Create an Esprit-de-Corps Culture
Want to retain your best? Create a workplace that inspires new ideas, encourages professional curiosity, and invites complete employee engagement.
By Margo Vanover Porter
With unemployment hovering in or near the double digits, many employees have been staying put. So, you might think, staff motivation and engagement can be put on the back burner until the economy picks up. Right?
Wrong, says Patrick Wamsley, chief financial officer, the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston. "It is important to remember that high performers have options about where they work," says Wamsley. "They continue to receive job inquiries and offers even during the most challenging economic times. That is why it is critical to continually 're-recruit' them. Research has long validated that most valued employees do not shift for money—they shift for a feeling of contribution, belonging, and achievement."
Institutions that don't take these kinds of steps during troubled economic times are making a mistake, insists Mary Main, director of human resources, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine. "I would argue that now is the time to be even more vigilant, because when the economy does turn around—and it will—we don't want to have to play catch-up," she says. "We need to be a genuine, good employer all the time. If we're not now, they will leave when the economy turns around. We have to be the best we can be all the time."
Wamsley believes that concentrating on employee satisfaction now will help your institution as much as your staff. "Employee engagement impacts leadership and institutional success in many ways," he says. "Business officers need to understand that there is a critical link between employee engagement and results of operations. It affects morale, productivity, and creativity in very real ways, and it is ultimately reflected in the bottom line. However, the bottom line is just the beginning of a long list of benefits stemming from employee engagement."
Connected, involved employees are industrious employees, affirms Jaffus Hardrick, vice president for human resources, Florida International University (FIU), Miami. "When you have employees who are engaged, they are highly productive," he says. "They are satisfied. They are employees who will provide excellent customer service to all of your constituents."
He agrees that it's an error to think, "It's a bad economy. They aren't going anywhere, anyhow." His philosophy: "This is a time when we really have to dig deep and show compassion to our top talent, to retain them and keep them happy."
So how do you go about attracting staff's attention, developing interactive professional relationships, and, ultimately, keeping them on your team? Higher education HR experts point to four essentials: communication, professional development, supervisor competence, and staff involvement.
Keep Employees in the Loop
Particularly during troubling times, communication is a must, advises Wamsley. "There is a tendency to try to shelter employees from bad news," he says. "However, more often than not, such a strategy backfires. Employees have a pretty good idea what is going on and can be your most valuable allies in figuring out how to deal with bad situations. Additionally, they really appreciate being kept in the loop. This leads us to follow an axiom: In challenging times, double your communications and triple your recognitions."
Bates College took this approach recently with promising results. "When the budget crisis hit us a couple of years ago, the vice president of finance and administration went 'on the road' and spoke to every employee—faculty and staff—of the college," Main explains. "She engaged in a dialogue, saying, 'Here is the financial picture. Here are the constraints. Here are possible strategies. Do you have more? Let's talk about what those strategies mean to everyone.' She did that all over the campus, and virtually everyone attended one of those sessions. That was a really wonderful experience in terms of reaching out to our community and opening up a dialogue."
When the economy went south, Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina, actively increased communication with employees. "We made a concerted effort to talk about the situation with employees," says Ronald L. Rhames, vice president for business affairs. "They knew what we knew when the state was making decisions about the budget. They also knew we were doing everything we could to protect them. As the CFO, I don't want to be blindsided. I don't like to blindside them, either."
By being proactive, you may even keep the rumor mill from spiraling out of control, Rhames says. "There's a lot of information that may be misinformation or wrong information," he says. "During recent budget cuts, we decided against a reduction in force or furloughs. We found other ways. This college made a commitment to three basic things: the teaching and learning process, the students, and the employees. We told employees that."
Of course, true communication should be a two-way exchange, points out Jaffus Hardrick. "You have to create a forum whereby employees are able to provide feedback," he says. "You have to have an administration and organization willing to listen to the voice of the people. Your employees do the work day in and day out. Sometimes as administrators, we're looking at issues from a high level. We're thinking more strategically, not necessarily on the ground floor with employees who are managing day-to-day issues."
At FIU, leaders listen to staff needs and concerns, says Trudy Fernandez, director of human resource customer relations. Her example: On a recent survey, 100 employees expressed their desire to meet in person to verbalize opinions that couldn't be shared in a survey. Leaders didn't look at this as a problem, according to Fernandez, but as an opportunity. "We literally went through 100 one-on-one meetings to hear what they had to say and to address whatever we needed to address."
Professional Development Counts
Although it may seem counterintuitive, Midlands Technical College has maintained a commitment to professional development during a period of state budget cutbacks. "We recognize that our students need faculty who have the very best knowledge available," Rhames says, "and we want to be as efficient as possible, which means that our staff needs to be trained and kept abreast of new ways of doing things. It's that total commitment to employees. Employees need to feel that we, as administrators, care about them."
"We follow an axiom: In challenging times, double your communications and triple your recognitions."
Patrick Wamsley, the Medical University of South Carolina
To engage employees, Bates College initiated a staff-enrichment program several years ago. "We knew from an employee-engagement survey that the No. 1 dissatisfaction among staff was that there was no staff-development program," Main says. "We took a really hard look at that and decided to come out boldly with a new approach. We set aside a week in June for staff enrichment and community building."
That week, the college provides a free lunch for all staff and faculty to bring them together. One lunchtime event features bingo; another day, an employee-recognition lunch. On two of the days, the dining staff participate in the Cat's Cup Culinary Challenge, a cook-off similar to competitions on the Food Network. "We have a judging panel made up of staff," Main says. "We also have a People's Choice Award. Different stations get to try out unique and interesting dishes that might show up on the menu in the next year. We vote on the best station and the best meal. It's really fun and draws a huge crowd."
During the community-building week, in mornings and afternoons, the college sponsors workshops that last from one to two hours and enrich various aspects of employee life. For example, Main says, a financial track might feature personal budgeting, investment options for retirement, or safely purchasing Internet items. The tracks, which change every year, cover a variety of everyday subjects, such as technology, arts, and nature.
The week is strategically scheduled in June, according to Main. "Students are gone when we offer this," she says. "We found a week right after commencement and before summer programs start. We took a huge leap forward in our staff-development program, as well as building our community. We heard right away that employees enjoyed the chance to sit down in a class with someone whose name they may have heard but with whom they had never interacted."
She emphasizes that while work does slow down for five days, it doesn't stop. "It's not that people aren't working," she insists. "It's just that they have the opportunity to step away from their desks and go to a class, meet some people, and learn some things that are not just about building their competencies and skills but rather recognizing that a whole person comes to work. If we can help employees with their exercise program or finances or hobbies, that's great. All of these things will enrich their lives."
It Starts With the Supervisor
Employees usually begin a new position with a positive attitude and a desire to make a difference, but "the workplace environment often wears them down," Wamsley says. "Their supervisor may lack managerial skills, they may not have the tools or equipment they need to effectively do their job, or they may become frustrated with an attitude of indifference compounded with a lack of accountability or competency."
If you take a close look at all the dimensions of employee engagement, you'll discover that many start with an employee's supervisor, says Margaret Ann Gray, director of organization and employee development, human resources, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge. "A lot of research indicates that when people leave an organization, one of the main reasons is because of their direct supervisor. The other side of that coin is many times people stay in an organization because of their direct supervisor. That person has a huge impact on the team."
In addition to credibility and competency, Gray believes employees seek personal support from their supervisors. "Really great supervisors see their employees as whole human beings and realize that employees have a life outside of work," she says. "They recognize they may sometimes need to help employees cope with or get through a crisis. When supervisors do that, they end up with very loyal employees."
Mark Coldren, associate vice president for human resources, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York, also places a high priority on the supervisor/employee relationship. "Supervisors are the critical elements in helping people feel more involved and engaged. While we all may have leadership-development programs, do we focus on that relationship?" he asks. "Your supervisors need to get people involved; treat them with respect; and value the diversity of the campus in terms of point of view, background, ethnicity, and gender. If you don't have respect for the individual front and center, it's pretty hard for you to have an engaged campus."
Main believes there is a direct correlation between morale and engagement. "I haven't been in an organization where people don't feel engaged but morale is high," she says. "Employee engagement is directly tied to how you feel about having a voice, how you feel about your supervisor and the work you're being asked to do, and how you're being asked to do it. All those things that make up engagement directly relate to how employees feel about the organization."
According to Hardrick, one common supervisor mistake is not taking the time to say thank you. Results of an FIU survey from several years ago indicated that employees, who were working especially long hours because of the economy, wanted their supervisors to express more appreciation for their hard work. "Unfortunately, they just weren't getting the kudos they felt they deserved," he explains. "Research continues to show it's not always the money. People want to be recognized, and they want to be given opportunities to grow. These are times when organizations have to reevaluate how they retain and develop top talent."
Because they are so essential to engagement, supervisors should be selected with care, according to Rhames. "When you are recruiting, decide what you want and what you value. I'm talking about characteristics beyond the job description. Tell candidates, 'Here's what we expect.'"
Coldren advises institutions to look for supervisors who are emotionally intelligent, self-aware, and understand they are the first point of connection to their direct reports. "You are looking at an investment in the relationship between the supervisor and employee, so you can't just focus on technical competency," he says. "Good supervisors demonstrate a capacity to understand people, to listen to them, to be clear about expectations."
Involve Your Employees
Employees want to feel empowered to take initiative and participate in decision making, says Gray. "Many successful employees at MIT have what we call a bias for action," Gray explains. "The students and faculty are entrepreneurial, which spills over to those of us who are staff. People who take initiative and participate in making decisions are successful. Part of the reason they are successful is that they are engaged."
At Midlands Technical College, employees are encouraged right off the bat to take initiative. During orientation, Rhames tells new employees, "'You are a fresh set of eyes. We want you to take a look at us-not necessarily with a negative eye but with a critical eye. If you see something we can do better, let us know.'
"I also encourage them to volunteer for committees and get involved in student activities and the community, so they can feel a greater connection to the college," he continues.
When the recession began crimping budgets, Bates College created a cost-savings initiative (CSI). "We encouraged employees to submit cost-saving ideas in their own functional areas," Main says, "which was very successful. In our first year, employees came up with more than $600,000 in cost-savings initiatives." For example, she explains that a CSI suggestion prompted her department to move to paperless paychecks and paperless W-2 forms.
Main believes managers must get out of their corner offices and mingle with employees, soliciting their ideas. "CSI was not a management response. We had suggestions come from all levels of the organization," she says. "Every department met and asked, 'So what can we do?' Engagement is about listening to the ideas out there. You can't do that unless you're out and about, hosting events, and talking to people about their daily lives."
Bates also created a staff and faculty taskforce that spent 18 months examining employee benefit plans. "Our goal was not to cut benefits," Main says, "but rather to slow the growth rate of the benefits package and ensure best practice in offering a competitive benefits package for our employees." The committee, which just finished its work, has submitted a proposal to senior staff for redesigning benefits to be more effective and efficient, while meeting the needs of employees.
She thinks it's important that the benefits task force reached its conclusions without senior management influence. "When you make decisions at the highest level without engaging employees, that's when things start to erode," she says. "What disengages employees is when they're not being asked to participate and have a voice, when they are not being challenged in their work, and when they don't feel like their supervisor is really listening to their suggestions and thoughts. We all want to be paid well and have great benefits, but beyond those basic needs of employment, we want to feel like we're considered part of the community and have a voice."
Make It a Way of Life
After you have implemented programs that increase communication, staff development, supervisor competency, and employee involvement, your work isn't finished, advises Hardrick. "You need to continue to clue in employees, have conversations with them, and show respect," he says. "It may be as simple as just getting together for lunch or having dinner together. Simple things can build collaboration."
Other steps that experts recommend for building engagement include the following:
Measure results. Coldren suggests conducting an employee survey at the beginning of the process to establish a baseline and another survey after you make changes. "If you go the route of a survey, you're asking how people feel at the moment. It's a mistake if you don't turn around and share the data. It's also a mistake if you share the data but don't do anything with it."
You can obtain valuable feedback from survey results, Hardrick says, as long as you don't take comments personally. "When an organization does a survey, the employees may provide information you may deem as negative," he says. "You need to find value in trying to flesh that out to discover employee concerns and make the necessary improvements."
Map out career paths. Engaged employees want to see a visible path for future career growth. Although upward would be ideal, the path can also be across or lateral, points out Gray. "Seeing that I can grow in my job keeps me engaged because I know there's a path for me."
Link each employee's job to the institution's mission. "To what degree can each employee see that the work he or she is doing matters to the mission of the organization?" asks Gray. "We want people to see that their work, whatever it is, has an impact on MIT's mission and its role."
The communication and events surrounding the MIT 150 helped demonstrate MIT's past and present mission, she explains. "It was our 150th year, and for 150 days we did way more than 150 things to celebrate what MIT is. We saw the difference it made in employees. Of course, you can't wait 150 years to do that," she adds.
Wamsley agrees that employees need to understand how their efforts contribute to the overall success of the institution. "Behaviors which contribute to that success must be hardwired into the institutional culture so that results of such behaviors are visible and successes are celebrated," he says. "This creates a positive atmosphere that builds upon itself."
Give employees the opportunity to perform well at challenging work. "The key word is 'challenging,'" Gray emphasizes. "If I'm doing mundane work, the quality of my work will become mundane. I need work that is challenging."
Backtracking a bit, she quickly points out that every job includes some mundane aspects. "I tell people all the time, 'If you love what you're doing 80 percent of the time, you're in a really good place.' There will always be 20 percent that you don't want to do."
Make a long-term commitment. "Employee engagement is a way of life, not a one-time thing," Gray says. "It's not this year's flavor. It's not an event or a memo or once-a-year holiday party. If you make it a way of life, you've got it."
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.