Two Birds with One Stone: Staff Satisfaction and the Student ExperienceCathy Sandeen | Chancellor, University of Alaska-Anchorage
Delivering an industry-leading student experience—one that matches the kind of experience students get from retail leaders like Amazon—is a high priority for college and university leaders across the United States. After all, a great student experience impacts student acquisition, retention and completion in significant ways. Unfortunately, what often gets lost in the efforts to drive the student experience is the experience of administrative staff working both on the front lines and behind the scenes. In this interview, Cathy Sandeen reflects on how the staff experience helps create a great student experience and shares her thoughts on the role senior institutional leaders need to play in ensuring the staff experience is a positive one.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant benefits a college or university can gain from delivering a great staff experience?
Cathy Sandeen (CS): When we talk about the people at an institution, we talk about faculty, staff and students, and you have to realize when it comes to the student experience, whether it’s in a campus-based program or an online program, the people that the students interact with most frequently are staff. Yes, they interact with faculty in their classes and that’s a very intense interaction, but if you think about the whole arc of their time with us they’re interacting with staff. If staff understand the mission, they understand their job, they understand their role, they care about their role, they’re going to approach the students in a much more positive way. For example, our staff are instructed to return any inquiry whether it comes in through the website or social media within 24 to 48 hours after they receive it. From the very first moment students are even thinking about your institution, it’s staff following up with them, so if our staff are knowledgeable and if they care about the students it’s going to translate into a positive student experience, so its critically important to the whole experience.
Evo: At UW Colleges and Extension, you’re largely dealing with non-traditional learners. Is it uniquely important when your institution serves non-traditional students to have that dedicated and focused staff?
CS: A dedicated and focused team is absolutely important when dealing with non-traditional students. “Non-traditional” can mean a lot of different things but let’s look at first-generation college students and older students who haven’t been in school for a while. Those two populations right there are nervous when they come to us. They don’t know what to expect, they worry that they don’t belong and they worry that they’re making mistakes so we need staff who really understand that student segment. People who are approachable and can direct students to resources quickly are going to make a huge difference in the life of that non-traditional student.
Evo: What are some of the central components to a high-quality staff experience?
CS: We focus on having a positive work environment with supervisors who are good coaches and mentors of their employees to provide professional development opportunities for employees so that they can get the education and training that they need to do a good job in their current job but also have some opportunities for career progression within the organization. People want to learn and grow, especially if we’re looking at the millennial generation that’s becoming an increasingly important part of our work force. And of course compensation, salary and benefits are important. Unfortunately in our state and in higher education we’re really limited in terms of raises that we can give to people so we fight for that at every opportunity, but it’s really important for us to help people in other ways. Some employees want work-life balance with more flexible hours, and so we really try to look at the whole person and look at the whole job and try to structure it in a way where our employees can remain engaged and supporting our mission and therefore supporting our students.
Evo: Is it possible for an institution to be truly student-centric without a focus on a great staff experience?
CS: It’s impossible to be truly student-centric if you don’t have a positive staff experience because the staff are so important in delivering the overall student experience. If we don’t focus on helping staff understand what their job is, what our mission is and supporting them in that, we won’t be successful. So I really appreciate that you’re reminding everyone in our industry that we need to continue to focus support and recognize the staff as part of this equation.
Evo: What responsibility do senior institutional leaders have in facilitating a great staff experience?
CS: It goes back to basic management and leadership behaviour so really talking the talk and walking the walk. The more we talk about staff and recognize staff, the more it becomes part of the day-to-day conversation and raises their importance in the organization. For me, because my two institutions are spread throughout the state and we have a lot of online and distance education, it’s about getting out there and meeting people where they are, visiting people where they work and listening to them and understanding the issues. It’s providing additional financial support where needed both in terms of resources to do their jobs well and in terms of competitive compensation. I’m listening to staff and their issues and not just giving them a handshake and saying goodbye, but actually putting some resources behind what they need. I also use digital and social media a lot. For example, I will do a monthly video that’s sent out to everybody in our organization and we are very mindful about what we talk about and who we recognize, and we always try to recognize staff as well as faculty and students. Over time, with that drum beat of behaviour and communication, it becomes pretty clear that staff are important in the organization.
Evo: What are some of the warning signs telling you that an aspect of the staff experience needs to be changed to ensure that staff remain happy and effective?
CS: It’s up to the line supervisors to have their radar out on that, but I will tell you that we did see some problems as we went through our re-organization following significant budget cuts, and that really drilled home to me the importance of staff through the whole experience. Some individuals were scared and frustrated and started talking negatively about our institution. On a human level I can certainly understand their worries, but we saw that attitude had a dramatic effect on our enrollments in some of our smaller campuses. They’re small towns and word travels quickly and any kind of negativity can have a ripple effect. Of course I couldn’t change the reality of our budget cut but we were able to step in and really have conversations with the staff to turn things around. Now that was a pretty extreme situation, but it does illustrate that people being happy and engaged in their jobs has positive effect overall on morale and on the student experience.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to deliver a great staff experience?
CS: We’re up against some significant financial challenges, and I don’t think we’re unique in Wisconsin with that issue. In many states, compensation has not been significantly rising and, in some cases, it has not kept up with cost of living for staff. That creates a very difficult situation for leaders, but it’s all the more important to look at the whole picture of the staff experience.
Giving people opportunities to participate in important projects, respecting their unique talents and providing them a seat at the table for important decisions are great ways to keep people engaged and excited about their jobs.
I really encourage leaders to not throw up their hands and say, “There’s nothing I can do.” There are many things and many ways that a leader can improve the staff experience and therefore improve the student experience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.