Employee Engagement in Higher Education
How To Overcome Divergent Views Among a Diverse Employee Body
The idea of engaging employees is engaging growing numbers of post-secondary institutions. More and more colleges and universities are seeking guidance.
There’s the realization that higher faculty and staff engagement positively impacts the student experience. That the student experience is shared on social media. That those experiences influence the perceptions of other potential students – domestic and international. That this domino effect correlates with increases in student populations, foundation and donation revenues, and sponsorships.
At the same time, there’s lots of competition for specialized higher education expertise, be it support or admin staff, faculty or executives. Recruitment and retention are big challenges.
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Unfortunately, higher education institutions tend to have lower engagement than most other organizations. Why?
- There are a number of distinct audiences that have different dynamics, that are coexisting and working to support each other, yet have very different needs.
- The sense of affiliation with the organization tends to be different amongst faculty verses admin, support staff and executives. There’s a divide between teaching faculty and research faculty. College faculty tends to think a little bit differently than most university faculty. All of these perceptions pose challenges.
- One of the common issues TalentMap has noticed is the perception of class structure. Lots of survey commentary points to favoritism and a sense of inequity.
- Then there’s tension in policy direction and budget allocation. Different groups obviously have different priorities. They want to see policy and budget allocation done in different ways. In some institutions you could go as far as calling it rancor and disenfranchisement; faculty doesn’t feel they have enough influence on policy directions, decisions and budgets, while admin and executive feel they have too much.
Pre-Survey Tips Unique to Higher Education
Best practice would say if you can, do. The first thing TalentMap recommends before you even get a survey off the ground is to be inclusive in your approach. At the risk of slowing things down – and it will – you need to include faculty, admin and union representation right at the get-go. Convene an employee engagement committee that’s going to steer the process. This working group will be involved in the instrument design, and most importantly the dissemination and acceptance of results, the interpretation of results and the cascading of the results.
Allay concerns. Boards of directors, management committees, executive committees, executive leadership, department heads and union reps are often nervous before you start any survey like this. After all, you’re about to let employees say stuff the institution might not want to hear. Before you even get into the logistics, address worries.
Establish credentials. Organizational behavior and development, business in general, survey research, statistics - each of these disciplines have academic experts working within your institutions. These are the same fields as employee survey specialists. Whoever is leading your initiative must:
- be credible
- establish bona fide credentials on all fronts including methodology and survey instruments
- live up to a very high standard of academic integrity, what the survey research business calls “validity and reliability”.
Therefore, choose your survey partner wisely.
Consider your different audiences. Teaching and research faculty, in particular, believe they need to be asked a set of questions relevant to them, questions fundamentally different from everybody else. This pressure to customize questions has time and cost implications.
Allow time in the upfront process to come to a common understanding about the terms of approach. If requests for customization are likely, turn to the engagement steering committee and its different representatives. Discuss how to keep the process manageable. What matters most isn’t whether to customize or not, it’s about having consensus among the different parties as to the right approach.
Deal with logistics. Address the complexity of the human resources information system (HRIS) – your database of all faculty and staff. Many institutions find they have to build their HRIS. Others opt to take methodological steps to give people access – usually through an open link URL which means setting up a website where people connect using a personal password, fill out the survey, and answer questions around length of service, age, and department.
Communication is crucial to the whole process. Understand that your audience communicates in different ways. Consider the needs of part-time, sessional, on and off-campus faculty and staff. Use email, internet, digital or paper to reach different people in different places at different times.
Post-Survey Tips Unique to Colleges & Universities
Share results ASAP. The way to improve engagement is to act quickly. But there are some reporting issues specific to higher education institutions. Being researchers by nature; being teachers by trade, there’s a drive to over analyze - which leads to analysis paralysis. As interesting and intellectually stimulating as conducting that analysis is, nothing gets done.
TalentMap counsels post-secondary institutions to communicate results quickly and widely to a large audience through town halls and staff meetings. Show what the key results are. What the issues are. What the themes are that really drive engagement organization-wide. Exploration and discussions can be held separately. Those who want to conduct further analysis can be provided the avenues to do so thereafter.
Maintain confidentiality. As learning institutions steeped in research, another particularity of higher education is the demand for a full transfer of raw data for research. This is an inherent potential for conflict, a risk for breach of confidentiality. TalentMap can however, provide the individual data stripped of any identifiers and categorization information. making sure there are insufficient elements in the database to trace individual responses or very small groups of responses.
Higher education is a distinct kettle of fish. Understand and accept different employee audiences have different senses of affiliation to the institution. Understand and mediate divergent points of view. Involve different audiences and together work on common issues, work on different issues separately, work on becoming engaged.