At the beginning of a spring 2021 semester marked by the pandemic, the Rectorate of UNIL foresees perspectives for the future thanks to the results of a survey on professional experience during the first semi-lockdown, conducted among its employees last summer. Interview with Martial Pasquier, vice-rector in charge of the human resources and finance department.
Almost a year ago, the closure of the campus imposed by the authorities because of the health situation was disrupting the university community. Eleven months later, for the third time, the semester that is beginning is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to measure how the first semi-lockdown was experienced from a professional point of view, UNIL carried out a survey among its employees, conducted by the Swiss Foundation for Research in Social Sciences (FORS), between 21 July and 25 August 2020. What are the results and the lessons to be learnt for this new semester? Interview with Martial Pasquier, Vice-Rector in charge of the Human Resources and Finance Department.
Martial Pasquier, almost a year has passed since the first semi-lockdown. What is the situation today?
The Rectorate is aware of the particularly high investment of each and everyone in a difficult period and of the flexibility they have shown over the past year, particularly with a hybrid relationship to work (in person vs distance) which has had to be adapted to the evolution of the pandemic. They have enabled and continue to enable UNIL to pursue its missions. The Rectorate has also accelerated several projects that are part of the development of tools for teleworking. The digitisation of documents necessary for HR management, which is currently underway, is a good example.
Last summer, UNIL conducted a survey to find out how employees experienced the spring 2020 period from a professional point of view. What did this survey reveal?
Overall, the results are positive: in this context of crisis, a majority of the respondents were nevertheless satisfied with the way they were able to carry out their activities during this first wave and felt supported by UNIL. They also highlighted the responsibility, commitment and resilience of the staff members who, from March last year, continued to carry out their tasks despite the closure of the campus, followed by a recommendation to work remotely.
Since the first wave, and since the study was carried out, the situation has evolved at UNIL.
The context is of course different, with a continuation of health regulations and activities to be carried out at a distance, which strongly affect not only students but also all academic and administrative staff. If we hope to emerge from the crisis as quickly as possible, we must also be aware that we have collectively developed an extraordinary learning capacity that we will have to make the most of.
Are the conclusions of the survey still valid today? What is the point of communicating them?
The results of the survey are representative of the experience of the first semi-lockdown at UNIL and, in this sense, they are valuable because they allow the Rectorate, but also all employees, to glimpse perspectives for the future, to see our strengths and points for improvement. We are constantly learning and today we are certainly better equipped to face the future.
What was the aim of this study?
The Rectorate had a twofold purpose: on the one hand, it wanted to know whether the missions could be carried out to a satisfactory level during this period. On the other hand, it wanted to draw lessons from this constrained experience for the future. The survey was carried out among all UNIL staff members, who were invited to answer an online questionnaire. The questionnaire included general questions as well as targeted questions according to their status. The participation rate was very high, with an excellent representation of the different employee categories.
Let us take a closer look at the results of the survey. What are the most important for you?
First of all, we have been able to observe that, regardless of the Covid-19-related situation, the level of satisfaction of the employees with their work at UNIL is extremely high (8.9 on a scale of 0 to 10), with only slight differences according to body, age or gender. This very positive result confirms the findings of external surveys conducted by the newspapers Bilanz and Le Temps, among others, which have ranked UNIL among the best employers in Switzerland.
And what about the Covid-19 situation?
The study we carried out reveals two central findings directly linked to research and the transmission of knowledge, the main missions of the university. On the one hand: the vast majority of teachers consider that they have been able to perform their tasks satisfactorily and have been able to achieve their learning objectives during the first wave. On the other hand, there is a certain symmetry in the overall positive assessment of the supervision in terms of research on the part of doctoral students and thesis supervisors. These results show that at UNIL, despite the crisis, young researchers have continued to receive satisfactory supervision, and that quality teaching has also continued.
Has distance learning therefore proved its worth?
In any case, we have seen that it is possible to use it. But we have also seen its limitations. Moreover, while a majority of teachers seem to consider that the learning objectives were achieved last year, they are not in favour of continuing to teach at a distance, since the question "When Covid-19 is no longer a constraint, what proportion of your teaching would you like to provide at a distance? "half of them answered "zero".
Could UNIL still encourage the transmission of distance learning courses in the future, when the health measures are lifted?
The Rectorate does not wish to replace face-to-face courses with distance learning. But we need to think about the advantages of complementarity. The possibilities of enriching and improving the forms of teaching are a constant concern.
Generally speaking, a majority of the respondents consider that the technical and administrative support provided by UNIL enabled them to carry out their activities satisfactorily during the spring. Does this result correspond to your expectations?
Major efforts have been made by the Decanates, the Rectorate and the services to enable employees to feel supported during this crisis. The Rectorate is pleased to see that this work has paid off. However, this success was made possible above all by the mobilisation of all employees, regardless of their role. Of course, the tools made available have helped, but it is the responsibility and willingness of each and every one of them that has enabled UNIL to ensure the smooth running of its activities. This is true for all staff categories and the high perception of institutional kindness demonstrates this.
A large majority of the administrative and technical staff expressed the desire to keep the possibility of telework in the long term. Will the Rectorate respond to this wish?
According to the analysis of the answers given by the participants, about half of the professional activities at UNIL can, on average, currently be done remotely. The average desired rate of teleworking is 40.4%. There is a lesson to be learned here. This crisis is forcing us to rethink our relationship to work, how to carry it out. As Covid-19 has made it possible to experiment remote working possibilities on a large scale, we will adapt Directive 1.40 on telework this spring along these lines. For tasks that can be carried out remotely, this option will have to be promoted in a hybrid and voluntary logic.
One drawback, however, concerns research activities, which have been strongly impacted by the first semi-lockdown: 70.1% of respondents feel that they are behind schedule in their project...
Obviously, scientists who needed infrastructure or material resources (laboratories, library, fields, etc.) and who were unable to access them were delayed in their experiments, as were those who had to devote more time to teaching. For those on fixed-term contracts, who therefore have to complete their research within a limited time, we have introduced a contract extension scheme to compensate for the delay. Nearly 40% of the intermediate body members have made use of this scheme and all the applications submitted have now been processed.
Despite this solution, the intermediate body members are among the least satisfied with the support received. Do you think UNIL has done enough?
First of all, it is important to remember that the Rectorate is fully aware of the difficulty that some of these colleagues have found themselves in, as they are under great pressure to achieve results. The Rectorate believes that the contract extension scheme is a satisfactory solution, given the legal constraints and the resources available. The maximum cost of setting it up is 7 million francs (we will only know the final cost once all the people concerned have completed their research).
Overall, do you think that other points can be improved?
We can always improve, we must never fall into complacency! We must all now consider the lessons to be learned from this crisis in relation to our missions. It is not just the Rectorate's job to think about this, but the whole university community. For example, the Human Resources Department and the IT Centre have continued the project to digitise employee files, which will facilitate HR management. And if some of the teleworking is to become sustainable, we will have to develop new forms of management that consider the hybridisation of working methods and different professional social links. We still have a lot to learn! An organisation that builds knowledge must also learn to learn about itself.