Over the past two years, new hybrid working models have become the norm at educational institutions. The daily workflow of faculty and staff has been transformed as they logged on remotely to work and teach online. While the pressures of adapting to this new mode of working have been significant, the sudden shift online has led to improvements, as institutions recognized the importance of digital platforms that facilitate collaboration and enhance responsiveness.
Schools have an incentive in offering professors – and support staff – access to tools that facilitate their activities. One of those is effective online services, which allow them to communicate with colleagues, collaborate in research and simply get things done.
All of this matters because recent years have seen another pandemic-related shift. Across the US, the effects of the Great Resignation are evident, with millions of workers changing roles or quitting their jobs. In higher education, commentators also point to a parallel trend: faculty disengaging or withdrawing emotionally from some aspects of their jobs. It’s concerning because faculty engagement plays a big part in the student experience, according to research by Gallup.
Institutions are looking for ways to put more resources towards developing talent and better accommodating workers—figuring out how to offer more support during personal crises.“Hiring, retaining, and engaging employees means so much more than the basic comp and benefits,” remarked Geshri Gunasekera,Vice President of Education Cloud at Salesforce recently.
“Employees want better work-life balance,” as The Chronicle of Higher Education noted in an article last year. “College employees are ... re-evaluating how work fits into their lives.”
Joining up disconnected systems
Across higher ed, recognition around the need to promote well-being among employees is growing, whether the employees be faculty—adjunct, pre-tenure, tenure—or staff—full-time, part-time or contractors. A recent report published by Salesforce found that the biggest challenges facing staff were maintaining their well being (73%) and fostering work-life balance (76%). Employees expect an engaging and streamlined experience, and these expectations influence and impact employee retention.
While teaching online brought its challenges, many faculty and staff welcomed the flexibility that remote work allows. Nearly half of those surveyed in the Salesforce.org report said that more flexible work schedules would better support their well being. When one university surveyed its staff, their response was that work-from home-was an enormous gain, according to a recent Chronicle report. As the article notes, “They wanted a flexible schedule and work-from-home opportunities, forever.”
For a hybrid environment to succeed, however, the systems underpinning it must function smoothly. As institutions focus on making the experience of work smoother and more enjoyable, some have introduced new tools to help promote employee engagement, facilitating remote working, and improving collaboration across departments. Research by Salesforce has found that staff who lack sufficient institutional support say it is hard to get technical assistance (40%), communication is poor (38%) and there is nowhere they can go with questions (29%). Almost a third (31%) said their institution “uses multiple technology systems and it’s hard for me to get the data I need to do my job effectively.”
Dan Powell, Director of Community Engagement Technologies at Florida State University, says that in the past, support systems at the university were distributed across different departments.
Although FSU was an early adopter of a technology solution program designed to cater to users, it was cumbersome, leading some departments to seek out their own solutions. Users might contact a certain department only to get sent elsewhere—allowing the department to mark the ticket as closed, Powell says. “So you would get passed around,” he explains. “It was a very disjointed and frustrating experience.”
Powell, who joined FSU in 2019, led an effort to create a dedicated team responsible for evaluating and implementing new systems and processes across the university--both part of the new Digital Campus solution from Salesforce. Florida State is a large university, with more than 13,000 staff working across dozens of divisions, colleges and campuses. It was imperative that they had the tools to work together, Powell says. “The big piece was fixing the disjointed processes among our different departments and colleagues.”
More collaboration, greater job satisfaction
The new systems were implemented swiftly at FSU, first Marketing Cloud in July 2020 and then Service Cloud in October. Not only was adoption of the new platform smooth, the new tools ironed out many of the wrinkles that had previously made it difficult to get things done.
The Salesforce platform enabled university staff to organize their work flows and resolve issues quickly. Now, Powell says, people don’t have to log into multiple places or dig around the system for information. The Case Management tool tags items as urgent or less pressing, and Salesforce can remind staff if tickets have been sitting unattended for too long. “It speeds up how we interact with each other, it builds communication back and forth, and more openness among different teams,” Powell says. “It improves the ability to collaborate and solve problems together. It’s very seamless.”
In addition, Powell says, staff can collaborate and work together easily. In an industry that is traditionally highly siloed, this type of platform helps to break barriers down. “Even if it’s a case that might involve two different departments, we can all be on the same page together. It’s transparent for our constituents, and they can interact with the staff as well when they’re solving the cases. It’s been very effective,” Powell explains.
Before the roll-out of the university-wide applications, Powell and his team introduced the tool in FSU’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and the College of Social Work, where it was used to support the students with very different use cases. The technology is highly adaptable—Powell says it was later deployed in the university’s Covid-19 contact-tracing efforts.
The Case Management tool was introduced three months after Marketing Cloud. Cases come in two main forms, requests (like, “what is the status of my financial aid?”) and incidents (a broken computer needs to be fixed). In the first year of working with the system, FSU staff across the university closed 160,000 cases.
As with any successful implementation, Powell and his colleagues had buy-in from the top. They were supported by an advisory committee made up of executive leadership and partnered with their change-management team who helped communicate frequently with stakeholders and offered online training. When the Case Management tool went live, the team had planned to dedicate a week to answering questions and resolving problems but, in the end, just one or two calls came in. Employees across FSU found the system far easier to adopt than Powell had expected. He attributes this to the system’s seamlessness, observing, “We didn’t have to change our process to meet the technology. It’s the other way around.”
“The ease of this platform to figure things out or be able to do things, to be able to pull up information in a seamless way – just makes it easy to adopt,” Powell explains.
Helping employees fulfill their mission
Ease of use is a key quality of other Salesforce products. Tools like Slack enable easy, swift communication across departments and divisions. At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Slack has made it simpler for colleagues to work together, according to Christopher Matera who works in the President’s Office. He says he and his colleagues can respond to each other on Slack more rapidly than on email. “Slack is our digital workspace where we collaborate and huddle with colleagues across the President’s office,” he says.
Apps like Zoom can plug into Slack seamlessly, facilitating support and troubleshooting efforts. The team plans to extend their digital workspace by deploying Slackbots—a built-in robot assistant that manages tasks—to help employees search for information. “Slack really has been a huge enabler for this with its easy to use interfaces and APIs,” Matera explains.
Colleges and universities are sometimes likened to cities, teeming with inhabitants who all need different kinds of support. And, as in cities, schools can act to improve conditions on campus. A 2019 article published in the journal, Building Healthy Academic Communities, cited research showing that engaged faculty and staff are more likely to be committed to student success. The authors observed that, “Institutions of higher education have an opportunity to create campus cultures that foster health and well being.”
Even before the pandemic, there were indications that the wellness of staff warranted attention. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an assistant director for digital learning at Georgetown University, Lee Skallerup Bessette, pointed out: “We are the face that faculty members see when they have questions, concerns, or struggles with the technology they have been asked to use. We are the face that students see when they have questions, concerns, or struggles related to distance learning or on-campus policies and procedures.”
In her piece, Bessette asked leaders in higher ed to, “Give public credit to the staff departments and staff members in the same way that you would academic departments and professors.” FSU offers an example of this kind of recognition. “We’ve already earned a partner of the year award from our Greek life department and accolades from many others,” Powell says.
By improving visibility on common issues and patterns, these sorts of systems enable school leaders to figure out how to meet constituents’ needs and plan more strategically for the future. The tools in turn allow faculty and staff to feel understood, and valued. As hybrid learning and working becomes the norm and as the needs of staff and faculty evolve, institutions will have to find new ways to support them—wherever they are.
For university staff, such tools help to increase job satisfaction and allow them to end their day with the sense of a job well done. Meeting the needs of faculty, students and other staff helps them support the entire campus community, and better fulfill the institution’s purpose. Powell points out that this is the source of real job satisfaction. “When you look at people that work at an institution, most of us are mission driven, meaning that we want to do everything we can to drive that mission forward, to serve.”
“When we can go home at the end of the day and feel like we’ve done everything we can or we’re not polarized because we have to work in eight different systems. We can actually get things done and move things forward.”