5 Ways to Instill More Joy in Higher Ed Workplaces

Kristin McCann, Taylor Alexander, Lauren Isaacman Darga, Daniel Truesdale, and Taylor Wallace suggest cultivating healthy environments where people thrive.

The great resignation,” “the big quit,” and “quiet quitting”—these phrases all refer to trends most of us are familiar with and many of us have personally experienced. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021 and 2022 were record-breaking years when it comes to job changes, with 50.5 million resignations in 2022 alone.  And colleges and universities were certainly not immune to such shifts.

Arguably, the pandemic accentuated pre-existing complexities and pain points of working in higher education as a full-time staff member—including but not limited to lower pay relative to other sectors, lack of permanent hybrid and flexible work schedules, low investment in staff learning and development, and boundless expansion of duties, among other stressors. But on the flip side, what about higher education professionals who stayed through it all? Who persisted and not only survived but also found a way to thrive?

Our core team is midsize and comprises several full-time staff and faculty members. Together, we support a large professional master’s degree program in concert with our department and division colleagues. After our unit was reorganized into a different division, a critical mass of us coalesced and began thinking about how to imagine and cultivate the kind of workplace we wanted to see.

As we commence a new year, we have reflected on the key elements that have encouraged us to stay. One point of departure for this reflection is the relative joy we find in our work on most days. We want to share those elements because positive stories about working at colleges and universities are not often told. We hope that our colleagues across the country can implement or adapt at least some of the following to help create a healthy environment where people thrive.

  1. Take active steps to retain staff members from day one. Strive to offer competitive pay. Myriad studies and surveys point to low salaries as a top reason people leave higher education. College leaders who have influence over compensation must prioritize paying adequately and appropriately.

Our team is grateful to work with division-level colleagues who help us navigate the complexities of job leveling and salary ranges. Without their guidance, we likely could not have made certain vital hires—or at least would have had much more difficulty doing so.

We certainly understand the realities of tight budgets and that different institutions have different capabilities and policies when it comes to compensation. If base salary is not negotiable, ask your human resources colleagues whether positions on your team can be reviewed for pay equity relative to others in the division or nationally. Also, ask whether one-time signing bonuses are an option.

Of course, it’s also crucial to hire enough staff members to do the work. Employees tend to perceive their base salary as fairer if the institution staffs their teams appropriately. Many if not most of us in higher education have served on at least one chronically understaffed team, which impacted morale and work-life integration, creating a propensity for burnout.

Another key step that those in management positions should take is to conduct onboarding interviews and “stay” conversations. Get to know the areas of challenge and opportunity with your new and continuing staff members. Regardless of format, if your institution requires performance reviews, treating them as just another piece of red tape could be a missed opportunity for retention-oriented conversations. Conducting individual conversations with your staffers acknowledges that job satisfaction is not one-size-fits-all. While a time commitment, attention to the distinctiveness of each hire matters.

You should also advocate for talent development opportunities. We need and want people to remain engaged in their work and must support that as much as possible—whether through an annual fund that individual staff members can draw on, teamwide professional development opportunities once or twice a year, or simply reminding staff of any existing resources to which they have access by virtue of being employees.

  1. Cultivate a shared mission and vision. Some units are assigned very clear missions, while others, like ours, must determine their own. During our weekly meetings and an all-team retreat, we decided that everything we work toward comes back to creating a signature student experience and ensuring that students’ time with us is personal and tailored to their needs rather than simply transactional. Our faculty directors have emphasized the importance of understanding our students’ backgrounds, needs, and ultimate objectives as we continue to develop and improve our programs. That focus helps us align the goals of disparate teams and develop cohesive and impactful offerings.
  2. Buffer against the often decentralized and siloed organization of colleges and universities. Our department is composed of various functional areas—enrollment management, student affairs, academic affairs, and external partnerships (including alumni relations)—within a highly decentralized institution. In theory, that broad framework could lead to a fractured team, but our leaders are intentional about collaboration and communication. Weekly in-person staff meetings that include faculty representatives help maintain our shared mission and vision.

Going a step further, our faculty directors encourage us to work with departments across campus, so the work we do is human-to-human versus only email address to email address. Engaging with other teams is crucial for us to best support our mission of providing a signature student experience.

  1. Make the implicit explicit. Ever heard of toxic niceness? The premise is that appeals for kindness and empathy in the workplace inadvertently pit candor against healthy workplace culture. In part because they were aware of that, our faculty leadership empowered us as staffers to openly discuss our ideal workplace culture. After listing descriptors such as trust, responsiveness, directness, more transparency, identity consciousness, and collaboration, among others, we then had to be specific. For example, what do we mean when we say we encourage boundaries? What does burnout look like? What levels of relationship building are necessary for effective collaboration on a team? What are the optimal expectations for a hybrid team schedule?

Our leaders also put it on the table that to err is human and we should talk about what we learn from our mistakes. To illustrate the importance of having an open and respectful dialogue about workplace culture, one team member shared, “My previous institution required administrative staff to return to work five days in the office [post-pandemic], while faculty continued to hold remote office hours. As a result, few students visited the office, because they could meet with their faculty adviser online or obtain needed documents on the institution’s website.” A frank discussion about staff versus faculty schedules would have identified the broad impacts on student services, avoided often-unspoken power dynamics between staff and faculty members, and generally improved the workplace culture.

  1. Lead with gratitude. Gallup research shows measurable connections between gratitude and people’s sense of well-being in the workplace. Action items that you can take to lead with gratitude include:
  • Ask your team members how they like to be shown appreciation: verbal, written, private, public. Respect the ways they prefer to receive gratitude and express your thanks frequently.
  • If your team shares their wins periodically, invite them to discuss those that aren’t necessarily work-related as well. It could be meaningful for the larger team to know that a personal milestone was achieved in addition to professional ones. Encourage members to share good news, big or small. Cultivate positivity purposely and often.
  • Let your employees shake off their losses. Make it very clear that we all will have off days and hardships in our roles, and not every new initiative will be successful right away. There will be days when the work doesn’t feel worth doing. Create a safe enough space to acknowledge that, to show the employee that you care for them even during difficult patches, and to demonstrate you are invested in their growth through losses as well as wins.
  • Have leadership reach out to team members to offer congratulations and thanks for smaller tasks. Recognize that people in lower-level roles are often doing work that goes unseen yet is imperative for the daily success of the team as a whole. Be specific.

Various news media outlets say the great resignation is over. But challenges certainly remain, and many institutions still have a long way to go in creating healthier workplaces. That said, it’s still possible to instill more joy. By doing so, our team has chosen to persist, with cautious optimism and a sense of humor for the future of our field.