NACUBO

My NacuboWhy Join: Benefits of Membership

E-mail:   Password:   

 Remember Me? | Forgot password? | Need an online account?

Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas
Loading

Balancing Efficiency With Humanity: Tackling a Full-Scale Staff Reorganization

July 28, 2015

By J. Kirsten Turner

In 2013, the University of Kentucky's College of Arts and Sciences undertook a large-scale staffing reorganization, directly affecting more than 100 people and indirectly affecting approximately 50 more. The total reorganization, from conception to full implementation, took more than two years to complete. It caused much anxiety and confusion, but the hard work helped the college address several long-standing issues of workflow inefficiency and salary inequity and provided an opportunity to reshape its culture and commitment to service excellence. What follows in Part 1 of this article is an overview of the reorganization and implementation plan. Part 2, "Flipping the Switch: Igniting a New Staff Culture," highlights what the college did to reshape its work culture following this massive staff reorganization, and lessons learned along the way.

The University of Kentucky (UK) College of Arts and Sciences consists of 18 academic departments and more than 12 interdisciplinary programs. We have an annual operating budget of more than $70 million that supports 440 faculty and 185 staff. The college teaches more than half of the university's undergraduate general degree requirements and has 5,000 undergraduate majors and 1,000 graduate students and post-doctoral scholars.

In 2013, more than 180 people comprised the Arts and Sciences staff. Approximately 20 percent were research staff who worked closely with faculty on individual research projects and were hired through the funding of external grants. The reorganization did not involve these individuals. Of the remaining staff, close to half worked in administrative units (e.g., academic advising, development, external relations, information technology, budget office, dean's office support, etc.) and approximately half worked in academic departments and programs (e.g., personnel dealing with departmental-based budgets, administrative support to the department chairs and directors of undergraduate studies and graduate studies, laboratory assistants, departmental-based research support, etc.). The reorganization affected the majority of these staff, either directly through position reconfiguration or elimination, or indirectly from the revision of operating procedures.

The reorganization took more than two years to complete and was roughly divided into three stages: 1) the planning stage, which commenced in spring 2012; 2) the implementation stage, which began in spring 2013; and 3) the culture-building and policy development stage, which started in summer 2013 and continued through 2014 and beyond.

EXTERNAL FORCES

Like any college within a university, UK's College of Arts and Sciences is part of a wider organization and thus must work within that larger context. In 2012, several factors were pressing us to rethink our staffing structure. These included the possibility of a new university budgeting model, a move to create integrated business units (IBUs), and the prospect of budget reductions.

New budgeting model. At the time, the university was evaluating a new, comprehensive budgeting model that potentially would allocate tuition revenue based on student credit-hour production and student FTE. Historically, the university had operated under the premise of an incremental budgeting system, receiving more or less than the previous year based on resource requests and allocations. The new budgeting model would grant us greater control over our resources, but we were going to need a different type of workforce, one with more financial and data expertise in areas such as budget, enrollment patterns, teaching resources, student recruitment, and retention. 

Creation of integrated business units. Although not institutionally prescribed, the idea of centralized service units for business functions was beginning to take hold in many of UK's academic colleges. We wanted to move proactively to ensure that we kept all the business transactions and business staff within the college by setting up our own IBUs.

Budget reductions. The college was also facing potential budget reductions. Since we are an academic unit, most of our budget (more than 90 percent) was tied to salaries and benefits. Any reductions were going to impact people. After many discussions with college leadership (i.e., department chairs, faculty executive council, associate deans, and dean) the decision was made to preserve tenure-stream faculty and graduate student lines at all costs. It was also decided that money allocated to the academic life of the college must remain intact (e.g., monies for seminars, faculty travel, internal research awards, etc.). The only option left was reducing administrative staff lines.

INTERNAL FACTORS

In addition to external forces, several factors internal to the college suggested the need for a staffing overhaul. These included an uneven distribution of staffing resources, salary compression, long-standing cultural issues, faculty who supervised staff, a lack of community, and little focus on professional development.

Uneven staffing resources. Prior to 2012, the college had never undertaken a systematic review of why it was staffed the way it was, including why certain departments and administrative units had the number of personnel they did. The allocation of personnel reflected discrete, iterative decisions over time that resulted in an uneven distribution of staffing resources (e.g., one-time budget reductions or increases, effective arguments during good times to deans and unit heads, etc.). No data analytics or efficiency measures had been deployed to determine appropriate staffing levels or to match staff skills and abilities with needs. 

Salary compression. Many of our staff salaries were low. Although we had begun to address this issue prior to the reorganization, we had a long way to go. A long-standing tradition (40-plus years) in the college was to hire staff at the lowest levels and salaries possible. The result over time was a severe salary compression among our staff. Yet, with limited resources available, any "extra" money, understandingly, went to improve the salaries of our faculty and graduate students, who competed on a national market and drove the mission of the college. 

A great cultural divide. There was also a real divide in perceived value between the staff who worked in the academic departments compared to the staff who worked in the college's central units (e.g., dean's office, academic advising, fundraising and development, external relations, information technology, etc.). At its simplest level this was perceived as a culture of the "haves" and "have nots." Department staff viewed the central staff as having more (e.g., higher salaries, more information, better workstations, greater access to decision making, more influence, etc.). There was also a real sense that central college staff did not treat department staff with respect. Regardless if this perception was real or not, department staff believed it and were afraid to ask for help or to pose questions. They did not want to appear as if they did not know how to do their jobs. The end result was a highly divided culture that persisted year after year.

Need for staff advocacy. Many of our staff, both in academic departments and in central units, were supervised by faculty, including department chairs and associate deans. In many instances these were great relationships, but in some ways faculty made poor staff supervisors. For starters, many had never been employees in a traditional sense. For instance, they never had to answer daily to a supervisor, they never had to take direction on projects, they never had to account for their time, and so forth. In a similar vein, few had ever been supervisors in the traditional sense. While they might have known how to be mentors for junior faculty, very few understood the career trajectories of staff or the skills and abilities needed to complete the tasks and duties for which their staff were responsible. Our faculty supervisors simply did not have the experience or expertise to mentor staff or supervise them in a context that fostered long-term professional growth.

Another cause for concern was that faculty supervisors rotated. Department chairs served four-year terms, associate deans served three-year terms, and so forth. For staff, this meant their direct supervisor changed often, contributing to their anxiety and confusion. Staff felt isolated and dependent on the whim of the current department chair or associate dean, with little to no recourse if the supervisor relationship turned problematic.

Lack of community. Not surprising, there was little collegiality among the staff. Although pockets of community existed within discrete units (e.g., information technology, advising), there was no broad sense of community across the college. Moreover, many of our department-based staff were isolated. In the smaller departments, there might be only one staff member who worked exclusively with that department's chair and faculty. Larger departments had more staff, but their work was typically contained within their local department. The distribution of collegewide information or training was scarce, and the generation of ideas and voices was limited to staff in the dean's office.

Professional development. Our staff model at the time was not structured around expertise. Instead, staff were oriented around physical location and academic discipline, resulting in too many generalists and uneven services. Work was often duplicated in both the academic departments and the dean's office. In smaller departments, one person was asked to maintain the budget, deal with all personnel issues, receive students and answer their questions, provide administrative support for the department chair, and perform a series of outdated tasks (e.g., making photocopies, getting coffee, etc.). In larger departments, there was more division of labor, but no systematic program or push for professional development, deepened expertise, cross-training, or sharing of information and ideas across units and position types. Essentially, we were a collection of islands, operating side by side.

We found this incredibly disjointed, given that a university, at its most basic level, is about developing people and deepening expertise. We facilitate faculty careers, develop students, and engage with lifelong learners, yet staff are often an invisible component in our enterprise, particularly as they relate to professional development and investment. Thus, we decided that any reorganization would require a staffing structure that not only served our faculty and students in meeting their goals, but also prioritized the development of staff as experts in their contributions, work, and career progression. For our dean, the opportunity to professionalize the staff with career advancement was one of the most compelling arguments for undergoing a reorganization.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES

Taken collectively, the external forces and internal factors underscored that it was time to change our staffing structure. This was not an easy prospect, nor a popular one, among either our staff or our faculty. The faculty and department chairs felt great loyalty and respect for their staff and were not eager to make substantial changes that potentially centralized functions and people. Given our current climate and culture, the staff had serious concerns as well. Despite understandable resistance, we felt that to become a college that promoted excellence, to respond to the changes we anticipated were coming, and to fix long-standing issues of inefficiency, we needed to dramatically alter our workflow and structure.

To begin, we returned to our core. As a college of liberal arts, we are about people and ideas and the interplay of individuals, organizations, and society. As such, we placed the treatment of our people—future and current staff—at the center of our guiding principles. This was not to ignore our fiscal and moral commitments to run an ethical and efficient college. As a public institution, we must use the public's funds in the best possible manner. That said, we believed that efficiency and fiscal stewardship could coexist alongside a focus on human value, and we wanted to balance these two goals as we created a new staffing order. 

To operationalize our goal of placing people first, we conceptualized a staff structure that provided the faculty and students with the absolute highest levels of support and service by prioritizing expertise, creativity, continuous improvement, and staff accountability. We wanted to elevate staff positions by rewarding competency, and to create a positive staff culture with opportunities for professional development, collegiality, community, and advancement.

STAGE 1: PLANNING

Once we set our guiding principles, our dean offered one structural requirement: At least one staff member had to be dedicated to, and located physically within, every department. In other words, we could not centralize everything. The purpose for this requirement was to better enable the work of faculty and students. Because the new system was going to centralize many of the services our faculty and students need (e.g., travel, reimbursements, enrollment management, facility requests, etc.), we wanted to have a staff member in each department who could be a point of contact so that faculty could walk down the hall and receive help. Had we centralized everyone, we would have set up more barriers to faculty work. We also would have lost an important feedback loop, since our departmental personnel tell us when policies, procedures, and practices are working well for faculty and students and when they are not.

To begin our work, we created two committees: one to develop plans for the reorganization, and a second to think through our new staff culture. The reorganization committee spent the next nine months in discussion before we officially announced the direction in which we were headed. During those early months we outlined the following priorities: 

  • Build teams and units around existing tasks and expertise (e.g., payroll, purchasing, back-end grant management, facilities management, enrollment management, etc.).
  • Separate academic administration from business administration. For instance, develop a cadre of department managers skilled as high-level administrators who manage the daily operation of the department or program, but also perform long-term projects, such as benchmarking and environmental scanning, and who work collectively to share information, cross-train, and develop a support system. Similarly, develop a cadre of budget analysts who are trained to provide high-level financial forecasting and analysis for departments and programs and who serve as a team of financial experts for the college.
  • Create a professional workforce responsible for more complicated projects while employing talented undergraduate and graduate students as integral team members who provide logistical and clerical support.
  • Leverage technology to minimize process.

Similarly, the committee concerned with our new staff culture developed a companion outline of priorities:

  • Develop a culture that values expertise and excellence in service.
  • Develop a culture of continuous improvement.
  • Facilitate the work of our faculty and students, adding value, not obstacles, to their work.
  • Prioritize the purpose and goal of projects instead of processes.
  • Develop a culture of respect, professional development, collegiality, and ownership.

These two committees continued to meet throughout the summer and fall of 2012, using their outlines to develop plans and internally vet and revise draft versions. During those months, committee members explored two major considerations: 1) dividing academic administration from business administration, and 2) creating centralized services and IBUs.

Dividing academic administration from business administration. In many departments we had one or two staff members wearing multiple hats while performing all academic administrative duties and all business functions. To address the goal of building professional expertise, we decided to divide academic administrative duties from business functions. To do so, we created a new staff position of department manager to concentrate solely on academic administrative duties. Each department was to have its own manager physically located in the department. The department managers would serve as the coordinating staff members of their departments and programs and provide high-level administrative support to their department and program leadership. They would help faculty interface with all service units inside and some outside of the college and help manage department and program workflow and calendars. 

In many ways, the department managers became the linchpin of our new staffing model. They had to have excellent people skills and to understand nuance and the art and politics of getting work done within a bureaucracy. They had to know how the daily business of their department or program fit into department and program goals and vision as well as the goals and vision of the college and university. They also needed to be resourceful, good listeners, able to manage multiple projects and provide high-level support to their chairs and directors while managing relationships across the college and within the university.

Without the buy-in of talented department managers, our reorganization would have failed. Because these positions were new and untested, we feared they would be confusing to many. We wondered if people would understand how the department managers would function, if there would be enough work for them once all the budget responsibilities moved to the IBUs, and how different their jobs would be from our current departmental assistants.

In the months that followed, we spent time rethinking and revising these positions to determine how to build more administrative capacity within the departments. Too often, our departments and programs were in reactive mode, constantly putting out fires and responding to the issues at hand. We conceptualized the department manager position as one that could perform much of the legwork attendant to strategic planning, benchmarking, and environmental scanning for the department, so we carved out space in the new job description to do so. The department leadership (chair, associate chair, etc.) would continue to set the priorities, but the department manager could be responsible for gathering all the necessary information to shape and base those priorities on information and research.

For example, a department or program might want to improve its graduate student recruitment process, build a faculty undergraduate student mentoring program, offer undergraduate research experiences, or offer incentive funding to mid-career faculty, to name a few. For each of these, the department manager could gather relevant information through benchmarking, environmental scanning, literature reviews, and so forth so that the department leadership, in turn, could develop their initiatives and goals thoughtfully and grounded in information and research. Department managers could then also share that expertise with the rest of the college's department managers in hopes of exchanging information and ideas for improvement across the college. 

Since many of our department managers did not have these information-gathering skillsets, we planned from the start to train them on the job. While such training has been slow as the reorganization has unfolded due to other priorities, during the past six months we have started to make progress on developing these skills among our department managers.

Today, our group of 32 department managers is one of the reorganization's success stories. They are a highly functioning team that works across the college and with each other while meeting the goals of their departments and programs and departmental leaders. Each department uses its department managers differently. Some focus more on long-term projects while others focus more on improving daily operations and efficiencies. Regardless of focus, these individuals have provided strong administrative capacity and expertise to help our departments function through the new staffing structure. They are also some of the most engaged employees with regard to our new staff culture. Given the great divide between central college staff and department staff prior to the reorganization, this enhanced level of engagement has been a major improvement of our new structure.

Centralized services and integrated business units. With the department managers dedicated to academic administrative services, we created several centralized service units and IBUs. Our staffing model focused on centralizing functions that were common across the college and offered economies of scale (e.g., travel, course scheduling) or functions that benefited greatly from deepened expertise (e.g., data analytics, student recruitment, space and facilities management).

Of the centralized teams created, each is led by a full-time professional staff member. With regard to our IBUs, every department or program has an assigned budget analyst who works directly with department or program leadership and the department manager on overall budgetary issues and needs. Each budget analyst has a portfolio of departments, programs, and units, but is not physically located in the department.

The IBUs also contain other personnel with expertise in travel, purchasing, reconciliation, grant management, human resources, and payroll, among other responsibilities. We envisioned there would be significant cross-training among these personnel, leading to deepened expertise. When we conceptualized the structure, the budget analysts were not to supervise the IBU staff, but rather, to work in partnership. In reality this has functioned differently. In the past two years we have made major adjustments, including the consolidation of five IBUs to three; reassigning the IBU staff to budget analysts; and pulling grant management and payroll out of the IBU and making them their own centralized service unit. We also encountered an inability to provide as much cross-training as hoped, among other challenges and changes.

Many of these changes were informed by two years of data analytics, as we tracked every transaction and discrete work task through an internally developed computing system. For example, we now know how many travel requests, reconciliations, reimbursements, and so forth that each IBU processes and the time it takes to complete these transactions. As a result, we have begun adjusting staffing levels and workload accordingly.

We still have more adjustments to make as resources become available, but we are mindful of change fatigue among our faculty and the IBU staff and are proceeding thoughtfully. For all of these reasons, the change to the IBU system has proven to be the most difficult aspect of the reorganization for staff and faculty and continues to be a work in progress. While the IBU system has presented many challenges, the IBU staff deserve much credit for keeping the college budget operating during this time of significant change.

A summary of the centralized or integrated teams and units we created include:

  • Integrated business units for travel, reconciliation, purchasing, and budget analysis.
  • External support and grant management (i.e., front-end and back-end grant management).
  • Human resources (i.e., payroll, hiring, performance evaluations, immigration, Family Medical Leave Act).
  • Facilities, space, and renovations.
  • Enrollment management and academic analysis (i.e., data analytics, recruitment, course scheduling).
  • Project management, event planning, and process improvement.
  • Creative and technical services (already a centralized unit).

Regarding the final unit noted, in spring 2011, prior to the reorganization, we joined our external relations and computing services units into a unified team renamed Hive: Creative and Technical Services. We did so because we foresaw enormous growth in the need for media production, technical assistance in academic and administrative computing, and substantive connections to the constituencies of the college. Today, Hive is a one-stop shop for all academic and administrative technical and creative needs. It employs approximately 18 professional staff and more than 35 student workers who span desktop support, computer programming, Web support, video and audio production, design, print, and written communication, among other services, for our faculty and staff. We structured the unit to be staff-led, but student produced, which has provided a rich laboratory for our student workers to learn and gain skills in a professional setting.

We also created a strong student employee program for all Arts and Sciences student workers. This centralized program includes regular performance evaluations, feedback loops, opportunities for growth, raise scales, onboarding, and exit interviews.

Once we felt that we had a viable restructuring plan in place, we began to gather feedback from department chairs, associate deans, our provost's office, and so forth. We spent more than five months discussing the potential structure and changes with our department chairs during their meetings, in small-group discussions, and in one-on-one sessions.

During these meetings, there was strong consensus about addressing salary compression. The main point of concern was centralizing staff reporting lines. The department chairs were invested in their staff and had heard for years about the cultural divide between the dean's office staff and the department staff. They were worried that the dean's office staff would not treat their staff well. They also had concerns about not directly supervising their departmental staff. They perceived it as a loss of control, concerned the staff would not be as responsive to departmental and faculty concerns. We had to assure them through action and words that our staff's primary focus would remain on enabling the work of the faculty, students, and departments. 

We felt it was extremely important that we take the time to have these conversations, build consensus, make concessions, and operate in a fully transparent method. By the end of this process the department chairs, with the exception of one or two, supported the reorganization—some with hesitancy, but almost all with trust. While at times it felt like we were treading water and revisiting the same concerns over and over, the slow and methodical discussions over the course of several months paid dividends that have continued to hold value. 

During this phase we also held periodic meetings with the full staff. In those early months we did not have much to provide in terms of details. Understandably, there was much anxiety, and we knew rumors were swirling. Regrettably, we lost some good employees who found other jobs in anticipation of forthcoming changes. 

STAGE 2: IMPLEMENTATION

Early in our deliberations we decided to try to capture all necessary staff reductions through natural attrition. As a staff member left, we simply did not rehire that position, in essence enacting a hiring freeze. We followed this course of action for nearly a year while we planned the reorganization. However, as anyone who has gone through a hiring freeze knows, attrition does not occur in a systematic way. The result was an uneven distribution of staffing resources. Some units and departments continued to remain fully staffed, while others were nearly gutted. By keeping the hiring freeze in place we were able to eliminate more positions than we planned to add in the reorganization. This allowed us to recoup additional resources to offer higher salaries and more professional development opportunities post-reorganization. Ultimately, the goal was a smaller workforce, but one that was better paid, more efficient, and more professional.

By December 2012, we were ready to publicly announce the new organizational structure. We held an all-staff meeting to explain the implementation process and timeline. The process was as follows: 1) create new positions; 2) advertise the positions; 3) invite all interested to apply; and 4) eliminate the old positions. Although all positions would be open to the public, we assured college staff that priority in hiring would be given to current Arts and Sciences employees.

At this meeting, we had staff on hand from the university's human resources office and the provost's budget office to answer questions. We started the meeting by stating that an entire recalibration of the staffing model only comes along once in a professional lifetime, and that as scary as change is, we had a chance to build something from the ground up, question all previous assumptions, rethink the way we do business, and embrace all the opportunities that change offers. In short, we wanted to seize the opportunity to shape something different that would inspire and define excellence.

Understandably, the morale of the staff was low. For nearly a year, they had lived with the fear of losing their jobs. People worried that in the end we would not rehire them, despite our assurances that we were prioritizing the hiring of internal staff. 

It was an anxious time as well for those of us on the reorganization committee. We could not guarantee staff members would be placed in the job of their choice. To further complicate matters, staff members would be competing against each other for the new positions. This only exacerbated anxiety and stress. To that end, it was important for us to provide as much scaffolding as possible to help staff through the process. We encouraged staff members to hedge their bets and apply to as many positions as interested them to maximize their chances of being hired. Many of our employees had not been active in the job market in years—in some instances for more than 15 or 20 years. For some, their most recent resume had been drafted on a typewriter. During the winter and spring of 2013, as staff were applying for the new jobs, we worked with the university's human resources staff to set up resume workshops, career counseling, interview training, and other skills-development seminars. We provided these sessions to all staff regardless of whether they planned to interview for the new positions.

While we did not and could not promise that every staff member would be placed in a position, in the end we came very close. We placed approximately 95 percent of the college's staff members in one of the newly created positions. Of those whom we did not place, the majority chose not to apply, preferring instead to be eliminated. (At the time of the reorganization, the university was offering a three-month notice pay for any eliminated staff members. Many of the staff who were not placed had been planning retirements or resignations and chose to work until their positions were eliminated in order to collect the three-month notice pay.) In the end, only two staff members who applied for positions were not selected and thus were eliminated. Of the two, one had applied for only one position, choosing not to cast a wide net.

Having filled all the new positions, we moved to the next stage, which we dubbed "flipping the switch" on the reorganization. In this stage, we turned our attention toward building a new staff culture, incorporating staff training opportunities, and developing new processes. (See Part 2, "Flipping the Switch: Igniting a New Staff Culture.")

J. Kirsten Turner is assistant dean and chief of staff for the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Kentucky, Lexington. E-mail: kirsten.turner@uky.edu.