Conversation: Dr Sally Eastoe, Executive Director Human Resources, The University of Melbourne
The human resource function within higher education institutions has been at the forefront of leading and managing the pandemic response. As the Executive Director of Human Resources at The University of Melbourne, this country’s highest ranking university, Dr Sally Eastoe has a unique view of the challenges faced. We recently invited her to share some thoughts.
The past 12 months has seen some rapid and radical change in universities and the human resource function has been in the front line. What have been the biggest challenges for you in your role?
I think the greatest challenge for me and many others was the fact that decisions impacting our staff were being driven by the rapid changing situation in the external environment, hence it made managing the situation extremely complex. The impact on other organisations where they had to stand staff down immediately, in the very early days created some confusion about the sort of responses we might have needed to consider. Secondly, the challenge of keeping people focussed, operational and optimistic in an environment in which there was so much misinformation about changes in the workplace. And finally, just the sheer size and scale of the HR agenda and issues impacted on us all.
As an institution where have been the biggest struggles – where have you seen the real pain points among the faculty and professional staff?
Maybe I will start with a positive; I think we surprised ourselves with how rapidly we could adapt to the new environment and how quickly we could change the teaching model. Real struggles emerged where people had to continually deal with ambiguity – some people have difficulty operating in such an environment over an extended period. Also, in making decisions that, while they were for the long-term sustainability of the University, resulted in staff departures, they were difficult and no doubt weighed heavy on our leadership. These sorts of decisions have a real emotional effect on those who make them as well as of course on those leaving.
People often look to positives that emerge from a time of adversity – do you see any aspects of the past 12 months as perhaps leading to some positive long term changes?
Historically in Universities, leadership is not always fully understood or valued, and I believe the importance of leadership has been elevated. The pandemic has accelerated the work to reshape the teaching model through technology for a tech savvy generation and at the same time, it has reinforced the richness of face to face teaching. There is a great attachment to the campus and I think the time away emphasised that while there is a place for online, the campus remains incredibly valuable for staff, students and the education experience. We are enriched everyday by having a beautiful work environment.
If you look forward at the Australian higher education sector what do you think the biggest people challenges and opportunities will be over the next decade?
The pandemic is far from over and it has created a sense of ambiguity and uncertainly that will be the new normal. I think the whole dynamic of the student experience will change (including the international aspect), creating different student expectations. This will mean new opportunities and a need to remain agile. To respond to this I think we will need to increase the focus and capability of our mid-level leaders and ensure they have the skills and abilities to move the organisation forward. Universities have not always been good at this. Over the next decade we will no longer talk about technology change as being an external factor – it will be embedded in the way we do things. I also think there will be continued evolution of the way we work.
And finally, you have had a diverse career in HR leadership both in government, the financial services industry and for the last 10 years in higher education. From your perspective, are workplaces better than they were 30 years ago, or just different?
I think they are certainly different. The ‘family firm’ nature of organisations has disappeared and people are less attached. This is not necessarily good or bad, it means that organisations are more fluid but they are also more susceptible to change. I think that the concept of work as a privilege has changed for many people. However not the opportunity to contribute; people are still looking to work as a means of fulfilment.
Rohan A. Carr