Leading sustainable change in a distracting world

IRIS Education guest bloggers Hayley Dunn | Leading sustainable change in a distracting world
By Toby Lester | 28th February 2020 | 16 min read

IRIS Education Guest Bloggers: Post 2

This year we’re working with some of the most notable education sector leaders to tackle trending topics, important issues and significant subjects confronting schools today. 

School business leadership specialist and author of The School Business Manager’s Handbook, Hayley Dunn, explores the opportunities presented by technology for improving productivity and avoiding workload burn-out in our busy modern age. 

It is often said that the world has changed but that schools are still the same. However, I would argue that although most school buildings may still look the same, what happens within them is very different. 

Today, technology is firmly embedded within most educational environments; school registers are taken on a device, pupils select their meal choices online and confirm with a fingerprint, children move and learn using specially developed resources and technology, buildings are secured with electronic entry systems and cashless and paperless processes are fast becoming the norm.  

But, for those working in schools, due to funding, accountability and workload pressures, these are extremely challenging times. We are all still working out how to make advanced automation, robotics and artificial intelligence work for us, rather than against us. 

It’s important to appreciate how far we have come. It can take a long time for effective change to imbed and we are fortunate to live in an age in which technology is automating tasks. We are still researching this modern age and preparing young people for the future, all the while conscious of stark warnings of climate change and a burgeoning mental health crisis.  

At times, it can feel like our minds and our time are being hacked. Dealing with a constant and never-ending stream of phone calls, meetings, push notifications, tasks, breaking news - millions of daily soundbites building pressure to keep up and stay switched on.  

Quantity vs quality 

If we look at works by Cal Newport, he believes the core abilities for thriving in the new economy are both the ability to “master hard things” and “produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed”. To both learn new things and produce quality work quickly, takes a disciplined approach to time and focus. If we look at the “law of productivity being: high quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)”, we know that there is an integral barrier within most schools, an environment in which there are a multitude of distractions which impact the availability of resources to dedicate time and attention to a single task. 

Email overload 

Take emails as an example. Most of us receive hundreds every week, each accompanied by a notification on our various screens. There are different types of emails; some we can answer quickly, others may require more thought or input from colleagues; many demand further action, adding another task to our ever-expanding to-do lists. Depending on how we manage our inboxes, emails are often within our peripheral focus. Even when we are not looking at them, our email inbox is still on our minds. 

Slow yes, quick no 

There is an answer for schools, and I believe it is to re-define cultures and processes to ensure workloads remain manageable and resources sustainable. It requires building boundaries, establishing routines and processes and, in effect, actioning a bold new approach to change which enables staff to prioritise and focus on mandatory tasks, as well as those which deliver the best outcomes for pupils.  

A strategy I have developed through coaching (which has become my own way of working) is to focus on a maximum of three important tasks, to schedule my time and consider, carefully, what I can say yes to. There is a wonderful phrase I heard from a conference speaker, Barry Phillips, that I regularly consider: “slow yes, quick no”. These have become strategies that I use when working with school leaders to define improvement plans, explore and develop ideas, and finish with selecting three that will have the most impact. 

An organisation or individual’s strategy can be scaled in different ways by considering time periods in hours, days, weeks, terms or seasons. I am flexible with this approach; I schedule my time differently depending on whether I am travelling or working at a base. For schools, this practice may involve scheduling PPA time for all staff and setting expectations of what will get done, providing guidelines of workflows - for example, the turnaround time for reprographic requests or a deadline for submitting payroll timesheets.  

We can all equip staff and colleagues with the digital facilities and tools they need to craft their approach to work, efficiently manage workloads and achieve great things. To do so is to embrace technological advances and effectively build towards a sustainable future.  

Hayley Dunn is a school business leadership specialist and the author of The School Business Manager's Handbook. She is an ACCA qualified accountant and a Fellow of the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL).