3 actions for university leaders to improve employee engagement

An overlooked casualty of the pandemic is employee engagement. Here's how campus officials can boost engagement during the ongoing COVID pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has radically disrupted university operations. University leaders had to quickly transition learning and administrative work to a virtual environment, as the virus spread across the United States. Then, they had to create plans for how to continue educating students for this academic year and protect the students and faculty members returning to campus. Amid these pressing priorities, it’s easy to overlook employee engagement. But the pandemic has undoubtedly taken a toll on the morale of a university’s staff. As they’ve watched colleagues get laid off or furloughed, many of those remaining likely feel stressed, overburdened and uncertain about the future.

Pattie Wagner, Sikich
Pattie Wagner, Sikich

An enthusiastic and passionate workforce can help a university attract applicants, engage students both on and off campus and maintain strong relationships with donors. How can universities boost employee engagement during a time of uncertainty? By leveraging tried-and-true employee engagement tactics to boost morale. Here are a few steps university leaders can take to improve their employee engagement efforts during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Be transparent

Alongside announcements about new procedures and protocols to students, school leaders should regularly share detailed information with staff members. Even if information is subject to change, employees appreciate being kept in the loop, especially during this uncertain time. For example, Harvard’s reopening plan includes vital information for the workforce, as well as guidelines for physical safety, education and research. Frequent and clear communication with employees will help them do their jobs well. They will be equipped to assist students, parents and faculty, as they return to and navigate campus during a pandemic.

Additionally, outlining clear guidelines and expectations for employees can prepare them to perform well in a fluid environment. Department leaders should meet with their teams to walk through procedures, address any concerns, define goals and describe all resources teams can tap to work successfully during the pandemic. For example, the University of South Carolina’s Faculty and Staff Information page details relevant guidelines and resources leaders can leverage to support staff. Transparent and frequent communication goes a long way toward boosting employee engagement in more normal times. These communications efforts are even more crucial during today’s uncertainty.

2. Embrace flexibility

This fall semester is already far from normal. Some universities have adopted more remote work and virtual instruction than others. But the watchword for all universities is flexibility. How can leaders ensure staff members have everything they need to work effectively from anywhere? Part of the answer to this question is about technology tools, but it’s also about training and collaboration. Leaders should ensure team members understand the technology available to them and are proficient with these tools. Additionally, leaders need to continue to find creative ways to manage teams that may be dispersed for an extended period. If leaders make this transition effectively, they will keep their teams engaged during the pandemic and after the crisis ends.

3. Show empathy

Universities should provide forums where colleagues can lean on each other, ask questions and brainstorm solutions to common problems they face. While fostering this peer-to-peer communication, leaders should show empathy, listen to employees’ concerns and work hard to address their questions. Taking time to engage with employees builds trust, which helps improve employee engagement.

In many ways, university leaders face a tipping point today. If they manage the current disruption effectively, they can create a rallying effect among staff. If they don’t adapt to the current disruption, though, they risk demoralizing employees. University leaders should use this moment to unify staff around the school’s plans and goals – and make clear that, together, they will all come out of this challenging time stronger. At a time when forced separation remains part of life, bringing employees together behind common goals will boost engagement and make work more meaningful for every individual on the team. In the end, a university’s efforts to boost employee engagement will help it successfully navigate disruption today and emerge on the other side of the pandemic with a stronger, more productive workforce.

Pattie Wagner, SPHR, CCMP, is a managing director on Sikich’s human capital management and payroll consulting team.

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