Toolkit for leaders and managers

Agreeing patterns of flexible/blended/return to campus working


At Sussex, we recognise that we have all had to adapt to working in a very different world and that everyone’s experience of it is different. Some of us have developed routines that mean we are managing our current working pattern well. Others are finding our new circumstances to be challenging.

When we reopened campus and moved in to Stage 2 in September, welcoming new and returning students to Sussex, we valued the learning we had acquired and the creativity we had discovered during the period of accelerated adaption. Many staff have worked remotely since the first lockdown began in March 2020; some have worked on campus throughout the period; others have developed a blended pattern of work (remote and on campus); and some have been furloughed.

While we expect remote and blended working to continue, we planned and implemented the return to campus of staff in essential roles. These are roles that need to be performed on campus now and in the future so that we can continue to meet our obligations to students, staff and partners. Please see the return to campus guidance for a definition of an essential role.

This toolkit is aimed at managers and leaders, offering practical advice and tools to use in agreeing patterns of blended working, planning returns to campus working and supporting your staff to make any changes as seamless as possible.


Please see our return to campus guidance and our flexible working policy.

The underpinning principles are:

  • Return to campus is focused on those roles and activities that need to be performed on campus to meet our academic objectives or to support students’ resident on campus or essential operational requirements (such as security). Working from home, where possible, will remain the default for many of our staff.

  • The health, safety and wellbeing, both physical and mental, of our staff and students is our key priority and will remain at the centre of our planning and decision-making.

  • We support the resumption and continuation of academic activities on campus, giving overall priority to teaching, while also addressing non-academic aspects of the student experience.

  • At all times our policies and guidance will meet UK Government, Public Health England and health and safety requirements and guidelines. We recognise that our policies and guidance may need to change as advice from these bodies evolves.

  • We have implemented and will continue to implement a range of health and safety measures to ensure a safe working environment for everyone on campus. Our approach is underpinned by comprehensive risk assessments, and measures include; appropriate social distancing, changes to the working environment and physical use of space, provision of appropriate PPE and hygiene and hand washing facilities, additional cleaning, changes to working practices, adequate ventilation and guidance information for staff working on campus.

  • We will take account of the needs of staff who are vulnerable, or may live with someone who is vulnerable, and have increased risks associated with Covid-19, providing support and flexibilities where necessary.

  • We will look to accommodate staff with childcare or other caring responsibilities where necessary.

What does flexible/blended working look like?

One of your roles as a manager during the Covid-19 pandemic is to organise and lead any change in your team’s modes of working. These modes could take many forms, including:

  • Continuing to work remotely for a defined period
  • A change in working hours for a set period (e.g. compressed hours or a change in working days for part-time staff)
  • Everyone returning to campus indefinitely or for an agreed period
  • All or some team members returning on a start date in a regular team rotation
  • Scheduled, phased return of all or some team members
  • A variable arrangement of blended working (some remote, some campus working)

Any change or continuation to working patterns will need to be reviewed and may change as our understanding of Covid-19 grows. The guidance on safe working will be reviewed in November 2020 and in February 2021, and appropriate adaptations will be made.

Your role as manager

Managers should discuss and agree future working patterns with all members of staff in their areas. Having experienced at least one significant life change since the Covid-19 pandemic began, many staff will be unsettled at the prospect of a shift in working pattern/returning to campus because it represents another change. Your role as a manager is to listen, to understand and to offer as much clarity as you can about the future working context.

If you are a senior manager with other managers reporting to you, you should make sure that all your management colleagues have read the flexible working and the return to campus working policies and are following these guidelines.

Remember that you may be unsettled yourself at the thought a change in your working pattern and, if that is the case, it may be worth reaching out to your fellow managers and leaders to share your reflections and support one another. You will find more information later in this toolkit on support in times of change.

This toolkit takes you through the steps to follow to agree and implement patterns of working for the first half of the 2020/21 academic year and beyond. All agreed patterns of working should be reviewed in November 2020 and February 2021 so that you can ensure that you are keeping in touch with the emerging needs of your staff and with service requirements.

Your step-by-step guide  

1. Involve your staff in planning

As you approach any change in working pattern, it is vital that you talk to your staff individually and together, to hear their needs and to seek their input to planning and implementation. Few of us respond positively to being told what to do: we are much more likely to engage with a change if we are consulted and listened to.

Think about the meeting schedule you already use. Can any of these meetings be a vehicle for starting a whole team/smaller group discussion(s) about a need to agree future patterns of working? If not, what is the best time, day and channel to schedule such a meeting so that everyone can attend and take part, remembering the diverse needs of your team? How will you advise staff of its purpose so that they can prepare to share their ideas on what will work/what else might be needed?

If you would welcome some input on planning a whole-team planning meeting, try this LinkedIn Learning resource, which encourages you to think of yourself as a meeting facilitator rather than a meeting director, and offers practical advice on leading inclusively so that everyone is heard.

Prepare an equality analysis, so that you consider the impact of a change in working pattern for any staff who self-define within any of the nine protected characteristics. Guidance on how to do an equality analysis can be found on the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion website.

Individual conversations are also essential. These need to happen in person. An email exchange is insufficient for a discussion that may need to cover a range of needs and issues. Staff may have a number of concerns or questions that they will understandably hesitate to raise in a group setting. Mental health is an obvious example; a personal family circumstance is another. Many one-to-one conversations will be straightforward; some conversations will be more sensitive; and each conversation will be different. See the section below for more guidance on having sensitive conversations.

2. Review work plans and priorities together

Prepare for your team discussion by thinking about the priorities for the service and provision you offer. Which work needs to be and can be delivered safely on campus so that we can fulfil our commitments to our students, staff and partners? Is there work which does not need to be delivered on campus and which staff have been able to do safely and effectively while working remotely?

In your team and individual discussions, it will be important to check that your assumptions are accurate. Some staff may have managed their work remotely until now but may face a change of circumstances that needs to be taken into account. You might have ideas about priorities that your team will see differently because they are closer to the student or customer than you are.

Where staff can meet our commitments by working remotely, they should continue to do so until Government guidance states otherwise. We also need to recognise that we are a campus university and that we will return to providing most of our services on campus as soon as we can do so safely, effectively and within Government guidance. This doesn’t mean to say that we will lose our valuable learning on how we can reduce our space and carbon footprint by adopting a pattern of blended working on a permanent basis; it is more that we intend to have a managed, flexible and safe presence on campus of all our services and provision as soon as we can.

3. One-to-one conversations about future patterns of working

Until the end of August 2020, the University’s guidance was that return to campus working was voluntary. Between September and December, as we moved into Stage 2 of the reopening of campus, a number of staff have been asked to do some, the majority or all of their work on campus to allow us to meet our commitments to students, staff and partners.

Your role as manager is to be clear on the work that needs/doesn’t need to be delivered on campus, to listen to your staff members as they consider the implications of this, and to work with them to agree a future working pattern.

All conversations must happen in person using a channel that suits you and the individual. Email exchanges will not be sufficient for a meaningful exchange of information and for consideration of specific circumstances and needs. It’s important to accept that you won’t have all the answers, so don’t feel that you have to agree a future pattern of working in one conversation. Time for reflection and perhaps the opportunity to try something out are often helpful and you should contact your HRBP for guidance if you need it.

Before you have a one-to-one meeting, point all your staff, regardless of whether they are likely to work from home or not, towards the self-assessment tool which sets out the risk factors identified from research. Make sure that your staff understand that this doesn’t necessarily mean that each person will be asked to discuss a return to campus with you. The tool is not a medical diagnostic; it indicates likely risk based on statistical averages. The resulting score does not mean that a colleague will or will not suffer more severe symptoms if they contract Covid-19.

Staff may also find it useful to read the Safety Office’s return to campus guidance

4. Listening to individual needs

Once each member of your team has had the opportunity to consider their potential future working pattern, arrange to meet with each of them. Choose a time and channel that works for both of you. These meetings must be in person, although they are likely to be remote; an email exchange will not allow for a full discussion or the exploration of concerns and options. Ask each person to share with you any issues that they wish. These may include any of the factors listed in the previous section and others. There may be a combination of factors.

  • Bear in mind that staff may feel uncomfortable about disclosing a disability or a personal situation to you. You may find that staff appear concerned without sharing any specific personal circumstances that are contributing to that concern. Don’t worry about the fact that you are trying to assist with an unspoken concern; the thing you can do is hear the consequences of that concern – i.e. what it means in terms of a future working pattern. A useful question to ask might be, “What would a successful return to campus look like for you?”

  • As a manager, your role is not to assess the risks involved. Your first role is to listen and understand. Where concerns relate to safety on campus, hear the issues and, with the individual, consider what mitigations would be meaningful in addressing the concerns. Make sure that you have School/Division and campus safety guidance with you so that you can answer questions and point to sources of information.

  • If colleagues have a combination of factors that significantly increase risk, they will not be required to return to campus between September 2020 and your next review point in February 2021.Where colleagues in essential roles have concerns about risk factors that they are uncomfortable to share with you, contact your HR Business Partner to discuss and to check whether an OH assessment is needed.
  • Remember that conversations will also take place with colleagues who are not returning to campus now, but whose circumstances mean that adjustments may need to be made to allow them to work safely and effectively from home.

  • Many of us will have been away from campus for a number of months by the time we have these conversations; begin with an expectation of, at the very least, hesitation about a return.

5. Finding agreement

Staff may acknowledge the need to return, or be willing to return and still be anxious about what that means. Think about arranging for individuals or small, socially-distanced groups to return for a day or part of a day so that they can experience campus for themselves, or arranging a team catch up when some colleagues are in the office and some are at home, so that colleagues at home can ask questions and see the office environment before they return.

Staff may be unwilling to discuss a future working pattern in person. Where a colleague declines to meet you, alert your HR Business Partner, who will advise you on next steps.

Please remember to clear all agreed returns with your Head or Director before you implement them, and ensure that you follow the Health & Safety Office guidelines.

Regardless of whether you agree a future pattern of working, remember to build in a review point in November 2020 and February 2021.

6. Redistributing work

You may have to redistribute work among the members of a group so that you can maintain social distancing within a lab or office, or so that your team can work in a blended pattern of home and campus working. Redistributing work is usually best done in collaboration, but it’s also useful to do some preparation before you start the discussion. Here are some suggestions.

  • List the key activities that need to be undertaken
  • Which can be done remotely and which need to be done on campus?
  • Which activities need back-up (do you have any vulnerable areas that will require cover if they can’t be delivered by a designated individual?)
  • What dependencies are there between activities and people? How could you mitigate these if a system or a designated individual isn’t available to you?
  • Are there existing collaborations between colleagues that help you keep the service/provision up and running and that you don’t want to lose?

In a group discussion on work allocation, encourage colleagues to focus on the future and on how to fulfil our work commitments. Make sure everyone is heard and ask colleagues to help you by taking notes so that no ideas are lost. Ask your staff to share their learning from lockdown – there will be valuable learning that you can translate into a return to campus – and make sure that you set aside time to go on learning from experience as you move to changed patterns of working.

Colleagues may tell you in a group or an individual meeting that there are days and times for on-campus working or timetabled remote working that are difficult for them, perhaps because of caring responsibilities that can’t be covered. It’s worth asking them to review which times and days would work for them, so that you can ask them to undertake work at a more suitable time.

If you have involved everyone in the discussion on a shift in working patterns so that they feel they have a stake in the outcome, you are more likely to find that others will be willing to cover any gaps. It may take more than one discussion to arrive at a plan.

Once you have agreed the working pattern for the next period, give colleagues an opportunity to reflect and feed back so that helpful final adjustments aren’t missed. Remind the group that you will review arrangements in November 2020 and again in February 2021.

7. Campus working  – what do I need to do before my staff can work on campus?

The Health & Safety Office and Estates have plans and guidance to support staff to return to work safely on campus. All returns to campus must be agreed with the relevant Head of School or Divisional Director.

Staff returning to an office space should read the Health & Safety guidance for working in office and low hazard spaces. This includes guidance on determining the distance between colleagues in offices and use of other spaces.

Staff working in a laboratory should also read the relevant Health & Safety guidance. Please ensure that, as a manager, you have read this guidance too.

Make sure you have read the guidance on what you must do before returning to campus, which links you to an induction video that all staff should view before coming back on to campus.

How to watch the video in LearnUpon:

To view the video, log into LearnUpon (in a Chrome browser where possible) by clicking the green button on this page

Log-in details:
Username: your ITS (e.g. or
Password: your University of Sussex ITS password
In your Enrolled Courses, click on the course entitled “Covid-19: Safe Return to Campus for Staff”.

You will need to watch to the end so that completion is recorded.

The video will help staff prepare for the campus they will experience and will ensure they understand what to do to keep themselves safe. Make sure your staff have completed this before they return.

8. Managing safe working spaces on campus – what do I need to know?

Estates and the Health & Safety Office have worked with Heads, Directors and Technical Services managers to ensure that risk assessments have been completed for all areas of campus.

These will be reviewed and updated on a regular basis as our plans change in response to revised Government guidance and emerging research into Covid-19.

Heads and Directors will have access to these risk assessments and should ensure that their managers are briefed on managing risk and their staff are alerted to any local safety requirements on campus.

Managers should record attendance at any local safety briefing for staff.

Please visit our Health & Safety pages for the latest information. 

9. Managing safe and effective working spaces at home

For colleagues who will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future, managers should ensure that, as a minimum, staff:

  • have done a display screen assessment (DSE) and are working safely at home
  • know how to use the software tools that are available to them and where to find online guidance and training
  • are linked in to any social or work groups that have been set up in your School or Division to help staff stay in touch
  • stay in touch with their line manager so that any emerging needs (e.g. a need to self-isolate, a Covid diagnosis or a change in health/personal circumstances) can be offered any appropriate support

Useful links:

10. Tools for keeping in touch with staff

Some Schools and Divisions have been running short 'pulse' surveys since March 2020 to keep in touch with staff. Pulse surveys can be a great way of keeping in touch with the mood of the team. They won’t replace personal contact, such as group meetings and one-to-ones, but they add a layer of understanding about staff engagement that should help you as a manager.

Pulse surveys are short – typically no more than 10 questions. Take a look at our guidance on running a pulse survey, which includes guidance on acting on the outcomes. Thanks to Schools and Divisions including Psychology and Finance for sharing their tips on this.

Don’t forget that Microsoft Forms is available as a survey tool in the Office 365 suite. Training on how to use Forms is available on LinkedIn Learning.

11. Responding quickly to emerging issues

Should you or any member of your team experience Covid-19 symptoms, you must go immediately to your home and report your situation using the University Covid-19 symptoms reporting form, which is available on our Health & Safety Covid pages.

You should also notify your line manager. Staff should only return to campus after this period of self-isolation ends or they have been tested for Covid-19 and the test is negative.

Guidance on testing and self-isolation is available on the Health & Safety webpage. Should you have any additional concerns about the safety of working spaces, please contact the Health and Safety Team  

12. Support for you and your staff on coping with change

Understanding our personal responses to change is the first step to developing strategies to process and cope. This LinkedIn learning resource on Embracing Unexpected Change may be helpful for your staff.

The University has put together a range of resources on wellbeing, resilience and on taking care of yourself – both physically and mentally.

13. Support for you on managing change

Leading change is one of the most challenging things you will do as a manager or leader. In addition to helping others adapt and move forward into a new future, you will need to manage your own responses.

We are developing a change leadership toolkit for practical advice and guidance. We will share more information on this as soon as we can.

At this time, it is more important than ever to be aware of the diverse needs of your staff. Here are some resources to help you.

14. Top tips for sensitive conversations
  • Ask your staff member to share their thoughts with you

  • Listen without interrupting

  • If you need to clarify something, say back what you think you heard and check that you have understood

  • Summarise

  • Ask your staff member to think about options

  • Generate options together

  • Agree the pattern, time period and review point of the flexible/blended working (the first review point after the start of the 2020/21 academic year will be November 2020, with the second review point in February 2021)

  • If you can’t reach agreement, summarise the discussion

  • Email the agreed pattern or summary to your colleague and make sure you keep a copy

  • Make sure you and the individual have a copy

  • Put a reminder in your diary to review

15. Good practice tips – a summary
  1. Any planned return to campus must be agreed with your Head of School/Director
  2. Follow Estates and Health & Safety guidance about any planned or mooted return to campus working, so that you can be sure that you are following safety requirements and know what has been put in place in your building(s)
  3. Talk and connect with people – keep prioritising these group and individual conversations as we continue to agree and develop shifts in working pattern that may include a return to campus
  4. If you are in a senior leadership role, ensure that you, your direct reports and all managers in your School/Division are in routine contact with your staff so that you and they are aware of any circumstances that staff wish to share and that are relevant to their working environment
  5. Once you have had a conversation with each person in your team/group on return to campus/blended working/work from home, keep in touch with them so that you aware of any changed circumstances
  6. Take one step at a time – don’t rush
  7. Monitor what you agree and review
  8. Everyone’s situation is different – in line with our values, be patient and kind
  9. Don’t feel that you have to arrive at an agreed outcome in one conversation – it is often helpful to go away and reflect on what has been discussed
  10. Ask your HRBP for guidance if you are unsure on how prepare for a conversation or how to respond to an enquiry

 Additional FAQs

How do I decide what an essential role is for campus working?

An essential role is one where the role needs to be carried out, either in full or in part, on campus. This could be because it involves direct face-to-face contact with students or other members of staff who are also back on campus. It may also be because the service they are involved in delivering can be delivered only on campus, for example the Library service, student and staff services such as cleaning, catering or maintenance.

There may also be examples of roles that are required on campus for the academic year (or in preparation for the academic year) where face-to-face delivery will be expected by our students. There may also be examples of essential roles that over time will change in status, so for example a role may be essential prior to the academic year in preparation for the students’ return, but thereafter may not be essential or vice versa.

There are many roles that are 'organisationally essential', i.e. they are essential for the functioning of the University in the coming term. However, for the purposes of this document we are referring to essential roles as ones that are campus-tied and therefore need to be performed in part or in whole on campus.

Essential roles include support services aimed at welcoming students onto campus and guiding them through their first few weeks on campus, student welfare services, guidance and advice. For academic staff, examples include face-to-face teaching, laboratory work and student assessment that needs to take place on campus. Not providing face-to-face teaching would be detrimental to the student experience and potentially make us non-compliant with CMA requirements. 

What do I do if a role needs to be performed on campus and the person who does that work tells me that, in their view, the risks are too high and they don’t feel safe to return?

If you arrive at this point, any previous and subsequent discussions must have happened and continue to happen in person. An email exchange is not sufficient to allow a discussion of the needs and any issues involved.

Ask staff to share as much information as feels comfortable with you so that you can consider the implications together. Make sure that you have your School/Division’s risk assessment to hand so that you can explain the adjustments that have been put in place to support safe working according to Government guidelines.

You may find it helpful to suggest that colleagues view the staff induction video in the Return to campus: What you must do page so that they are aware of the actual adaptations we have made to the workplace and the rules we require staff to follow. 

Suggest that everyone in your School/Division completes a self-assessment. We have developed a self-assessment tool here at Sussex

Some staff will prefer not to share their self-assessment with their manager, in which case you should explain that you will consult your HR Business Partner to discuss an Occupational Health assessment that will allow an objective professional review of the risks.

This review will advise on the implications of a return and any adjustments that will create a safe environment, suited to the individual’s circumstances. In most cases, we will be able to adjust for and provide a safe working environment that follows UK government guidelines.

If someone tells me that they can’t return to campus on a day when we need them to teach/perform another essential role because they have caring responsibilities that can’t be covered, what should I do?

The conversation must happen in person and not by email. Begin by asking your colleague to outline their availability to you so that you know when they can and can’t be available to come on to campus. In many cases, staff may not need to be on campus for a whole working week or even for a whole working day. If you have had these conversations with all your staff and have done some group planning, you should have an idea of who has flexibility to cover a commitment that your colleague can’t fulfil. You will also now be in a position to discuss on-campus commitments that your colleague can fulfil.

In a small number of cases, colleagues may not be available (e.g. for caring reasons) during periods when we have commitments that need to be fulfilled. In that case, make sure that you agree the work they can undertake remotely and agree a review point (the first review point is in November 2020 and the second review point will be February 2021) so that you can reconsider options.

What do I do if a colleague in an essential role tells me that, regardless of our discussions, they will not return to campus?

This conversation must happen in person. An email exchange in not sufficient for an exploration of the issues. Ask yourself if your request is a reasonable expectation. If it is and you have followed the process outlined in the step by step guide, you should contact your HR Business Partner for guidance and let your colleague know that you hear their concerns and will ask for advice. Individuals may also choose to contact their HR Business Partner or their trade union for advice.

What if a colleague tells me that they feel they are not being heard and their concerns are not being acknowledged in our conversation?

Your first step should be to suggest you come back and talk again in person. Conversations that are tense can become stuck and it may help to take some time to reflect. Another option is to ask your colleague to share their feelings and their needs with you and to listen without interrupting (and trying not to frame a response in your head as your colleague is talking) so that you demonstrate good listening and you give yourself a chance to process the messages being conveyed to you.

Colleagues are also free to consult an HR Representative or to talk to their trade union for advice.

 Read these tips from managers in the University about returning to campus