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Flipping the Switch: Igniting a New Staff Culture

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. Part 1 of this article (see "Balancing Efficiency With Humanity: Tackling a Full-Scale Staff Reorganization") provides an overview of the college's reorganization and implementation plan. What follows in Part 2 of this article highlights what the college did in the aftermath to reshape its work culture to focus on staff professionalism and service excellence.

The previous 12 months had taken its toll on our staff. For a year, staff members in the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Arts and Sciences had been living with the fear that their positions might be eliminated. While they handled the long wait with grace and commitment, they were justifiably anxious. Many had taken on additional assignments and workload due to our hiring freeze. Before we could even hope to establish a new staff culture and reengage employees going forward, we knew we had to recognize publicly the sacrifice and stress that staff members had endured and allow them the opportunity to air their complaints and frustration. 

In July 2013, we gave people the space and time to have such conversations. At an all-day, all-staff retreat, we coupled this conversation with a collective discussion of what we wanted our new culture to be like going forward. We wanted everyone to have ownership of this process and to feel empowered to build this new culture together. We knew the process had to be organic and to reflect the values of our people. During that retreat, we developed a set of cultural norms including a mission, vision, and set of values. (See sidebar, "Staff-Driven Mission, Vision, and Values.") We did this collectively in small- and large-group sessions. We extended the conversation for the following month via the Web and SharePoint sites. All told, we gathered input from more than 140 staff members invested in creating a road map for our new culture.

At that same retreat, we asked for the staff's help in the months to come. We knew there was no way we were going to get everything right and that implementing a new staff structure would require an iterative process. While most had been focusing on July 2013 as the end of the reorganization—when we would "flip the switch"—in reality, this only marked the end of the planning and implementation stages. Yes, we had moved dozens of people into new jobs, and we had dozens of new policies and procedures in development. However, the actual transition to a new culture was going to continue for some time as we worked out the kinks of operating under the new structure.

We called upon the staff as a team to help us make changes for the better. We asked them to speak up when they saw problems and issues emerging. In doing so, we demonstrated they would have significant input regarding the ongoing rollout of the reorganization. Throughout this process it was important to set timelines, even if we could not always meet them, in order to give people a sense of progress. At that July retreat we set a six-month calendar for our transition timeline. In retrospect, we should have budgeted at least one year.

CULTURE-BUILDING COMPONENTS

In conjunction with the rollout of the reorganization, we strove to create a culture that included programmatic and initiative-based opportunities for staff. 

Staff advocate. One of the most important components to the reorganization has been the creation of the position of staff advocate. In many ways this position could be viewed as a luxury, but now that we have had it for two years, we view it as a necessity. We have a full-time dedicated person who serves as a staff advocate. This person is available to staff if they have professional concerns, need an advocate, or want to make a suggestion for improvement. The advocate works with all new employees to onboard them, conducts exit interviews, is responsible for professional development and training of staff at the college level, and works closely with staff to ensure individual opportunities are available.

Our staff advocate also works specifically with all our department managers to build a community of professionals, given that they are spread out among 18 departments and 12 interdisciplinary programs and do not report centrally. He works with our faculty who serve as supervisors (including department chairs and associate deans) to provide guidance and help as they navigate issues attendant to supervising, evaluating, and mentoring staff. He also works closely with our staff council and our culture committee to further develop and steward our culture and staff well-being.   

Staff council and culture committee. We have two groups dedicated to staff issues. Our staff council preceded the reorganization and continues its work by providing feedback and counsel to the dean and his or her designee on all issues concerning staff. The council is an elected body among the Arts and Sciences staff and plays a critical role. 

Our culture committee, created during the reorganization, has a more narrow scope, which is to mind and steward the staff culture. One primary responsibility the culture committee has taken upon itself is to administer and analyze a staff satisfaction survey twice annually to measure how we are doing on questions of culture, work-life balance, professional development opportunities, and so forth. The first time the survey was administered was three months post-reorganization. It revealed high levels of staff satisfaction. Subsequent surveys have been high, but not as high. Another important finding has revealed change fatigue. People are justifiably tired of so much constant change, so we are trying to be mindful and make changes only when necessary.

Specific initiatives. The college has developed a diverse set of programmatic initiatives attendant to culture. 

  • Every January, we hold our annual "Night of Creativity." This opportunity was designed to foster innovation. In the course of daily work, staff members have many ideas of how to reimagine programs or processes; create completely new programs or ways of doing business; or complete a concentrated, long-term project. Yet, in reality, there is never enough time to work on such projects. We wanted to create the time and space for staff to have the opportunity to pursue their great ideas. Each year at the beginning of January we offer staff the option to report to work at 3 p.m. and work until midnight. Those who participate are then given the following day to work further on their projects outside the usual confines of the office setting. Several weeks later, we hold an all-staff luncheon for staff to report out on their projects to date. This has been a widely successful initiative. Staff return to work following the holiday break energized and excited. The Night of Creativity has an air of festivity to it, and staff begin the year with a major project already completed or well underway. Although this is completely voluntary, usually about half of our staff members participate, and almost everyone works in teams on a group project, furthering our goals of community and collegiality. We are in discussions now about adding an optional "Week of Creativity" to be held during the summer during normal business hours.
  • In an effort to provide additional professional development opportunities, we created a program dubbed "education immersion" wherein staff members may go on special assignment (for up to six months) to develop a new skill, deepen their expertise on a subject, retool their experiences, and so forth. To cover the workload, we have given acting assignments to other staff members to accommodate these experiences, and colleagues have been willing to help out knowing that they too may benefit in the future from an immersion. Thus far, we have had six staff members take advantage of the program.
  • We developed a staff mentoring program that pairs current Arts and Sciences staff in one-on-one mentor-mentee relationships. We are in our third year of mentorship matches.
  • We send out a biweekly staff newsletter updating people about new employees, new positions, professional development events, and information pertaining to the college. In each newsletter we spotlight a staff member as well as a student employee.
  • We also implemented a pay-it-forward Intranet website where staff members can thank their colleagues publicly for help or support. Colleagues who are being thanked receive an e-mail letting them know someone has recognized them. Not only does the website help generate gratitude and collegiality, but it also is a public display of the scope of work being done by our staff and showcases various interconnections. In reading the different posts, one begins to learn how people in different units work collaboratively across a host of projects and initiatives—a nice side benefit.
  • We created an ad hoc committee comprised of faculty and staff to study and provide recommendations for improving faculty and staff collegiality. As we moved more staff out of the departments and into centralized services, we want to be mindful that we continue to foster positive and helpful working relationships and culture between faculty and the staff.
  • Work-life balance remains an important topic in many organizations. In our college, we developed three levels of work-life balance that we continue to add to and implement. The first level we call triage, which is our commitment to work with our staff when they have an immediate, major life issue (e.g., unexpected death of a family member, a new child, etc.). Our second level is called ad hoc, wherein we promise to consider options and ideas and possible implementation as a result of non-permanent, non-crisis situations due to finite changes in life situation (e.g., staff member needs to adjust work schedule temporarily due to familial concerns). Our third level we call policies and opportunities. This includes long-term options with reference to job sharing, flextime, telework, compressed work week, or reduced hours. These levels were created and discussed by our staff council and culture committee. In many ways, we have used policies already in place by the college and university by reiterating our commitment to allow, support, and use those opportunities. Nationally, research suggests that organizations may have such policies available but that internal subculture actively works against people using them. We feel it is important that we stress publicly that we are supportive of work-life balance and that we signal to our staff our collective support.
  • We see professional development across two continuums, with technical skills and soft skills making up one axis, and individual development and unit development making up the other axis. We try to ensure that all our staff members have opportunities in all four quadrants. For example, an entire team might schedule a soft-skill professional development seminar on the art of negotiation, while an individual might receive special technical training on a new software program. We encourage our supervisors to structure their annual performance evaluations, in part, around this conception of professional development and ask that they work to provide opportunities for their employees across all four quadrants. 

In addition, through the office of the staff advocate, we provide collegewide professional development opportunities. A monthly brown-bag lunch series is offered on Tuesdays wherein staff can drop in on a host of different topics (e.g., leadership development, the history of higher education, conflict resolution, resume workshop, to name a few). We hold all-staff summer retreats. This year it is a three-day retreat in July, with one day devoted to concurrent sessions on professional development. We have an ongoing webinar series that is available to all staff across an array of topics. We also will sit down one-on-one with any staff member to map out individualized career development plans. During these sessions, we talk about long-term goals, look at their resumes, and try to make plans to provide skill acquisition and development so that our staff have the necessary experience when opportunities for advancement arise. 

All programs are available to everyone. In addition, the university offers a wealth of career and professional development opportunities to all university staff, and we work closely with the university's human resources staff to promote their programs and encourage our staff to enroll.

Social events. The college also understands the importance of providing staff with opportunities to build collegiality and an esprit de corps. We host several social events throughout the year, which are always optional but well attended. We have a menu of annual and ad hoc events. They include but are not limited to:

  • Kentucky Derby Potluck Breakfast, held the first Friday in May, includes a stick horse race, horse show contest, and Derby hat contest.
  • Field Day held in the summer at a local park.
  • Staff Appreciation Luncheon and Award Ceremony held early summer each year.
  • Fall potluck luncheon, with costumes optional.
  • Social events at the dean's house at the start of the academic year or end of the calendar year.
  • Flash coffee breaks held at random times and locations throughout the year. Staff are notified 10 minutes prior via e-mail to come and enjoy a goodies break and to engage with colleagues.
  • "Fast Five" lunches or teas are held randomly throughout the year. The first five staff to respond to an e-mail are invited to lunch or to have tea together to foster cross-college interactions.
  • Individual units and teams also are encouraged to host internal events throughout the year to build collegiality at the unit level.

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

Planning and implementing a major staff reorganization and building a new culture from the midst of that reorganization entails more change than many would invite. And yet, in reality, the change is never fully over. Continuous improvement is always on the agenda, and this is often driven by lessons learned. While many lessons remain for us to discover in connection with our reorganization, what follows are a handful of important lessons we have discovered through this process thus far.

Expanding professional development. A critical component of the reorganization was not only to retain our people, but also to retrain them to higher levels of expertise. In some units, particularly those that we created from scratch, we have met and exceeded this goal. In other units where workloads have proven overwhelming, it has taken longer to make progress on professional development. Although more opportunities exist now than ever before for our staff, and many have taken advantage of various experiences (e.g., monthly brown-bag series, national webinars, national and regional conference attendance, one-on-one career planning sessions, internal job promotions), we still have work to do.

Combatting a zero-sum mentality. As we walked through the reorganization, staff continued to judge themselves and their professional place in the college by comparing themselves to their colleagues. As we have developed individual career plans for staff, a zero-sum mentality has developed. Colleagues interpret promotions for others as a negative corollary to their own career trajectory. We must do more to address the zero-sum mentality so that a colleague's professional growth is not perceived as impacting someone else's potential for professional growth. 

Building as we sail. In many ways, we were building the new staffing structure as we implemented it, akin to sailing a ship as it is built. The staff, who were responsible for implementing the reorganization, still had their regular work responsibilities. They had deadlines (e.g., college payroll, university budget submissions, course scheduling, etc.) and personnel to supervise. Many, if not all, were also performing additional duties attendant to the vacancies caused by the hiring freeze. All the while they were helping to build a comprehensive new staffing structure. Since we were not able to hire a team to manage the reorganization, we had to do it with significant extra effort from current personnel. 

In some ways this was unavoidable. If we could do it again, we would have attempted to find additional money to help staff the reorganization. While it may sound foolish to "staff up" for a staff reduction, those who built and implemented the reorganization carried an intense load for a long time, and we fear we are still dealing with some of the aftereffects of that heavy workload. 

Similarly, given the scope of the work to reorganize, some units did not have the time to rewrite all the standard operating procedures and policies for the new structure. There simply was not enough time or human power to build a whole new structure, take care of our regular jobs, and rework all the processes and procedures under the new model. Looking back, we should have created a third committee at the start (in addition to committees to build the structure and build the culture) devoted to process development and process implementation. Instead, we've had to do this on the back end. For some units, mainly the IBUs and department managers, not having these policies ready when we flipped the switch caused additional and unneeded anxiety, frustration, and confusion.

Leading professionals. A cornerstone of the reorganization was to professionalize many of the positions. Our mistake, however, was in not retraining our supervisors and managers to lead professionals. Most of our supervisors had experience in managing clerical positions. Yet, managing professionals at times relies on a slightly different skill set. When we placed our staff into new, professional roles, our managers—many of whom were new to supervising, new to supervising professionals, or new to the college—supervised the staff under the old model, managing the work and conceptualizing the positions as clerical. The result was a disjointed relationship between what we promised (professional positions) and how staff were treated by their immediate supervisors. We simply failed to anticipate the need to retrain our midlevel and some senior managers on how to lead professional staff. Our supervisors had good intentions; they simply had never been taught and did not know to manage differently. We are now going back and implementing training programs for our supervisors.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. During the reorganization, there were days and weeks when it seemed all that some of us did was talk to people individually, in groups, and in large forums about the reorganization. We held all-staff meetings, and we sent out weekly e-mail updates. We created a Web site where we attempted to provide real-time information, though admittedly this defaulted to a weekly update. Yet, none of this was enough. I have concluded that in situations like these, one cannot over-communicate. Even if you don't always have new information to announce, during times of uncertainty, being available and providing consistent information is crucial.

Owning failure and taking ownership. The common themes woven throughout the reorganization were: 1) we are not perfect and we will make mistakes; and 2) we all own the new structure. We needed everyone to understand that mistakes would be made in the structure and implementation process and that we needed help in identifying and solving those mistakes. This was imperative because when mistakes would happen—as they do within any organization, and especially in any reorganization—we wanted to ensure that people were prepared to address the mistakes. Otherwise, individuals would be more likely to lose confidence in our goals, and they might construct narratives about their perceived ineffectiveness of the work. We instead wanted to send a clear message that any mistakes made were not alone the indicators by which to judge success. Rather, how we responded and ultimately solved those mistakes would determine how well we were following our mission, vision, and values.

Further, we fought hard to break down the "us versus them" dichotomy. We spent a lot of time trying to build a collective sense of ownership and a team orientation during a highly stressful and anxiety-producing time. We were afraid that if people did not feel empowered, the divisiveness from decades past would continue to reign and we would never achieve our vision to enhance the professionalism of our work environment. To that end, we felt it was important to spell out expectations about the contributions of individuals. It was not enough to simply ask people to "get involved." We had to (and we continue to) give people specific roles in "owning" our culture. For example, we expect people to offer potential solutions when they point out a problem. While we might not use their exact suggestion, people know they need to help us think through how to solve the problem at hand. We have found that, for the most part, people are willing to participate and get involved as long as they are clear about their roles and expectations in any given discussion or project.

All that said, in reality, work still remains. Old habits die hard, and we continue to work with our supervisors and supervisees alike to take on new roles. Some of our supervisors have had to learn how to facilitate, be open to, and implement suggestions and ideas from their staff. Conversely, some of our staff have had to be encouraged (and prodded) to take on the responsibility of improving the workplace and work processes rather than simply pointing out what isn't working. In many ways, these have been isolated cases, but as we strive to meet our collective mission and vision we continue to work to improve all pockets of our structure and culture.

Knowing who and what you are. The enrollment management and data analytics team was a great addition to our structure, as was our process improvement and project management group. These teams have become vital in making us a smarter organization, using data to drive policy and procedural decisions at an organizational level. For example, we now know when our peak academic advising times are during the day, month, semester, and how to staff them appropriately, and we now know how we should redeploy staffing in the IBUs attendant to the number of business transactions and peak times, among many other examples. Through these units, we are able to maximize efficiencies and have real data to drive our decisions to build staff capacity.

Bridge the betwixt and between. From my perspective, the reorganization has been experienced differently by those staff who took on a new role, but remained physically in the same location. In particular, this includes the department managers who still serve the same department or program but are no longer responsible for the budgetary aspects of their units. These folks retained many of their previous job responsibilities, but now have a different title, grade level, and pay scale, as well as new responsibilities. They are smart, talented, dedicated employees, yet their collective comments regarding the reorganization are different from those who are new to the college or who physically moved as part of their transition to new positions. In retrospect, I would have worked with this former group of staff as a subset to help them better navigate the change, since in many ways they are betwixt and between the old and the new systems.

First create, then eliminate. Early on, we spent much time discussing the best process for the reorganization. Many advised us to eliminate all the positions first, essentially letting people go and then hiring into the new positions. People argued we would be able to build a team of strength, that this would be an easier, cleaner process; that everyone would be able to compete for jobs equally; and that new staff could be employed. I understand these opinions. To be honest, in many ways it would have been easier, and certainly more efficient, to eliminate all the positions first. 

However, if we were to reorganize again, I would absolutely follow the same process of creating the positions first, hiring staff into them, and then eliminating the old positions. It is by far a messier, more intense, and harder method, especially since it required a yearlong hiring freeze and staff competing against each other for new positions. And yet, I believe the sacrifices were worth the efficiencies we might have gained doing things otherwise. No one who came along with us into the new structure had been eliminated prior to assuming their new positions. I cannot overemphasize how important that was in terms of building trust going forward.

From the start, we made a commitment to elevate our staff; the reorganization was done in part to professionalize our staff, build respect, and reassert our commitment to humanistic values. Had we started this journey by eliminating all positions first, we would have instantly contradicted all that we stood for. Even if we had assured our staff that they would be moving forward with us, they would have had to go through the process of being eliminated. Such scars do not vanish quickly or easily. We wanted to do better by our staff, and we did not think letting them go was a good first step. (It is also worth noting that now, two years later, as college resources have rebounded, we have been able to regrow our workforce and have made gains in addressing salary compression through thoughtful and deliberate allocation based on evaluative measures and data.)

STICKING WITH YOUR VISION

The new organizational culture and structure we began building in 2012 is not yet complete. Frankly, our work may never be done. While some of our staff feel frustrated at times, suggesting that we are not where we should be, we are much closer than we were three years ago, and that feels good. As long as we have a vision we will continue to improve and reach for our goals. Our commitment to our shared, collective goals remains, and as long as it does, we are headed in the right direction. The fact that people remain involved, point out mistakes, offer suggestions, and keep pushing the process signals that people are committed to carrying forward with what we started more than three years ago. We will build on that and continue to aim for something of value to us and for our faculty and our students well into the future. 

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.

Staff-Driven Mission, Vision, and Values

As part of our attempt to build a new culture following a major staff reorganization, the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences sought input from staff to draft a mission, vision, and set of values to guide the college going forward. Here is what we collectively envisioned as a college.

Mission: Through excellence, enable the work of the faculty and students. Vision: Create the most professionally enhancing work environment within higher education.

Values: Identify the values that define Arts and Sciences staff.

1. Competence: Performing one’s work well; recognizing problems and actively identifying solutions; demonstrating initiative; seeking feedback; being accountable; understanding how one’s work supports the goals of the college and the university’s mission; and working with integrity.
2. Learning: Engaging in intellectual and professional development as a lifelong learner; actively participating in the improvement of the college and its function (to be a learning organization); sharing information and helping colleagues learn new roles and tasks; demonstrating a willingness to learn through continuous feedback; and being curious.
3. Respect: Exhibiting a willingness to show consideration (courtesy, politeness, and kindness) to all colleagues and their contributions to the college; encouraging an atmosphere of compassion and understanding; being able to have differing opinions and work together as colleagues; valuing differences in each other and celebrating that diversity.
4. Communication: Taking responsibility for thoughtful, honest, open, and productive interchange; seeking clarification as necessary to create shared meaning and understanding; prioritizing transparency; using a professional tone; offering a timely response; being conscientious of both verbal and nonverbal style and mode; and freely giving and receiving praise and feedback.
5. Flexibility: Being adaptable to dynamic and evolving work requirements; helping others when needed; being a team player; supporting a flexible work culture; and embracing creativity.