Employee Engagement in Colleges

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By Debbie Aurelius, Peppermint Fish Limited

Can a focus on employee engagement help to create successful college cultures?

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to focus on employee engagement in colleges. I’d been in a lively conversation with an experienced Organisational Development consultant, Ali Herdman. We talked about the areas in which OD & internal communications are complementary skills and, in particular, how they can influence employee engagement.

Ali has a wealth of expertise in the education sector, working with leaders of sixth form and further education colleges. We compared notes on the results I’ve seen, where proactive, responsive communications can inspire a positive approach to engagement, and agreed it would be helpful insight to share.

Aside from the many pressures on the college sector, including changes to financing mechanisms, reducing budgets and increased expectations for academic outcomes, one key piece of information about engagement posed a challenge. This information was received anecdotally but consistently. It was that college employees, in particular teachers and lecturers, derived their engagement from their vocation rather than their employer. It was assumed they were motivated to teach their subject and to encourage their learners, but had a little alignment with their institution.

What’s the relevance of Employee Engagement to the sector?

If this is truly the case, is there any relevance in college leaders attempting to measure and improve engagement levels? In an already stretched sector, could there be any value in investing time, let alone budget, in trying to fix something that may not actually be broken?

Based on the dialogue I’d had with Ali and the research we carried out, I strongly believe there is. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for simple, direct engagement techniques to see if they might help make some headway. We agreed to offer a workshop on the topic to college leaders, and this is what we found.

Feeling valued is a precursor to engagement

Research into engagement in further education and sixth form colleges yielded a surprisingly small number of reports and case studies, given that the sector employs an estimated 120,000[i] people in the UK.

One excellent resource we found was the Association of Colleges’ report, ‘Employee Engagement in Further Education’[ii]. The report was published in 2014 and expresses a clear view on the importance of employee engagement, “Although there has been little work done in the sector, it is clear that employee engagement is absolutely vital in further education.”

The data listed in the report is insightful and confirms the understanding we’d been given: that engagement levels are higher for the vocation than for the institution. It states that while 74% of respondents are proud to work in the learning and skills sector, only 48% are proud to work at their organisation.

The AoC report on engagement in colleges includes a statistic I found both sobering and indicative of the work that can be done to improve engagement levels: only 35% of employees felt valued by their employer. It seems hard to accept that roughly two thirds of the people who are educating and shaping the future of thousands of learners are feeling undervalued. It’s even harder to expect those people to consistently deliver inspirational and engaging learning experiences if they are feeling disconnected and disengaged

Taking time to understand how college leaders can demonstrate that the hard work and good will of their employees is appreciated and valued, would be a straightforward step to change this concerning statistic.

Engaged teachers and lecturers deliver a more positive learner experience.

We presented our workshop attendees with data about engagement that was collated in the Higher Education sector. It’s taken from an ORC International research report and states that university departments in the top quartile for engagement metrics receive an average of 5% higher student satisfaction scores.[iii]

The correlation between engaged lecturers and positive learner outcomes was no surprise to our workshop attendees. It’s not difficult to accept that enthusiastic, ‘switched on’ teachers are more likely to engage and inspire learners. I suspect the long-standing reliance on the intrinsic motivation of lecturers - that their passion for the subject and the vocation should be enough – might have removed a sense of urgency in creating engaging workplaces for them.

The pressure to ‘do more with less’

It’s understandable that only priority needs are addressed in this sector. It has been a time of huge change, as the AoC pointed out in its 2014 report, “colleges are having to adapt to significant policy change”; there are mergers between colleges, and pressure to ‘do more with less’. There are societal changes such as the increase in reported mental health issues amongst young adults. There is the pressure many sectors feel, of the demand for transparency and accountability to local communities. Looking ahead, there is uncertainty about the changing nature of employment in general, and the likely effect increasing automation will have on vocational and occupational skills requirements.

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that engagement becomes both challenged and acutely critical at times of change. In their report, Managing Engagement at Times of Change[iv], Aon Hewitt describe how “the degree to which employees can identify with their organisation, see a clear future, or strive toward organisational objectives seems to be most significantly at risk during change events.”

Much of the conversation during the workshop centered on the pressures of change and communication, like the need to keep everyone informed during times when many conversations need to be ‘behind closed doors’. A well-thought-through internal communications strategy, including opportunities for timely sharing of information and for everyone to share their perspective, was one of the solutions considered and discussed.

Employee engagement is not an initiative

Employee engagement was not a new concept to the leaders in our workshop. What was interesting was the fact they considered it to be an initiative – a survey-and-results process; a time-consuming obligation, with some fairly predictable statistics to report. The conversation in the workshop encouraged a realisation that engagement is not an initiative but an approach. It’s a change of perspective that recognises the power of an engaged workforce and leads to everyday priorities being addressed in a way that is inclusive, mindful of the organisation’s values and deliberately engaging. It’s a mindset shift that places human needs at the front and centre of decision–making and culture. It ensures people are valued for who they are and what they do; that they feel informed and consulted; they are encouraged to achieve more and grow; their need for wellbeing is recognised and respected; they are able to bring their whole selves to an inclusive workplace.

I was delighted when the leaders we worked with began to describe their plans to adopt simple but genuine steps to improve their colleagues’ sense of engagement: focusing on improved internal communications; valuing people for their skills and encouraging their efforts to achieve more. I wish them all well in their efforts to create more engaging cultures in their colleges.

[i] The Association of Colleges Key Facts 2017 – 18, available at https://www.aoc.co.uk/sites/default/files/Key%20Facts%202017-18_1.pdf <accessed June 2018>

[ii] Employee Engagement in Further Education, Association of Colleges, available at https://www.aoc.co.uk/sites/default/files/Key%20Facts%202017-18_1.pdf <accessed June 2018>

[iii] Obtained from Engage for Success Further Evidence, available at http://engageforsuccess.org/further-evidence <accessed June 2018>

[iv] Managing Employee Engagement at Time of Change, Aon Hewitt, March 2017 http://www.aon.com/attachments/human-capital-consulting/Managing-Engagement-in-Times-of-Change-March2017.pdf <accessed June 2018>

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