In a learning organization, people are motivated, work effectively with others and innovate and aspire to do their best. As Peter Senge describes in his seminal 2006 work, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, learning organizations are places where people “continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”
Senge considers teams to be the staple of learning organizations and believes they have an “extraordinary capacity for positive change.” In the division of student life at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we set out to put these principles and practices to the test by creating a Staff Engagement Advisory Board, or SEABoard. Our primary objectives were to rally around our shared vision — “We are here for students” — and to make the division of student life the best place to work at the institute.
As with many peer institutions, every four years MIT administers an employee quality-of-life survey. For the division of student life, our 2016 findings indicated that we had several strengths as well as areas for improvement. We learned that about 75 percent or more of survey respondents were very satisfied with their position, were confident in their ability to do their job effectively and felt their supervisor was supportive. Fewer respondents, however — around 60 percent — reported satisfaction related to communication, clear direction from leadership, a sense of collaboration, opportunities for professional development and a perception of their workplace being fair, equitable and free from bias.
To empower staff to create the work environment that would meet their professional needs, we created SEABoard as an advisory group to the vice chancellor and dean of student life and the division’s senior managers. SEABoard is composed of three teams that are charged with addressing areas for improvement that emerged from reviewing the employee survey data — specifically, professional development, diversity and inclusion, and health and wellness. Each of the three teams has co-chairs who, in turn, make up the board’s steering committee, which the division’s senior director for employee development and assessment leads.
With this organizational structure, we put out an open call to the entire division, asking for interested staff to volunteer to join one of the three teams. Initially, 35 volunteers responded. Now, four years later, almost 50 staff actively participate on one of these three teams. Each team has developed goals, initiatives and an assessment strategy for advancing their charge. Teams plan and oversee about 20 events and initiatives annually.
Three signature SEABoard initiatives are: 1) the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Search Guide, 2) the Service Staff Professional Development Series, and 3) DSLReads.
DEI Search Guide. Developed by SEABoard and implemented by human resources, the DEI Search Guide holds hiring managers accountable for recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce with individuals who will bring different perspectives and who better reflect the campus population. As a road map, the search guide helps teams form diverse search committees, use strategic marketing, understand unconscious bias in the search process, create a consistent interview protocol and establish clear success metrics. Search committees also participate in an unconscious bias training with a member of the human resources team.
Service staff professional development series. The Night Watch team includes service staff who work overnight in MIT’s residence halls and who are usually the first point of contact for students needing assistance. Recognizing the pivotal role these staff members play in supporting students, the Night Watch supervisor, who is a SEABoard member, partnered with employee development and human resources colleagues to pilot a four-session Night Watch professional development series. Topics included empathy-based customer service, de-escalating difficult situations and recognizing students in distress. Senior leaders joined the last session to emphasize the importance of the training and to thank employees for their dedication to their work.
The Night Watch training was very successful and was replicated in other areas. We also adapted the training for our Welcome Week volunteers in 2019, and student satisfaction with the helpfulness of our volunteers rose significantly. According to our annual arrival and orientation survey, in 2019, 90 percent of incoming first-year student respondents felt volunteers were helpful, compared to 69 percent in 2018.
DSLReads. A subcommittee emerged as part of the professional development team based on a need to encourage and engage staff in critical thinking. The DSLReads group identifies books that staff members in the division of student life may wish to read together, and whenever possible, the author is invited to our campus to speak. Reading selections are related to professional development and our goals to promote respect, dignity, resiliency, self-compassion and empathy.
Measures of Success
To monitor progress, the SEABoard advisory group developed a data dashboard using key indicators from the 2016 MIT employee survey and has administered follow-up surveys. The most recent survey conducted of full-time division staff revealed a marked improvement in staff morale: satisfaction with division communication and collaboration significantly increased from 60 percent in 2016 to about 80 percent in 2019, and agreement with the statement “my unit’s leadership has communicated a clear direction” increased significantly, from 47 percent to 70 percent. Also, while more improvement is needed, agreement with statements related to professional development, equity and inclusion increased from approximately 60 percent to 70 percent.
Unfortunately, we found little change in one key area: staff feeling overwhelmed. About a third, or 33 percent, of respondents in 2019, compared with 36 percent in 2016, continued to report being overwhelmed “often” or “very often.” Some approaches that we are taking to address this challenge, especially in light of COVID, include developing additional staff well-being resources and programs, focusing on team building, piloting a new job flexibility model that gives staff more agency over how and when they do their work, and helping staff prioritize their work tasks by clarifying our goals and mission. By engaging staff in conversations about well-being, we have deepened our understanding of the complexities of staff feeling overwhelmed, COVID-related fatigue and burnout as well as the crucial role managers play in creating healthy work environments. We are currently facilitating conversations with division leaders and managers about leading with compassion, setting the tone, clarifying priorities and influencing work culture to prevent staff burnout on their teams.
In addition to understanding changes over time, division leadership and SEABoard also review differences between different demographic groups and develop action plans to help managers improve climate indicators where needed. Each department head receives a customized data report that includes their department’s results over time, with comparisons to an aggregate score of all departments in the division. Human resources and assessment staff meet with each department head to review their data and to develop goals for their area.
Critical Success Factors
Most important, steering committee members have identified the following four factors as crucial to SEABoard’s continued success.
- Senior leader investment. The steering committee members unanimously agreed that SEABoard is successful because the division’s leadership has made it a priority. The chief student affairs officer and senior managers regularly and publicly recognize SEABoard’s contributions, encourage staff participation and attend SEABoard events.
- Volunteer-driven, diverse teams. Because membership is voluntary and open to all staff, SEABoard attracts people who are highly motivated and want to make a difference. It also represents diverse perspectives from all units and levels of the organization.
- Clear charges and success metrics. To set the committees up for success, each group has a clear charge with specific projects and parameters that it develops in collaboration with senior leadership. A committee charge is informed by staff climate survey data and tied to the division’s staff climate data dashboard.
- Leadership development. Volunteers take turns serving in leadership roles and receive training and coaching on vital competencies, such as communicating a shared vision, using data to inform decisions, facilitating meetings so all voices are heard and gaining buy-in from diverse stakeholders.
Ultimately, the key to SEABoard’s effectiveness is that we have empowered staff to make a difference in their workplace by gathering feedback from multiple sources, such as program evaluations, interviews and focus groups. This has also helped us understand the evolving needs of employees and to live our mission, “to be here for students.”