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Academic and non-academic staff do an exchange: ‘We don’t know enough about each other’s worlds’

At a work meal HR Policy Adviser Petra Boerlage and Associate Professor Robert Stein got talking about the ‘worlds’ of academic and support staff: are they really that different, they wondered. And wouldn’t it be good if staff knew more about each other? The two put their money where their mouths are and each spent a day on an exchange with the other.

Hi Petra and Robert. How did you come up with the idea?

Petra: ‘It was at a University Council meeting at the end of last year about the staff workload. I noticed how often the relationship between academic and support staff was mentioned. It felt as though there is a gap and that we don’t know enough about each other’s worlds. Robert and I happened to be sitting next to each other at a colleague’s leaving meal soon after and he had been mulling the topic over for some time too.’

Robert: ‘I sometimes wondered what my colleagues who deal with central policy know about what is going on at the faculties – and vice versa, what do we know about what is going on there? Petra and I decided to take action. We thought it would be useful to spend a day shadowing each other.’

Petra Boerlage is a Senior HR Policy Adviser in Leadership and Organisational Development. Robert Stein is an Associate Professor of Medieval History.

What was on the programme?

Robert: ‘We just earmarked some dates in our diaries. I spent a day with the HR Leadership team and took part in a workshop Petra gave on leadership development. I also went to a departmental meeting and an editorial meeting about editing a film.’

Petra: ‘As for me, I attended Robert’s Introduction to Medieval History lecture and tutorial along with a programme committee meeting. And I started the day by drinking coffee in the canteen, a fun and informal way to get to know the department.’

Did your exchange surprise you or offer new insights and if so, how?

Petra: ‘During Robert’s tutorial, I wondered for a moment whether they were putting on a show for me because it was such a fun and enthusiastic group. I had a more traditional image in mind beforehand but Robert did relatively little lecturing and really encouraged the students to question each other. Then you really do see the power of not acting the expert.

‘At the programme committee meeting, I had expected the students to state what needed to be improved and for the lecturers to say that wouldn’t be possible. But students and lecturers paired up and took a very open-minded look at the facts. So there was a real “we’re in this together” feeling, which was great to see.’

Robert: ‘What struck me was how enthusiastic and tremendously engaged Petra and her colleagues are. And I now understand much better how you guys sometimes have to have a finger in lots of pies. I mainly deal with my faculty but you guys have to make information suitable for the whole organisation. With the texts for that film for the university website, it really did come down to individual words. I’d never realised how precise that has to be.’

Will there be a sequel?

Petra: ‘My day mainly focused on teaching but Robert is obviously a researcher too. So an outing to the National Archives in The Hague is also planned.’

Robert: ‘That’s right! Let’s set a date for that straight after this interview.’

And finally: do you have any tips for the teams where you did your exchange?

Petra: ‘I really only have one tip and that’s that everyone should do this! If we can all do our bit to break down the walls between academic and non-academic staff, that will benefit the organisation as a whole. Yes, you may see each other at times during meetings but then the roles are very different. Now you can stand next to someone and look over their shoulder. The day gave me tremendous energy and that makes me happy.’

Robert: ‘I agree. If you ask us, it would be fantastic to pass on the baton to two other academic and support staff colleagues. It was great fun and useful to do. And it is a good way to see once again that we are all working towards the same goal: providing good research and teaching.’

Would you like to do an exchange?

Do you fancy doing an exchange with a colleague? Go for it! We’d love to hear your experiences afterwards. Email them to the editorial team. And if you would like to do an exchange outside your network, send us an email. Who knows, perhaps we’ll be able to find a match.

Text and pictures: Evelien Flink

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