NTDC Technician Survey at Sheffield Hallam – 2020

By 12th May 2021 May 14th, 2021 Newsletter May 2021

by Dr. Karen Bailey-Smith, Technical Development, Modernisation and Innovation Manager at Sheffield Hallam University.

Sheffield Hallam University became a Partner Affiliate of the NTDC in November 2019. Completing the survey was one of the first objectives of my new role as Technical Development, Modernisation and Innovation Manager within the newly formed Technical Operations and Resources Service.

The key point outlined to all technical staff was that the aim of the Survey was to understand and develop our technical workforce rather than to inform restructure-based change. In fact, we had just gone through a restructure and the Survey had not even been put forward at that point. It was important to highlight that answering the survey would not put anyone’s role at risk.

Our original intent was to run the survey in Spring 2020, but this was put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic as all staff were asked to work from home.

Adapting to working from home was quite a lengthy process, as technical staff are really hands on and used to working directly with students and staff. I was conscious of this and decided to let things settle, ensuring that technical staff had all the necessary resources they needed to work from home.

It was at this point that I asked the NTDC for their thoughts on running the survey given the circumstances. The NTDC Survey Team informed me that there was one institution already conducting the survey during this period. After consulting with technical managers, we started to realise that it might actually be a good time to run the survey, as technical staff were not busy on site and were now mostly doing desk-based work. Although this seemed like  a good opportunity, I was still quite sceptical as I really thought engagement would be dependent on face-to-face drop-in sessions, meetings, and discussions.

The NTDC were really patient and listened to my concerns around the significant changes our technical staff had been through. They were happy to wait until I was satisfied that the timing was right. While ‘waiting’, we worked together to finalise the questions that made the survey bespoke for SHU and sent them out to a set of pilot volunteers to finalise the specialist skills list. Including questions in the Survey about the new ways of working due to Covid-19 highlighted to our technical staff that we considered this to be important and relevant. 

By the time we were ready to run the pilot, all of our technical staff were familiar with the various online meeting platforms and with using email for regular communications. This reassured me that ‘virtual’ engagement with the survey would be good.

The pilot was run at the end of June 2020. We then reviewed the feedback captured from the pilot and incorporated the necessary changes into our survey. Running a pilot is essential, and the pilot group needs to be made up of staff across all areas of the technical service. This is to ensure that the purpose of the survey and the language used is clear to technical staff regardless of discipline and experience.

The NTDC Survey team provided me with ideas for effective communication based on their experiences and feedback from other institutions. They provided me with written pieces to publish on our staff intranet pages and include in emails in order to keep our technicians informed and engaged.

Our Technician Commitment working group was tasked with ensuring the discussion about the survey was on the agenda at each of their team meetings. This also gave technical staff another forum in which to ask questions or raise any concerns. 

An FAQ document was produced and disseminated which incorporated questions suggested by the NTDC Survey Team based on their experience with previous institutions  and questions that had been raised during various consultations and drop in sessions.

To increase engagement, two open virtual sessions were held by myself and colleagues from the NTDC. The Head of Technical Services also attended one of the sessions. Technical staff were able to drop in over a period of an hour, to either ask their own questions or just to listen to questions and points raised by their colleagues. This collaborative approach not only increased engagement with the survey but also introduced the NTDC more widely to the technical staff. 

The survey launched on 21st July 2020. Running the survey over the summer meant that we had to be mindful of annual leave in conjunction with the school holidays. We also have several staff who work term-time only contracts. The NTDC outlined that this was not a problem and suggested opening the first session for slightly longer  and running a second  session at the start of semester 1 in September, when term-time only staff had returned, to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to complete the survey.

The NTDC provided regular updates on completion rates. When the first set of data landed in my inbox I was really nervous about looking at it, but it was really positive. Such a high level of completion after the first week meant I had the luxury of being able to focus on individual members of staff and provide them with appropriate support. There was always someone on hand at the NTDC if I had any questions.

Not all full-time staff members completed the survey during the first session, so running the second session was important in giving us an opportunity to re-engage with all of those who had not completed it. On returning to work, the term-time staff were really engaged and completed very quickly. 

Further one-to-one support was required for a few staff, and this took the form of either an online meeting where we shared screens to look at some of the questions, or a face-to-face meeting to iron out any barriers to completing the survey.

I was really surprised about the completion rate during both sessions of the Survey. By the end of the second session, we were able to achieve a 100% completion rate. Our collaborative relationship with the NTDC was a success and their input into our engagement strategy undoubtedly contributed to our high completion rate.

I think the key message is that the survey can lend itself to being delivered ‘remotely’ as the decrease in face-to-face engagement is balanced by the increase in desk-work away from labs, workshops and studios.