Remote Working Stories: Paula McGarry, Director, UCD China Joint Colleges

By Michael Sinnott, Director, UCD Agile

When we began this series of ‘Remote Working’ interviews in May 2020 it was out of curiosity about how colleagues were coping with the move off campus.  How do you do the work of the office when you are not sharing the same space with your colleagues anymore?  Fourteen months into our disrupted lives, with most of us seeing our work world shrink onto a Zoom screen, the strange has become familiar, coping mechanisms have become ‘normal’ ways, the curiosity of ‘how?’ has lost its intensity, and the longing for better ways of staying connected has grown.  Excuse me for a moment – there is a pigeon dancing on the roof outside my window and a rainbow emerging from a grey afternoon cloud.  Wow.  Fourteen months of the same view.  Oh for something exciting…

How about setting up a new office, shaping a new team, starting remote working with colleagues 11,000km away, working with three international institutions, connecting with four UCD Colleges and seven Schools, and finding the plug-in points to the entire UCD support ecosystem… and added to all of this, dealing with the trimester 1 grade approvals process for 2000 students as your first major milestone three months later?  That is the task that faced Paula McGarry as the China Joint Colleges Office came into being in November 2020, with three of her team members working remotely from Belfield, and one based in Beijing. 

We met on a cold afternoon in early May, doing the new social handshaking of commenting on Zoom backgrounds and home setups, the quality of light coming in a bedroom window (me), the access to a spare room for an office (Paula), broadband speeds… and the hope for a return to campus.  For Paula and her colleagues, the return to campus will be the first time they come together in a physical office so connections now are all by email and Zoom.  As do most of us, Paula misses the social aspect of being on campus and the “side conversations that solve so many log jams when dropping into someone’s office or going for a coffee”, so “it sometimes can take two or three meetings to get an issue resolved that I suspect might have been resolved in a 20 minute conversation over a cup of coffee”.  This has been a challenge for us all but even more so, perhaps, when at such a distance.

Some landscaping sketching.  The ‘connections map’ provided by Paula shows where her office sits in this complex landscape.

  • The Beijing Dublin International College (BDIC) was founded in 2012, with a focus on information, communications and technology (ICT) and finance and economics.
  • The Chang’an-Dublin International College (CDIC) in Xi’an, founded in 2020, focuses on transportation engineering and related matters.
  • The Guangzhou-Dublin International College (GDIC) in Guangzhou, also founded in 2020, is dedicated to life sciences and technology in the context of the agriculture and food science environments. Associate Professor Paul Fanning is UCD International Dean for China and Provost for each of UCD’s three Joint International Colleges in China.

 

BDIC has about 1300 students in 2020/21, with a total for the three colleges of 2100.    Current plans have the overall total rising to about 3600 by 2023/24.  Paula’s office works with the academic affairs offices in the three partner institutions and, with each International College having a different focus, her office plugs variously into the Colleges and Schools in Belfield. 

The complexity of UCD has grown as we have grown beyond our traditional full time Dublin offerings and, as Paula noted, “outliers now have such a scale that they cannot be treated as outliers anymore”.  Spearheaded by the work of the Centre for Distance Learning in the College of Business, and supported by central units like Registry and IT Services, UCD has become more adaptable and accommodating to the non-standard – the strange becomes familiar and the new ‘normal’ emerges

For Paula, in building the China Joint Colleges Office, “there is an acceptance that you have to put in place foundations and building blocks that allow you move and progress.  Rather than it being a race to get everything perfect from day one, it’s very much on the basis of putting the time in to build a process”, building in a way that can roll forward and can be shared between the three International Colleges. 

From a practical point of view, while the academic year in China also begins in September, semester one exams are not until late January and the academic year runs through to early July.  Any of you involved in teaching or programme supports know the centrality of the Grade Approvals Process – the GAP is different for the China colleges because of the shape of their academic year.  A way had to be found to build the timelines that worked, and with the added difficulty of time zones.  With a seven /eight hour time difference, joint meetings often happen at 8am Irish time, 3 / 4pm China time. 

With the mechanics of remote working an intrinsic part of this office’s work, a challenge to our Belfield ways come with China’s internet policy meaning none of the Google products are available for joint working – all is through the Microsoft suite.  InfoHub plays the same key role for the International Colleges as it does in UCD though this also poses some technical challenges, with great support from IT Services in navigating this..

What about the communications challenges at this distance?  “The default method of communication for our partners in China is WeChat, which is effectively a social media communications platform. In some ways, you could describe China as post email. Even for some very official communications, they have no issue with using WeChat. We are looking at whether or not we have to migrate more towards WeChat in a recognition that this how students and faculty communicate”. 

This was a constant thread to our conversation – Paula and her colleagues in the China Joint Colleges Office creating a network of connections, finding new and innovative ways to getting the job done.  As Paula summarised it:  “its role really is as an administrative hub that connects the three separate colleges in China as well as connecting those colleges to UCD central: within the sphere of each of the International Colleges you also have another series of connections in that you have the joint college, you have the partner University, which is basically our host but is also a genuine partner, and the UCD Schools and Colleges.  So I see our role as the ‘arch connector’ – we are there to bring all of these disparate components together and bring them into a  harmonized relationship with UCD’s centralized support ecosystem”.

This is ‘remote working’ on a grand scale, not as a COVID-driven inconvenience but as a reflection of the breadth and depth of the UCD growing diversity and variety. Paula described her office as the ‘arch connector’.  I’ll leave the last words to her:

“In some ways it is that concept of connection that I’d like to try and get across.  In the same way I think the Distributed Office has proven the value of connection across offices, I see great parallels with our work.  This is not about thinking that “we’re in the college of X and this is how we do it” but ,for us, someone in one college phoning or emailing or connecting with someone in another college and seeing a better way of meeting the challenges we face.  I think that’s the fundamental requirement of working across the different colleges – things that we’ve proven to work in one college make it much easier to roll them into the other colleges and, in some ways, practices that we’ve come up with because we’re starting from a greenfield site might also be rolled backwards into other areas”. 

Connections, connecting, and the good ideas and collegial support that flow along them.

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