by Rich Boyer, ModernThink Principal and Senior Consultant

Every year since 2008, we’ve surveyed hundreds of colleges and universities across the country trying to identify those institutions that are both intentional and successful in their efforts to be not just great institutions of higher learning – but also great workplaces for their employees.

As one might expect, the methodology and assessment tools have changed over the years. What has not changed, however, is our commitment to celebrating those institutions. And in a day and age where good news sometimes feels like it’s hard to come by, it’s an honor and privilege to share the news of the great work being done at this year’s recognized institutions.

Every year I use this space to highlight some of the insights we’re able to glean from this annual study. In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of the day-to-day experience of managers/supervisors/department chairs; the influence of senior leadership; the value of a clearly articulated shared governance model; and the necessity of demonstrating a commitment to the well-being not just of students – but of faculty and staff as well. Those remain foundational building blocks for healthy cultures and great workplaces.

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled The Hollowing Out of Higher Education by Kevin McClure and Barrett Taylor, I was both impressed and disheartened by their summary of some of the many challenges higher education has faced and will continue to contend with in the years ahead. I was cheered, however, when I read some of their ideas around how to address the many challenges:

“… investing in people doesn’t always require a huge infusion of resources. A good starting point is to better understand the everyday experiences of employees, assess workload equity, and develop realistic goals aligned with the institution’s actual work force. Some institutions may need to dial back their goals or focus their strategy — continuing to squeeze employees is a recipe for exacerbating the burnout and turnover that have defined the past three years.”

Indeed, investing in people versus squeezing all one can from them seems like a more sustainable and ultimately successful strategy. Plus, it’s simply the right thing to do.

As one might expect, the faculty/staff assessment used in The Great Colleges to Work For program includes a number of items related to investing in people. Not surprisingly, these items are among the survey statements where we see some of the most significant differences between those institutions achieving the Honor Roll designation and participating institutions that were not recognized. Those differences were not only significant – but in most cases, dramatic. I want to take a minute to explore these three items in more detail, starting with item #30, Our onboarding processes prepare new faculty and staff to be effective.

It’s interesting to note that this has historically been one of the lowest scoring items in The Great Colleges to Work For survey, even at the Honor Roll institutions. I’ve seen many orientation processes over the years, and some are indeed quite good. However, in my experience, that’s the exception rather than the norm – a fact I find somewhat ironic given that most colleges and universities go to great lengths to host successful student orientations. Similar efforts to welcome new employees, to integrate them into the institution, and to set them up for success from day one has immeasurable impact. Done well, good onboarding fast-tracks productivity levels, minimizes early turnover risk, and strengthens the sense of community.

There is no doubt that the remote work required by the Covid-19 pandemic and evolving expectations around flexible work arrangements has added additional challenges and complexity to successful onboarding. These dynamics only heighten the importance of doing it well.

I believe there is a similar parallel we can draw between the student and employee experience when exploring item #6, I am given the opportunity to develop my skills at this institution. The pursuit of knowledge and growth is the core of what colleges and universities do…their very raison d’etre. It only makes sense then, that our commitment to learning and growth extends beyond our students and includes our faculty and staff — the lifeblood of the institution. To not do so could credibly be argued as hypocritical.

Investing in the professional and personal growth of employees supports succession planning, builds the effectiveness of individual employees, and expands institutional capacity. As if that’s not enough to make the case for investing in our employees’ growth, it’s also well-documented that the belief that there are opportunities to learn and grow is a primary driver of employee engagement. Not surprisingly, at this year’s Honor Roll institutions, item #6 is highly correlated with item #55, All things considered, this is a great place to work.

Being a great place to work may seem like a tall order these days, particularly when the daily headlines are often dominated by stories of employees who feel overworked, burnt out, and unappreciated. And for many, those sentiments predated the Covid-19 pandemic, which has only exacerbated them.

In such an environment, it is then only more crucial that individuals and institutions are diligent in acknowledging – and celebrating – good work. Item #35 provides insight into the effectiveness of an institution’s recognition and awards programs: Our recognition and awards programs are meaningful to me.

The operative word in that survey item is “meaningful,” and therein lies the secret to effective recognition. I’ve seen too many institutions rely on recognition and awards programs that simply don’t have the positive impact they once had. They’ve grown stale over the years, losing genuine executive sponsorship and financial support and they have become an obligation to go through the motions rather than to truly celebrate of accomplishments and individuals. In such cases, those events and processes may actually do more harm than good as they only reinforce the perception of being unappreciated or undervalued.

As McClure and Barrett’s article notes, “Investing in in people doesn’t always require a huge infusion of resources.” I enthusiastically concur!

Furthermore, investing in onboarding, professional development, and meaningful recognition are not challenges of moonshot complexity. Indeed, the solutions are elegant in their simplicity. Be intentional, thoughtful, and thorough in the onboarding of your new employees. Be true to your educational mission, and support the growth of all your community members. Be generous and genuine in your acknowledgement and appreciation of good work. And if you’re not sure where to begin, start by asking your greatest resources: your people.

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