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Getting Their Best

Yale’s campuswide initiative to engage employees is paying off in efficiencies and job satisfaction.

By Janet Lindner and Janet Castricum

  • employees are satisfied and productive and take pride in working for the institution;
  • talent is recruited and retained;
  • all employees’ ideas are sought and valued; and
  • everyone knows how they contribute to the success of the university.

An added challenge for academic institutions seeking this type of transformation is that a university’s impressive history may keep individuals from recognizing a need for change. At Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, having settled a strike in 2003 with an unprecedented eight-year contract, both union leaders and university management were ready to explore a new way of working together. We were eager to improve this historically contentious relationship and tap the rich experience of Yale’s clerical, technical, service, and maintenance workers. At the same time, senior administrators realized the importance of understanding how the university is perceived by all of its workers—including managers. With Yale’s financial and administrative operations in particular, we likewise understood the need not only to recruit and retain the most talented individuals, but also to provide a clear promotion and development track to keep our best employees engaged and satisfied throughout their careers with the institution.

From these questions and challenges an initiative was born to re-energize Yale’s entire campus workforce.

Ask the Honest Truth

Our first task was to gather good data to get a sense of how Yale’s employees perceived the university and their roles. Were we currently a workplace of choice, and if not, how far off the mark were we?

To help answer that question, we conducted a workplace survey to gauge how employees felt about a wide range of issues. Many of the responses were heartening, with most employees reporting that, given the right opportunity, they would like to spend their career at Yale and that they would strongly recommend Yale as a good place to work.

However, a closer look showed that some might not believe the feeling was mutual. A number of employees indicated that they did not think Yale inspired them to do their best work or that Yale viewed them as an essential part of the university’s long-term success. Knowing how employees felt about their workplace, their supervisors, and about Yale as an employer reinforced the need to engage workers in all areas of the university and to ensure that they understood how vital they are to the institution’s well-being.

But how does a large, decentralized university transition from a somewhat disengaged to a fully engaged workforce? No matter the size or type of institution, the process of instilling employee loyalty and commitment is essentially the same and requires moving employees through four distinct phases:

  1. Awareness: Employees are aware of the values and mission of the institution.
  2. Understanding: Employees understand what the values and mission mean.
  3. Commitment: Employees are committed to what the institution stands for.
  4. Behavioral change: Employees exhibit behaviors that reflect their commitment to the institution.

Based on Yale’s journey to become a desirable workplace, we have five recommendations for moving employees through this process so they can operate at the highest level of involvement.

Call for Ideas

Recommendation One: Articulate your mission, vision, values, and strategic priorities by involving people at all levels and showing them how their work contributes to meeting your strategic priorities.

Getting creative input from your entire workforce requires clear communication about institutional priorities and expectations for employee participation. To launch our workplace of choice initiative, Yale’s president and officers convened a series of brainstorming sessions with deans and department heads along with senior financial and administrative staff to identify which business processes were working well and which were not. Instead of simply developing a list of issues that finance and administration could address, these were working sessions, with groups of faculty and administrators discussing what was important to them and how services could be improved. A Web site developed by faculty at the Yale School of Management allowed staff, students, and faculty to weigh in at any time with suggestions for improvement. The goal was to elicit ideas, no matter how farfetched, to encourage creative thinking for improving support services.

The response from employees was immediate and heartfelt and included comments such as, “I’ve had this idea for years, but I’ve never known where to take it. Thanks for asking.” Ideas that we have implemented as a result of feedback include creating a carpooling program, using the Yale purchasing card for air and train purchases, and creating a central phone number and tracking system for all facilities services.

From these work sessions and idea-generating processes, we developed task forces chaired by faculty members and senior administrators to review areas including travel, procurement, publishing, and financial services. The task forces researched best practices at other universities and in the private sector and visited several top-performing organizations to understand how best-in-class operations worked in a given area. By holding focus groups, conducting surveys, convening town hall meetings, and encouraging ideas at every opportunity, task force members also determined what employees thought about the administrative services being provided to them. Most task forces began their work in early 2004 and developed recommendations by summer 2004 that were then incorporated into finance and administration’s key goals for the 2004-05 academic year.

With regard to labor-management relations, in spring 2004 union leaders and a team of senior managers met to develop basic ground rules for creating a partnership and a spirit of mutual respect that would lead to improved service and productivity. Working with Right Management Consultants, we went through a training program in which we learned communication and joint problem-solving skills. We went off site for several days to develop a vision, mission, and goals for how we would work together on this initiative. While these values and goals were developed specifically for the labor-management initiative, they share a strong connection to the values, mission, and goals developed by finance and administration. Many coincide exactly, such as treating each other with dignity and respect, being open and honest in discussions, and seeking excellence in all that we do.

One goal of the labor-management team was to form committees at the department level that would develop productivity initiatives with clear, measurable outcomes. Unlike many productivity initiatives developed in the past, there was conscious interaction with those employees closest to the work. Rather than view productivity as a management problem, we saw it as an opportunity to get the full benefit of the diverse ideas that exist throughout Yale (see sidebar, “On Par With the Best”).

On Par With the Best

An early testament to the strength of Yale's new labor-management agreement took place at our golf course in summer 2004. After many years of hard play, our 750-acre golf course had begun to show its age, with some parts of the course difficult to play and much of the equipment outdated. In September 2003, Golfweek magazine had called the course "a national landmark gone askew." Supervisors felt that rigid union work rules were preventing them from making needed changes. The groundskeepers thought they had good suggestions that were not being considered. An NCAA Regional Tournament planned for May 2004 had management considering outsourcing. They believed that turning the course over to a professional golf care firm was the only way to improve conditions and to do so in time for the tournament.

Better together. Before pursuing that option, managers and staff got together to openly voice their frustrations. Despite some deep skepticism, they agreed to try to work things out. Together the unionized workers and the managers decided they would throw out the old ways of thinking—about equipment, the course, work rules, and even each other. Many of the weekly meetings were difficult, but everyone knew what was on the line, and that created a strong imperative and a sense of urgency to reach a resolution. "It was obvious how much everyone who worked there cared about the course. There was a sense of pride in the work and sensitivity to the needs of golfers that came through," says John Pepper, Yale’s vice president for finance and administration. Pepper joined these meetings, as did Yale's director of athletics. Strong support also came from the president of Local 35, representing the university's service and maintenance workers.

Opening up. A significant element of these meetings was that management shared all available information and included all team members in discussions about the budget. A review of the equipment and suggestions from staff made it clear that Local 35 members had been asked to do a lot with some very old equipment. It also became apparent that work rules created years prior for a very different workplace had to be rethought. For example, by allowing flexibility around work rules, students and summer workers were allowed to mow, a task formerly done by Local 35 members only. This freed up the full-time staff to use their expertise to solve irrigation and drainage issues. Another change: Yale purchased new equipment based on needs identified by staff.

Reputation turnaround. The happy ending to this story is that the NCAA Tournament was a great success. Golfers now frequently stop to congratulate groundskeepers on the condition of the course. As proof of our accomplishment, in September 2004, Golfweek ranked the Yale golf course as the second best university course in the nation.

Leave Room for Interpretation

Recommendation Two: Assess the current outlook of your employees by identifying key drivers of engagement such as culture, process, and communication.

While helpful to gauge employee satisfaction, our workplace survey was not an end in itself. Rather, it provided a launching point for further discussion. In follow up to the survey, managers convened staff meetings to drill down beyond the raw data to find out not only what employees thought and what ideas they had for improving services, but also what obstacles they faced for moving forward.

As we gathered more data from across the university, we also recognized that while some groups of employees were very comfortable expressing their opinions and offering suggestions, others were more reluctant. Often managers themselves were not comfortable with this process and needed help communicating. Yale’s organizational development staff facilitated many follow-up meetings with managers and their employees to share ideas about how the workplace survey results related to their departments and how they could together develop action plans to improve how work got done.

In many cases, those most familiar with the work had the best suggestions. For instance, when our dining hall workers met as a team with management, it became clear that certain issues around equipment could easily be resolved once identified and understood. A new pot sink became an important symbol of how quickly change can come when people are encouraged to speak up and are heard.

Define Desired Behaviors

Recommendation Three: Translate your vision, mission, values, and strategic priorities into specific employee behaviors.

As employees across the campus watched these joint labor-management committees form, they started to understand that Yale was asking them to change their attitudes and actions and to speak up—to become part of the solution in building a stronger university. This is not an easy process, especially given the history of distrust in some union-management relationships. Rather than simply asking people to assume a positive outlook, we worked hard to identify specific behaviors needed to match our values and goals.

For instance, instead of stating that employees within a work unit should “respect each other,” we asked employees to identify what they saw as needed behaviors, and we asked leaders at the university—both labor and management—to begin modeling those behaviors. We have since improved our performance management system by focusing on specific appropriate behaviors that tie directly to our stated values and goals. Currently, we are working to align university goals with departmental goals, articulating the university’s vision and specifying what behaviors demonstrate those values. Alignment and transparency have become two key principles of our efforts to identify desired behaviors.

Within our finance and administration division, we adopted a set of goals that includes customer satisfaction, financial equilibrium, a high-performance organization, and employee satisfaction. Unlike some cases where goals are relegated to a file until the next staff retreat, we have made a concerted effort to incorporate these as a living part of who we are at Yale and to make our values an integral part of our goal setting. When we set goals, we identify how they connect to our stated values and mission and then articulate exactly how we will define and measure success. We then hold ourselves accountable for achieving these goals. For example, for one of our stated goals to improve customer satisfaction, we make sure that our key initiatives include measures based on customer feedback, and we post results on our Web site.

By articulating vision and goals and discussing them openly with each other, we challenge ourselves. Does a particular behavior support our stated values? Translating our mission, values, and strategic priorities into specific employee behaviors is a long-term commitment requiring constant attention at every level of the organization. What’s key is making sure your leadership team models appropriate behaviors, rewards them, customizes the behaviors as necessary for various levels and functions, and holds people at all levels accountable for behavior as well as results.

Having said that, we have also learned that it’s important not to overwhelm yourself or your staff with a laundry list of priorities. Whenever we gather as a group, the list of priorities can easily grow, since there is never a shortage of ideas about what we need to do. However, we’ve learned to limit goals to those that are truly strategic and doable. In this way, employees better understand how what they do—and how they do it—connects to the university’s larger goals, and they have a clearer sense of what to realistically focus on.

No, No, No, and No!

Does your staff show up each morning raring to go…and work collaboratively throughout the day, achieving strong results along the way? If your institution is attempting to become a workplace of choice, avoid these potential pitfalls.

  • DON'T start without true buy-in from senior leadership across the institution. They must commit personal time, financial resources, and people. During Yale’s transformation, we were fortunate to have top-level support and engagement from the president, the provost and the other officers—all of whom committed time and dedicated hard and soft resources to our efforts. The workplace survey and our extensive follow-up efforts were sponsored at the top, as were the labor-management initiative and productivity efforts.
  • DON'T underestimate the potential for resistance. Change is tough, even when people believe in it. We recognized that significant pockets of resistance existed within our management population to the changes we needed to further our goal of becoming a workplace of choice. When committees were first forming, we spoke a lot about how to work with people resistant to change. But we may have seriously underestimated the potential for resistance, even among those who wanted success. This was most visible in the labor-management initiative we launched. Before forming a labor-management team, we did not always find out first if the department head really understood how such a team could lead directly to helping their bottom line or if they were ready to commit the time, financial resources, and staff needed to meet the goals. Change is difficult even in the best of circumstances. When you combine the need for aggressive change with the long and often bitter history between unions and management, you enter an environment fraught with fear and assumptions.
  • DON'T involve the "easy" people only. Reach out to your most vocal potential critics. If we had this to do over at Yale, we would spend time reaching out to potential critics early in the process. One school in particular had already formed a few committees within its units before it became clear that the deans were not on board. Many of the deans did not know what the program was about, what was expected of them, or even why they should devote scarce resources to something that they did not see as directly connected to the bottom-line results for which they were held accountable. Had we worked more closely with these senior managers up front, we could have allowed a group of opinion leaders to better understand the potential for productivity increases by working collaboratively with frontline staff. Once a few agreed to try the new approach and began to see measurable improvements in service levels, they became natural spokespeople for the new approach, providing testimonials to their colleagues. In turn, their colleagues were then more prone to take their experience as an impetus to start their own labor-management committees to work on real productivity issues of interest to everyone on staff. That raises another key issue: If the committees are not working on issues critical to the unit’s success, they quickly become an ancillary obligation and people find reasons not to participate. Early adopters are often your best advocates for change. Take time up front to develop trust and respect.
  • DON'T venture down this path if you aren’t in it for the long haul. Once you decide to shape your institution into a workplace of choice, know that no quick fix will create an atmosphere of employee engagement. Bumps in the road are the norm, and there is no point in time when you can expect to say, “we’re done.” This is not a project; it’s a journey requiring a long-term, institutionwide commitment.

Link Results to Budget

Recommendation Four: Measure and track results, communicate success, and be patient. Don’t be discouraged if quantifiable results aren’t immediately apparent.

In the same way that people can become overwhelmed by too many goals, employees need to understand that the work they’re doing is relevant and recognized. Performance management discussions are ongoing with many units in finance and administration, with clearly defined goals and support to reach them. We also are focusing on identifying, celebrating, and sharing accomplishments. We’ve developed metrics linked to our strategic goals, and we track savings from our productivity initiatives. For example, during the past year we significantly improved our campus shuttle services, creating shorter round-trip rides and more frequent service without the need for additional funding and increasing ridership by 40 percent.

Furthermore, recommendations of our task forces have led to these significant savings:

  • We completely reorganized the university’s printing and publishing services, developing a structure to provide practical publishing solutions, including increased use of digital and on-demand printing. By developing guidelines, tools, and training to manage departments’ publishing needs and increase productivity, we are beginning to reduce costs to departments, with budgeted savings of $800,000 in the first year.
  • We went through a strategic planning and reorganization effort to take purchasing and accounts payable services from a transaction-based, highly decentralized function to a strategic approach that leverages the university’s annual spending on goods and services. We did so by coordinating purchases across departments, negotiating universitywide contracts, and implementing electronic procurement solutions. These productivity efforts are budgeted to save $25 million over three years.
  • We are improving travel services for faculty and staff by simplifying policies, streamlining reimbursement processes, and moving toward online provision of many travel services for an annual savings of $1 million.

Many projects require up-front investments to succeed and must be clearly linked to future savings. For example, our publishing services and procurement projects have savings targets linked directly to the budget. Managers know they are accountable for results. High-level support is key, as investments often need to be made up front for technology, consultants, or organizational change. Without sufficient start-up funds, managers may try to do everything themselves in addition to their regular jobs. While it may save money to do something yourself, a good project plan can help you think through exactly what resources and expertise you’ll need and help determine whether you have those resources in-house or whether investing in the project now can lead to measurable savings later.

Workplace of Choice Wisdom

Words to the wise for engaging employees in the workplace:

  • Build trust and develop ground rules for behavior before jumping into any project.
  • Be clear about expectations, and share concerns with one another.
  • Define success in a way that incorporates measurable outcomes.
  • Intervene quickly when things go wrong—which they will.
  • Create a climate that accepts mistakes.
  • Stay close to early initiatives to help them stay on course.
  • Talk openly and honestly, especially when it’s hard to do so.
  • Celebrate every achievement.

By tying savings directly into the budget, we have a clear target that we must meet. We also share updates on our work with faculty and staff via Web sites, employee publications, and e-mails.

Focus on People First and Always

Recommendation Five: Embed these principles in all people-related processes.

Truly connecting people to your institution requires a concerted effort from the day you hire an employee until the day he or she leaves the institution. We have included a cultural component in our candidate profiles when we recruit for new employees and have revised our interviewing protocols to align with the behaviors we’re seeking. Once employees are on board, we tell them what is expected of them right away in terms of participation in the work of the university.

As we look at our management and leadership development processes as well as succession planning, we have recognized the need to reinforce these new expectations of involvement and to promote and reward people in leadership roles who embody these principles. Some positions that have been visibly affected are human resources staff, whose roles have been redefined to meet the needs of their customers rather than to be subject-matter specialists. Now departments have one contact for any number of human resources issues whereas before they had to sort through a long list of names and hope to find the right person.

Managers also have a specific goal in their performance plans that focuses on developing employees and providing them with career opportunities well beyond their current position so they can have a satisfying career at Yale—either growing within their position or moving up within the organization. In finance and administration, senior managers work toward this goal by holding talent planning sessions where they share ideas about emerging stars who might be ready to advance and long-term employees who may flourish with the challenge of a special project. These frank discussions not only identify potential candidates for positions and projects, but also help us develop skills within our staff so they can be ready to take on additional responsibilities.

As part of becoming a workplace of choice, we’ve sought to create a stronger sense of community among our business managers. With responsibilities for all business services within their own department, many business managers can at times feel isolated from the university’s finance and administration division. Perhaps worse, they sometimes perceive finance and administration as having a policing role, coming to them with additional policies and financial systems and practices—in short, more work. To foster a sense of partnership, our vice president for finance and administration and senior staff now meet regularly with the business managers of the larger departments and divisions. Communication is open, direct, and two-way as we learn from others’ experiences, voice common frustrations, and share ideas for improving services.

We also worked with this group to test the idea of a career path for business managers at Yale. Too often, a business manager spends his or her entire career in one department and only through personal initiative and perseverance is able to carve a path of upward mobility in business services. The division of finance and administration worked with human resources to review job descriptions, look for common skill sets, and develop ways to share information about an employee’s potential and career interests. Within the division, senior administrators also share candid performance appraisals about their top staff, soliciting input from colleagues and sharing information about potential projects or positions that might highlight a star performer’s skills. Whereas losing a top performer was previously seen as a loss to the unit, we’re now considering how to engage and challenge top performers to enable them to work across disciplines.

Yale One Year Later

As we began our workplace of choice initiative, the strong commitment from our president and officers provided the needed support to develop a labor-management partnership. The leaders of the unions were equally committed, since they saw the need to undertake productivity initiatives to ensure their long-term competitive position in an environment that increasingly showed outsourcing as a viable option. Managers also were eager for an opportunity to be true partners in helping Yale provide business services at a level equal to the university’s teaching and research reputation. Senior officers sought ideas from the entire Yale community, and our finance and administration division reviewed and reaffirmed its mission of support service and adopted “working smarter, saving time and money, enjoying it more” as a way to articulate our values.

Happily, our initial successes in a number of departments have fostered a feeling of hope and excitement in our labor-management collaboration and in our work with department administrators. Some managers and staff members remain skeptical, believing that old habits are too hard to change. Yet, the sense of possibility among many at Yale is palpable.

Senior leaders within the university and within the unions remain vocal and constant supporters of a culture of participation and employee involvement. This helps provide a consistent articulation of our vision, mission, values, and strategic priorities. Leaders of the effort also take pains to model cooperative behavior. Even when discussions get heated, we’re able to refrain from personalizing the disagreement as we have done in the past. As we continue to fine-tune our people-related systems for recruitment, selection, development, and talent and performance management, we will further reflect and strengthen our commitment to becoming a workplace of choice where employees are satisfied, productive, and committed to giving their best efforts every day to serve the university’s mission.

Is Yale a workplace of choice? Have we arrived? We are a long way from declaring victory and have come to believe that, in fact, there is no clear end point. Creating a workplace in which people are truly engaged and committed to the organization and where behaviors match the institution’s values is an ongoing process rather than a project with a beginning and an end. Even with the growing enthusiasm on campus, our experience has reinforced our understanding that this effort requires sustained commitment.

Once an institution embarks on becoming a workplace of choice, the process must be constantly nurtured at every level of the organization and perceived as a priority by senior leaders. To truly succeed, established values and behaviors must become embedded in such a way that the changes last well beyond the tenure of any one individual. Much harm can be done by starting to change organizational culture and then pulling back—for whatever reason. Remember, people who are truly engaged and committed to your institution are putting their hopes and ideas on the line. It’s critical to recognize how precious that kind of commitment is and to channel that energy and enthusiasm into creating a workplace environment all employees can embrace.

Janet Lindner is associate vice president for administration, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Janet Castricum is vice president, organizational consulting, Right Management Consultants, Stamford, Connecticut.

janet.lindner@yale.edu; janet.castricum@right.com