3 things higher ed HR departments must focus on now

Strategies for employee engagement and workforce stability rank high on the list.
By: | September 3, 2021

College students, instructors and administrators have had to pivot repeatedly over the past year and a half since COVID-19 changed life as we know it—and human resource departments at the higher ed level have, as well. Faced with challenges such as retaining talent, flagging morale among employees, and having to recruit during a pandemic, HR departments have had to become more strategic than ever and consider the most effective and efficient practices to keep things running smoothly going forward.

Here are three things that should be at the top of all higher ed HR departments’ lists right now:

1. Proactively create workforce stability

“Job hopping” among college graduates has been increasing for decades, according to LinkedIn, with the average number of companies that grads had worked at in the first five years after receiving their diploma having nearly doubled. On top of that, workers in the education sector are more likely to engage in “nomadic employment” than their peers, reports Josh Young in “The Importance of a Robust HR Department on Campus.” So, HR teams need to proactively engage in succession planning to keep new campus hires in place and avoid frequent staffing interruptions that many schools have become accustomed to, notes everfi.com.

Succession planning enables a university to identify the most talented employees and provide education that will help prepare and develop them for future higher-level and broader responsibilities. This ensures the college or university can continue to operate effectively should employees in critical positions depart. Chicago State University frames it as “building bench strength.”

Jessica Fuhl, a dedicated expert in the HR and People field and former head of digital at the UK Treasury, identified 7 tips for an effective succession planning strategy:

Timely communication—successor first. Don’t identify the successor for a role but neglect to inform them. If they don’t know they’re in line to take over a position, they’re more likely to seek out employment elsewhere.
Establish who needs to know what and when. Share news of a successor being appointed to a key role with the rest of the faculty/staff so they’re not dealing with uncertainty.
Balance transparency with confidentiality. Consider if everyone needs to know everything about the succession plan, and if so, do they all need to know it at once?
Convey a fair selection process. Share the process of how and why a successor is chosen, particularly if the position was not advertised internally, to help build trust and engagement.
Regularly review the succession plan. As businesses evolve, responsibilities and requirements often evolve with them. A review of the succession plan every six months for all key roles is a smart idea in today’s constantly changing landscape.
• Highlight the career development aspect. This enables employees to understand that there will be opportunities for advancement and encourage them to perform at an optimum level.
Use people analytics to inform decision-making. They’re vital to identifying while roles require succession planning and who may be contenders as successors.

According to Fuhl, research shows that 62% of employees surveyed said they would be “significantly more engaged” at work if there was a succession plan in place.

2. Employee engagement strategies

For their institution to be a competitive employer, higher education HR departments need to go beyond focusing on the acquisition of new talent and offer their existing staff ample opportunities to develop new skills and grow in their careers. They must work with department heads and management to determine what positions are needed on campus along with corresponding skills and qualifications necessary to thrive in these posts.

It’s also critical for the HR team to serve as a bridge between workers and management so that the voices of both faculty and staff are heard, resulting in effective dialogue and less frustration. At Kent State University, strategic engagement initiatives include employee discounts, an Employee Assistance Program, wellness clinics and a host of recognition awards for various achievements. The school calculates how successful its initiatives are by tracking the retention rates of university employees, attendance of employees at university-sponsored events, and employee satisfaction rates aligned with the workplace climate.

3. Embrace new technology and ensure it is used accurately

HR managers are more dependent on technology today than ever before. The ability to optimize data results in less time spent on routine tasks and more time spent analyzing trends to make better-informed decisions, according to evisions.com. Technology is also a crucial element in recruiting, from both financial and time standpoints.

Advancements in technology also render factors such as geography and proximity less of an issue when it comes to securing top talent, since it’s easier than ever now for companies to connect with prospective employees and facilitate remote work, as noted in this blog post on northeastern.edu. One such program created especially for the education field is Paycor, which offers scheduling software, compliance solutions and a state-of-the-art recruiting tool, among other features, while EmployeeConnect, a cloud-based HR management solution for schools and higher ed, lets HR departments optimize workforce management, improve compliance and streamline the process of managing staff and other employees “from hire to retire” with its suite of tools.

While universities may be at the cutting edge of research into many fields, Gordon Jones, founding dean of the Boise State University College of Innovation and Design, told The New York Times, when it comes to reconsidering the structure of their own, traditionally, “they’ve been very risk-averse.”

But automating administrative tasks within HR brings us forward into thinking more strategically and holistically, noted Tom Penque, lecturer in the Master of Human Resources program at Northeastern University, in “What is Digital HR? How Technology is Changing the Field” by Scott W. O’Connor. Penque added, “It really goes without saying that the shift towards digital HR is causing the human resources industry to go through a significant level of rather rapid change. We’re shifting what we do and how we do it, and we need to be comfortable with this change.”

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