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Time without buildings: leadership reflections

Recently I have led a number of leadership development sessions, which was a lot of work as well as a lot of fun. I enjoy working with established and emerging leaders who work in education and the Edtech industry and help them find new approaches to digital transformation.

In the sessions I focused on providing creative ways to get participants thinking and reflecting, using open tools to remix images (thank you, Bryan Mathers, for your Fabulous Remixer Machine), and demonstrating how this Framework for Ethical Learning Technology can provide a basis for strategic work with staff and students.

What does your experience of ‘digital’ look like day to day?

The term ‘digital’ can be a useful shorthand to describe whatever it is that people do with technology. Used in job titles it can mean anything from being in charge to procuring a new virtual learning environment or heading up IT to designing blended learning models to training staff in how to use Moodle and supporting students in using online resources to study.

Whilst using more precise language is important, comparing what our experience of ‘digital’ feels like day to day is a useful starting point as its likely quite different for each person in the (virtual) room.

That experience isn’t just limited to what happens at work, as personal use of digital devices and habits come into how we manage online working, too.

A few things that most of us who work in education have in common just now, is that ‘digital’ means online meetings. Lots of them. Depending on what you do, you might have 3-4 a day or 8-10. Chances are you are spending A LOT of time in video calls one way or another.

We all know that there are other ways to get things done and work together, but online meetings remain an insidious part of our daily working lives.

Meetings and events ‘hopping’

The result is that many of us ‘hop’ from one meeting to the next. Sometimes, we join just for the agenda item for which we are needed for an hour or even half an hour. If we are there for the whole time, then it’s likely that we need to spend time answering emails or writing reports whilst the meeting goes on. We have a lot to do, and there is no time to do it all in when you spend 6 hours or more a day in meetings.

I dislike this way of taking part in meetings and events as it gives me no opportunity to properly focus on whatever I am attending. Instead it’s expected that I give a high quality talk to a ‘cold’ audience and then move on deal with whatever else is on my agenda for the day.

There are clear upsides to being able to attend a particular event or meeting virtually that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. There are also potential environmental upsides and financial savings. But it does have downsides for both the participants and speakers.

Nowadays, it feels like a luxury to spend a WHOLE DAY at an event without simultaneously keeping on top of workloads, emails and other meetings. It has become harder to be unavailable. I used to spend days each month on the train, often without WIFI and sometimes I even travelled to different time zones, making me unavailable except of rare emails for a whole week.

Standing on a stage and representing my organisation was a valid way to excel at my job, leading my organisation, and we all accepted the travel time and absence that entailed .

My role as a CEO is four days a week, which gives me (in theory) one day a week to blog and think and write. Luxury time that I value more highly than the salary sacrifice I have to make to work less than full-time. And even still I find it hard to find any time for reflection.

Time without buildings

That sense of being time poor is something I hear again and again, from senior leaders and emerging ones. The past eighteen months have been a catalyst for many things, including pushing all of our schedules into online emergency mode: always in meetings, always available, always chasing the next milestone.

We no longer have the same amount of travel to events, commuting to campus or even walking between buildings. If you are in an office or on campus it is likely that you still take part in meetings with people who are working remotely, and the schedule continues to be BUSY.

We are struggling to make time to reflect, to think, to let things calm in our minds.

A few years ago the open education conference I help organise took place in Galway, Ireland. It’s a beautiful, green campus and the conference took place in two different buildings.

One of my jobs required me walking back and forth between buildings and I walked dozens of miles that week. On the way, I chatted with many delegates, I thought about the talk I had just heard and sometimes I just sat down for half an hour and had a break.

Now, I walk no more than 500 steps during the days when we run a large, international event. I don’t have any time on the train to prepare myself mentally or chat with my colleagues. I don’t spend six hours on the train to Edinburgh reading or blogging.

Instead, I am going to make time.

I used to have the time I spent travelling, waiting, queuing, walking and talking. I still do. I am going to reclaim it from my meeting schedule and the next time I give a one hour talk, I will block our some time before and after, so that I have time to think before I step on a virtual stage.