Video Q&A with Neil Buttery, an HR Business Partner at the University of Bristol.
Name, role and university
My name’s Neil Buttery, I work for University of Bristol as an HR Business Partner.
Please could you tell us about your role at the University?
Yes, so as HR Business Partner, my role is related to the employee relations side of HR. So, I work with managers to support them through cases with members of staff, so whether that be disciplinary cases, whether it be absence cases, whether it be complex flexible working, just trying to support the managers to manage their staff to the best of their ability.
How did you come to work in higher education?
So, I started off in financial service actually. I ended up in a sales role, which just didn’t suit me, the environment wasn’t something that appealed to me, it was your typical sort of sales environment and it just doesn’t suit my personality. So, I took the choice to leave that and to move into the University of Bristol. The reason I wanted to join was about the culture, I think, that exists within the university sector and it suits my personality and my style a bit more. So, I took a basic admin role just to get myself away from the sales environment and into the university. I’d always had the plan that longer term I wanted to end up in HR, I’d done a little bit of HR temp work in the past, and, yes, it took a couple of years from that point to get into the HR role, but, yes, I ended up as an HR administrator at the time and from then I’ve managed to progress up the ranks, so to speak, and I’m now HR Business Partner.
Would you say your role is purposeful and meaningful?
I think it’s down to the wider objectives of the university. For me, it’s about that sense of belonging almost because we are training the next generation of leaders, of medics, and I think it’s just that satisfaction you get from knowing that you generally are making a difference. For me, working in private sector, I didn’t have that. Selling pensions, it wasn’t something that you really get that much satisfaction from, other than that buzz I suppose you get from a successful sale. I think with the university and with Higher Education in particular, knowing the impact you’re having on young people’s lives, even if not directly involved, you do get that satisfaction. So, my role I don’t have much interaction directly with the students, however the area of the university I look after does. So, I look after a lot of the residential staff, because obviously people providing the catering and the more facilities side for those students, so I know that that has a huge impact on their life, especially on their first year when they’re in the Halls, and if we can provide them with the service that they need with the accommodation that they need, you can guarantee almost they’re not going to have a successful kind of university. So, yes, knowing that I can support the managers to support their staff to therefore support the students, it can, yes, provide a huge level of satisfaction.
How do you think working in higher education compares to working in a commercial environment?
I think it’s about the people, if I’m honest, and I think it’s about their motivation. For me, the experience I’ve had working in financial services, there was a lot of people who were just doing it for a job and then there was, more on the sales side, it was all about them, it was all about their own goals and it wasn’t about the wider objectives. I think with the university, the majority of people, they’re a different, you know, different kind of person, I suppose, much more team aspect to it. I think a different attitude to life, I suppose, and so thinking about the wider impact on people rather on purely about themselves. For me, that was a big driver and I think that’s something that suits me and fits my personality style more than the private sector.
Please tell us about the opportunities for development you’ve had
So, I’ve been quite fortunate in that the university did pay for my training, my HR training, so I did a Level 5 in HR Management and that was funded by the university. Alongside that, we do have our staff development team who provide training courses on anything that we could possibly be interested in really, alongside web based training as well. So, we have access to different platforms that provide either short courses or longer courses., again, on any subject that you could possibly be interested in, whether that be software skills, whether that be personal development, whether that be career management, so I think we are fortunate in that regard in that we have dedicated teams that are there to provide support and development for staff. As I say, for me, doing my role now, I couldn’t do this without having done my HR Management training, and, again, it was provided to me by the university.
Please tell us about your experience of the facilities on campus for university life/wellbeing?
Well, I think because we’re a university with a large amount of students, there are facilities that are there partly for the students, but also for the staff. A couple of doors along from my building, we have the gym, a huge massive up to date gym that’s just had a huge remodel and lots of money gone into that to make sure it’s state of the art equipment. Ten minutes away, we’ve got the university swimming pool. So, again, in terms of the physical wellbeing and therefore the impact on your mental wellbeing, we have facilities there. Huge drive to try and encourage people to cycle and walk and run to work rather than use the car. So, again, trying to put the motivation there, I suppose, for staff to be able to use other means of transport and make sure the facilities are provided onsite for all staff to be able to do this. In my building, I have showers, I have facilities to be able to store my cycling equipment, for instance, so, again, encouraging us away from the use of vehicles.
Alongside that, we have the university staff lounge, we have a nice old 17th century manor house that we use as a staff lounge, so it’s a beautiful setting with a café inside it, purely for staff and postgrad students. We also have the cafes and the library next to my building, we have one of our local little cafes which is part of the area that I look after. We have what we call the Hawthorne’s, which is a café and bar as well, aimed at students and staff. We have access to the Student’s Union building, which, again, has a bar and café in it. wherever you go basically on the university precinct, there are cafes, there are facilities available both for staff and students, and I think that’s an important thing actually, that we’re not sort of segregating in any way, we’re not saying this is students and staff only go here, it’s trying to interact, it’s trying to build that community within the university.
We’ve had a bug push recently looking at our wellbeing, mostly on the mental health side of things, recognising that, you know, there has been a stigma around mental health and the more we can do as an organisation to try and make sure that we’re talking about these things and we’re making facilities available to staff, I think the better we’re going to be able to support our staff. So, we have staff counselling, for instance, we have an employee assistance programme available through our pension provider, we have a huge amount of information available through our website and in terms of mental wellbeing and then, as I said earlier, the physical wellbeing side as well. So, I think no matter where you are in your life, what issues you might be facing, how you’re feeling at the time, there’s information and there’s facilities there to help and develop you.
What are the most notable experiences you’ve had whilst working for a university?
One of the key things, more on the creative side, I suppose, for me, I quite like software, so I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve been able to develop our own case management system. So, this did mean working with IT and with other departments, to try and build something that sat on the university servers but that was purely dedicated to HR professionals to help us in our jobs, I suppose really, help us manage the cases that we’re supporting managers with. So, this is something that’s over and above my standard role, but my manager was very supportive, gave me extra time, put a bit of support in place to be able to backfill me to be able to dedicate time to developing this system and I think, again, it just goes to show that flexibility in the role, I think there is a perception that sometimes universities and public sector can be very bureaucratic, I suppose, and it’s all about the rules, but I think this helps to show that that’s not the case, there is the flexibility, we have a bit more definition maybe than other organisations, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be flexed when it’s required to be so.
What are your tips or advice for those considering a career in HR at a university?
Probably the key thing, I think, is being prepared for the fact that some policies maybe are, they maybe take a bit longer, I think, than in the private sector. However, I’d counter that with doing the right thing for staff. It’s not a cutthroat environment, it is more about supporting staff and making sure that people are given the opportunities to maybe improve if that’s what the issue is. So, as I say, things possibly do take more time but for the right reasons. And I think if your attitude is one of trying to support staff and develop people, then the university would definitely be the right place for you.
This interview was conducted before the Coronavirus Pandemic. Working arrangements on university campuses may have changed due to social distancing measures.