Published on 2017/08/31
The EvoLLLution | Staff Satisfaction Central to Student Engagement
A great staff experience can make all the difference between a positive or a negative student experience, but it’s up to senior staff to ensure all the pieces are in place to support their staff and facilitate the kind of environment where they can be focused on learner success.

Students today are more sensitive to service and support than ever before. Whether they’re 19 or 39, today’s students behave more like customers and expect to receive an experience from their colleges and universities that matches the kind of experience they receive from companies like Amazon, whose hallmarks are engagement and ease. Unfortunately, without delivering a great staff experience, institutions cannot achieve the level of service that students expect. In this interview, Amy Levine shares her thoughts on what it takes for an institution to deliver a great staff experience and reflects on the impact of that staff experience on student engagement.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How does the staff experience impact the student experience an institution is able to deliver?

Amy Levine (AL): I like to follow this simple logic model.

IF staff are happy, THEN students are happy

IF students are happy, THEN number of student complaints are low.

IF student complainants are low, THEN campus leaders are happy!

Our students are perceptive. They are bright, mature, and extremely motivated. They are executives and professionals, and they pick up on the tones, attitudes, and the environment around them. This intuition is not unique to adult students, but it’s heightened (and brightened?) by those who are also working and have competing priorities. When our students interact with staff, they have certain expectations that must be met. Of course they want their questions answered and problems solved, but they also expect a fair, equitable and professional environment—the same environment that matches the classroom. This is where the staff satisfaction can directly affect the student experience.

Let’s take an example. A student is walking down Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC and she spots the beautiful, clean, inviting building with a Georgetown University, School of Continuing Studies sign out front. (It really is gorgeous—you should come see!). She thinks, “Huh, let me just pop in and see if SCS offers any online courses in healthcare policy.”

So she comes inside and is greeted at the front desk with an attentive professional who listens to the request for information, delivers a one-pager, and invites the student to meet with an advisor to learn more about the program. The student leaves, reads the one-pager, pulls out her cell phone on the bus ride home, visits the Georgetown SCS mobile site and learns the nuts and bolts of the healthcare program.

Now let’s take the same example, but instead of the previous experience, the student enters the building and is greeted with by a staff member who is distracted, aggravated and visibly bored. Even if the staff gives the student the same exact answer to the inquiry, our student is perceptive! She will notice that the staff in this example is not engaged, seems unsatisfied, and not representing an educational environment the student will need to be successful.

This is just a small example to show how the staff’s experience and satisfaction can so easily shape the student experience.

Think about this issue outside the context of higher education, like when you have to go to the dentist—sigh! Would you rather go to a dental office where the front desk staff, the hygienist, and the X-ray technician love going to work each day? Or, would you rather go to an office where they have high turnover in hygienists, the front desk staff are cranky, and the x-ray technician does not feel valued? Adults are perceptive to experiences and environment, and with many options and competitors for continuing education, we must invest in our staff experience to strengthen the student one.

Evo: What are the characteristics of a great staff experience?

AL: Once an institution or office begins to prioritize the staff experience, leaders should look towards building an experience that:

  • Is agile and flexible
  • Has a culture of creativity
  • Has an expectation of accountability
  • Recognizes success
  • Celebrates wins
  • Practices values and missions
  • Is transparent growth opportunities
  • Has fast response times

Staff members all have different priorities so you will want to learn their personal values and priorities when it comes to their experiences. Keep in mind, as a staff member’s life changes, their priorities may adjust too. These should be ongoing conversations, not just annual check-ins.

Like any strong professional relationship, a positive staff experience is going to take work from all parties. At Georgetown, we have our Jesuit values reflected in the Spirit of Georgetown that guide everything from our classroom curriculum to staff recruitment. But it does not stop there—we can’t just say that, we have to actually live it for our staff.

The strong staff experience is witnessed in those offices around campus that are constantly practicing, discussing and implementing changes that are motivated by our Jesuit values. For example, “Educating the Whole Person” is one of our values, so let’s look at all of the educational opportunities available—not only tuition remission opportunities, but other resources available to staff. Do you have a book club or a recommended reading list for staff? A lecture series? Financial seminars or even a monthly lunch and learn? Have you encouraged your staff to sign up to receive higher ed news digests like Inside Higher Ed or The EvoLLLution? Do you send interesting articles around via email for conversation?

Staff of all levels, from entry level to senior leaders, want to be engaged, heard, resourced, challenged and celebrated. These are some ways to live out the Jesuit values to strengthen the staff experience. Simultaneously, you’ll find there are also staff members at every level, who may never be satisfied with the staff experience. The most you can do for an individual is to listen, support and help them find a position that may a better fit.

Evo: What impact can IT have on improving the staff experience?

AL: Small investments in IT have the potential to improve the staff experience. For example, a small investment in an IT solution that minimizes the burden or time for a simple (but time-consuming) task can enable staff to focus on larger, more thoughtful projects that have a greater contribution to students and programs.

First, consider the IT software that is already available for free at your institution. Google products continue to improve and advance—perhaps there is a new Google tool or plug-in available to help streamline a task. There are also many new free or low-cost applications to help with time management, tracking to-do lists, and even to remind you to meditate. Wunderlist and Todoist are tools to keep tasks straight, prioritize responsibilities, and allow staff to feel focused, productive and satisfied. Lifehack suggests 17+ other applications to help, but I also recommend asking your team and those around you for their suggestions at your next staff meeting.

Evo: What first steps should senior leaders take in determining whether aspects of the staff experience need to be improved or addressed?

AL: The first step to determine this is to actually ask the staff! Visit their work stations. Say good morning before launching into a meeting. Identifying areas of improvement for the staff experience rarely happens in an organized working group made up of senior leaders (though, that helps keep ideas and conversations moving forward!) Instead, more casual conversations at office potlucks, or asking a colleague about a recent vacation, can highlight if/when the staff experience needs improvement.

A senior leader can facilitate this with their staff members easily. One way is to change meeting locations. Instead of having a weekly 1:1 in your office (the leader’s office) with a pre-set agenda, go sit in the staff member’s work station, or take your 1:1 to the local coffee shop so you can really listen to staff, and they can feel comfortable to speak freely. Create a web-based shared document (a running Google Doc with shared access has worked great for my staff) where both the employee and the supervisor can add agenda items ahead of time. In order for this method to be successful, the senior leaders must continuously work to foster a trusting environment where all staff feel safe and comfortable sharing ideas that will enable them to succeed.

Middle managers have a critical role to play here too. Senior leaders can ask middle managers for insight because they have a good pulse on the strategy and goals from the senior leaders, but also the on the ground work and challenges facing staff. Middle managers have the opportunity here to be a voice and advocate to the senior leaders for improvements and enhancements that will improve staff satisfaction. As the senior leader, you don’t have to fix everything over night, but you need to be working to improve something, every night.

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Key Takeaways

  • An engaged and supported staff team can make the difference when it comes to reflecting the professionalism and high level of service the institution prides itself on in practice, and that impact is clearly felt by prospective and current students.
  • Investments in IT can help take the burden off staff, minimize the resources dedicated to time-consuming and repeatable processes, and allow staff to focus on larger and more impactful work.
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