, I need to prep a report and I wonder what we already have that would help me to prep that report. So when you actually drill down working with employees, and trade union colleagues and other leaders and managers, when individuals sometimes feel overwhelmed by workload, it actually is sometimes the volume of workload, it's a set of different things because they've been asked to cut data or present information in a different way. So again, it's about getting our schools to truly understand what it is that they're doing in their environments.

Christina Ponting
18:25

We ask our heads to think about how they ask the questions as well. And they actually we also talk to them about how they can tell staff to stop doing something. And so no, I don't want you to do that and I want you to do this. I don't need you to do that anymore. But if we actually don't know what it is we're doing in the first place, we struggle to tell our staff what it is to stop doing. And that's often where quite a lot of the conflict or quite a lot of the challenge will come from. And we also talk to schools about deadlines, what is the deadline? And is it a real deadline, and you absolutely have to have it or is it one that you'll set and then you might change or you'll pull forward, what does it mean? And how, when you're giving somebody a deadline do you truly understand what they're already doing and what someone else may have asked them to do? So as you can see an awful lot of this links itself back to just go to people management. And if there isn't a third a magic answer. It is just about asking, asking our leaders to maybe step back and wonder what it is that they're trying to achieve, as opposed to rushing off and doing something.

Christina Ponting
19:24

So what did we actually do? We then in quite a lot of schools, and I don't know if I said originally, I look after 160 schools, across the two local authorities. I don't have very many Multi Academy Trusts. I have very few. So we actually have quite a lot of individual schools that we work with. And our smallest school has four members of staff and our largest school will have 350 members of staff and I have everything in between. So we will tailor our responses depending on what our customers and our school clients want us to do what they want to achieve. But again, I've talked very much around we will do, we talked to staff first about what we wanted to do why we wanted to look at some of the things. We didn't just jump straight into a survey, because individuals can be suspicious of surveys, why are we measuring? What are we doing? What are we going to do with it? Is there going to be a consequence. So it's about trying to engage with staff very, very early on about what we're trying to do and why we're trying to do it. And ask them for their ideas and their thoughts and their suggestions. We always respect that a head teacher has a right to manage the governing board, the management board have a right to manage they absolutely do that. But if we can get a feel for how we might tackle some other challenges, first, it helps us to be a little bit pre prepared or preempted. So we might know where some of the queries are going to come from.

Christina Ponting
20:43

We then develop a staff survey. Staff survey is anonymous. It's done through Survey Monkey, it's not complicated. And the first one we actually did and we did not limit the text. And we had hundreds of words to read and my team and I do the survey results. So we do it and present it back to the school anonymized. And I can honestly say my staff weren't very happy at that point in time that I hadn't thought about it. So now what we actually do is we limit the free text, it just allows us to better analyse, we learnt that the hard way unfortunately. And but you can see that the bit at the top there, I've got we do a staff survey, which is around well being workload and culture. We don't always add leadership in because for me, sometimes they're two different things. However, some of our schools because they have to do a survey for Ofsted will often like to add it into. And it works. It works for them. And my personal view is it's sometimes better to have that outside because you're measuring two different things, but it's the school session, and they want to work for it in a specific way to do it.

Christina Ponting
21:48

When we get the survey, we look at it, we analyse it and we will create an action plan and but it's an action plan if things that come up on the survey, not solutions to achieve the actions because it's not my actual plan. And our role is to facilitate and influence that the plan has to be owned by the school. And it has to be owned collectively across the school. It's not the head teachers plan. We will often say to our heads, you are very busy people, you were all over the school on a day to day basis, you can't be everywhere. And if other individuals are also being your advocates as part of this, and you've got a better chance of changing the culture in school, and allowing your employees to feel valued, and I very much advocate the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, which I'm sure a lot of you have come around that whole bit around where an individual feels valued and feels worthy. The other things are periphery, they've got to feel valued. So this is where we look at it, it's very much a values based approach.

Christina Ponting
22:43

We will involve goodness, we will involve trade unions, and but a HR team are part of that. But our aim and that is to step back from it. We will help to get it off the ground. governors will often stay in because we'll report it back up into the governing board or the management board, but they're not there necessarily to direct what needs to happen, because ultimately we're looking for upward momentum. If that makes sense, we want the staff to kind of take this forward. I think quite a lot of the good stuff that's come out of this is particularly around the wellbeing. And staff have grabbed the wellbeing bit for themselves, and haven't always looked at the headteacher, or the leadership team in the school to take a lead on wellbeing. And so that's been really interesting and the things that they've wanted to do from wellbeing, when we've had staff training days and inset days, we've actually had a wellbeing focus. And it's been really interesting and some of this as well. I'm sure you do yourselves when we are working with adults and schools, we will often bring in what we're doing with the young people, or the little people and talk about what we're doing there. Because if we're actually having some of these conversations and trying to support our next generation to come through, sometimes easier to get your head around the message when you're talking about somebody else and not having to talk about yourself. So again, we'll do some work like that very much depends on the individual school culture. We have done some of this work with schools councils, and we've converted this so schools can use it themselves. So when they when we are working, and actually both in primary schools, sorry, I should have said, I've got first schools, primary schools, middle schools, I've got a three tier, two tier system. And but we've used that even in primary schools, and we've used it even a simplistic version in some of our first schools as well, so that our little people are looking after themselves and their health and well being at the same time.

Christina Ponting
24:30

And so that's kind of what we do. Again, by doing a survey, we would say to our schools, and it really helps to look at what are the causes of concern, sometimes the causes of concern are imagined. They're not always real, and we need to break that down. So it's those myths and legends that have maybe still been floating around in the system are getting created on a daily basis. They are still there in the ether somewhere and I love some of them. I have a giggle over some of them. And I boggled at some of them as well, but we just sometimes have to break them down. And you periodically have to keep going back and go, no, that that isn't an issue or that isn't a fact, or that's not what we're asking you to do. We do by dealing with with some of this as well as HR teams. And I often have to say to my team, please don't give the school the solution. And my HR team find that really hard. And because when we often go in to help sort out the problem, then our heads will look to us to have some ideas on solutions.

Christina Ponting
25:32

But with this it's not my solution. And so we kind of sit on our hands a little bit sometimes with it, but it is the right way to do it. It's it's right now those silences, and so we will go through that with them. We also talked to schools when we are dealing with this a little bit around. Sometimes with conflicts. We just have to talk it out and then move on. We may never get a solution that makes everybody happy all of the time. That's not what we're looking to achieve. You might have had a hard conversation that draws a line in the sand and just says to individuals, I've heard everything you've said, but that's the direction that's where we're going. We're doing these things for whatever reason. And it's having those hard conversations sometimes that you have to have sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes it will create its own mini situation. But that is the reality of this. We are dealing with people. And we've got to kind of whiz through. I think what I wanted to do today is to just with you through some of the stuff that we've actually done, and to remind you that Ofsted is not new. It just feels a little bit more scary. Now because it's in the Ofsted report, too. A lot of what we do with this is to actually just help our schools to piece together what they're already doing. And often when we go in and do a survey, it's just to complement what's already there or it probably just helps to refresh and re energise what's already there.

Christina Ponting
26:52

And this is some of the stuff that that I think we will again, we will go through there isn't an easy fix. You know, some of our schools have a developing culture, some of them have an embedding culture, but today's culture in next week's culture will be fundamentally different. And I come from a philosophy of something called black box thinking, I don't know if any of you have ever read a book because there is a book called black box thinking. And it comes from industry, the airline industry, particularly where it says talk about your failures as well as your successes. And that's a really good environment because you'll get more individuals come forward because they won't be fearful. And you won't be working in a blame kind of culture or organisation. And there's a little bit there about mental health is a biggie. Mental health is the same as any other health need. We just have to manage it and not be fearful of it and have open and honest conversations. We're doing a huge amount of work in our schools with mental health and wellbeing and for young people and for not so young people and trying to take that right through it is it is the way forward and it is the right thing to do. And the final thing I would like to say is that little bit there at the end of it be kind to yourself. Our head teachers are human beings, and they have a life of their own. And somebody needs to look after their welfare. And and and sometimes they put a huge amount of pressure on themselves to try and make everything right for everybody else. And if there's one thing that we absolutely will do as an HR department HR team for the schools that we support is we look after our heads as well. So apologies that was a whistlestop tour, and I hope it was helpful and and kind of just reinforced to you a little bit that these are the things that we're doing and it's quite easy to pick some of these up and hopefully it would give you just some different thoughts and ideas about how we've tackled it but as I said, it's not utopia. It's not magic. We've just tried to pull some stuff together.

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