UCL Human Resources


Working Smarter by Protecting Time for Work

A few ideas to help us start working smarter by protecting some of our time to focus on particular activities.

The rapid move to full remote working and the reliance on MS Teams and other online platforms to facilitate meetings and face-to-face interactions, has resulted in many staff finding themselves increasingly in back-to-back online calls and meetings. This way of working for a prolonged period can impact on health and wellbeing and can place staff with caring responsibilities under additional burden of attempting to juggle home life with online meeting commitments. 

The following sets out a framework for attempting to reduce the time spent in online calls, to provide time for doing other work (or non-work) activities and allow time to move away from the workstation during the working day.

Protected Time for Thinking and Doing 

We are encouraging departments to suggest regular blocks of time as being “meeting-free” for their staff, it’s expected that this would be for around three hours each week. The weekly Protected Time for Thinking and Doing should be coordinated, as much as is possible, across local departments. Where staff working patterns don’t match up with the proposed time, colleagues should be encouraged to schedule a suitable alternative. It can be a time when staff have institutional permission to not have to be available to attend or participate in meetings. This will allow staff the thinking and doing time that is needed to work on activities that require focus and concentration, or to catch up on activities (such as responding to emails, reading, CPD etc.) that they usually find difficult fitting into the normal working day/week.

Core Business in Core Hours

The current Work Life Balance policy encourages faculties and departments to operate a ‘core business in core hours’ model for key meetings. These differ between professional staff (10.00 - 16.00) and academic staff, however, both have a right to disconnect from the working day outside of what is our respective core hours. Arranging key meetings during core hours will ensure the maximum number of people can attend them (e.g. departmental meetings, committees, working groups etc), ensuring widespread dissemination of critical information and avoiding unintended exclusion of some staff. It will also allow people to flexi their start and finish times to avoid peak travel if their commute is something which concerns them. There will be some circumstances where this is not possible, for example when emergency work needs to be discussed urgently, but we recommend that all non-urgent meetings are arranged in core hours where possible. 

Informal meetings, small meetings (e.g. fewer than 6 people) and 1:1s can be scheduled outside of core hours, if all attendees agree and are available.

Standardised meeting lengths – the “UCL Hour”

Reduce meeting times to allow everyone a little time between meetings. Meetings that you would normally schedule for an hour should be made shorter to last no longer than 50 minutes (“the UCL Hour”). If you really need a longer meeting, allow time for a short break of at least 10 minutes and try not to schedule meetings that take over 2 hours. This will give staff chance to move away from their screens, stretch their legs and get refreshments at regular intervals during the day, or to process/focus on matters arising from the meeting. It will also give attendees chance to have side conversations that may come up.

Further guidance on making the most of remote meetings

As remote meetings are now the norm, guidance on how this time can be utilised more effectively is available on the Remote, Not Distant webpages - Making Meetings Matter.

Tips include guidance on whether to share presentations as pre-reads, making meetings accessible, meeting group sizes and lots more. 

Remember to Think Outside the Inbox

Short emails aren’t rude and nor is not responding when there’s no need to, and while we’re working more flexibly, it might be helpful to remind your contacts that you don’t expect immediate action to emails which are sent outside of normal working hours. 

Last year, professional services ran a campaign to reduce emails which resulted in online resources around email etiquette, actions to reduce email and emails and wellbeing. With workloads higher than normal for most staff, there’s no better time to revisit the Think Outside the Inbox website to find ways of improving email efficiency. 

Big news can wait

Consider the impact of sending big new emails just before the weekend. Sending big news items just before we break for the weekend, can leave staff with questions they are unable to get answered until Monday, so this is especially important where the information could lead to distress or anxiety.

Learn more about Working Smarter

OD is launching the Working Smarter toolkit and online learning resource which brings some of these ideas to life and provides practical tools to help individuals and teams to implement them.

Connecting, catching up and checking in 

With more focussed meetings, we also need to find time for making connections with colleagues, catching up and checking in on the wellbeing of our peers. Find time to connect with people who you would normally expect to see outside of formal meetings. 


We recognise that for a lot of staff the move to remote working has also resulted in increased workloads and activities. While this framework does not reduce workloads, it should help to provide time to work on other activities for those staff who are impacted by a large volume of online meetings.  

Where staff have raised concerns about managing their work-life balance, or have requested an adjusted workload, we are asking managers to consider reviewing workloads across the whole team to identify possibilities for the reallocation of tasks, and/or explore opportunities for staff to be deployed from other areas of the university. Where this is not immediately possible, consideration should be given to the reprioritisation of tasks across the team, in order to provide more time and flexibility with the overall team workload.  

Managers are also reminded that any agreed adjustments to objectives, workload or working patterns should not impact negatively on an individual in demonstrating good performance over the past year in their appraisal.  

Further guidance on Holding Appraisals During Lockdown can be found on the HR website.