The COVID19 pandemic upended professional life and caused us to evaluate all aspects of the workplace. There are some superficial changes, such as routine health screenings. Others are more comprehensive, such as the prevalence of flexible workplace arrangements. It will take years for the full impacts to be felt, but I suggest that two enduring differences that will remain are the importance of purpose and the value of relationships.
The Importance of Purpose
For many people, the pandemic caused them to re-evaluate what truly mattered in their lives—and their career came up lacking. The pandemic stripped away distractions and forced us to consider what we want to be part of building. It woke many up to realize that their current career was not where they wanted to invest their time and effort, so they made a change. Meaning is foundational for a fulfilling life and career.
The Value of Relationships
Being forced to stay home and isolate brought into sharper relief the importance of connection and relationships—including in the workplace. Returning to the office has not only increased productivity, it has strengthened ties. We will never take the simple things, like laughing with a colleague, for granted in the same way again. Relationships give texture and richness to our professional life. We can accomplish exponentially more together—and have a whole lot more fun along the way.
The Pervasive Problem
Two areas where these principles intersect is the importance of banding together to further the mission of your institution. One of the most pernicious ways we undercut the vital work of higher education is through maintaining a culture of faculty elitism. In most colleges there is a stark division between faculty and professional staff. At its worst, that can lead to costly errors from undervaluing the input of others or noxious work environments where professional staff are treated as underlings. Snobbery on college campuses is one of the most counterproductive things we do.
This time of reimagining what work can—and should be—is the perfect time to begin to shift this culture of elitism. While cultural change is slow and takes work, there are three simple ways you can begin turning the tide and creating a more equitable workplace.
- Seek input. Faculty and college leadership can be out of touch with some of the daily realities of life on campus. Decisions that shape the future of your school will benefit from perspectives from all levels of your organization.
- Share stories. Often front-line workers at your college work for your institution for decades. They are invested in your mission and are valuable sources of institutional knowledge. Use your campus newsletters to interview these key members of your team and introduce them to your community.
- Say “thank you.” The small moments can have the greatest impact. When you infuse respect and appreciation into your relationships, the benefit will ripple outward. Have you ever stopped to pass the time with the mail worker or express your genuine appreciation to the housekeeping staff? Don’t underestimate the importance of our daily interactions with one another.
This change must start from the top. Dr. Stefanie Niles, President of Cottey College, shares that earlier in her career she worked for a college president who modeled respect on her campus community. Dr. Niles recalls, “She was highly accessible—to staff, students, faculty, board members, alumnae, and the public. I was often copied on responses to different constituents, particularly staff members throughout the institution. She was very gracious, never missing an opportunity to thank individuals for their contributions. I asked her one day why she took this approach, taking time out of her very busy schedule to thank people just for doing their jobs. She shared with me how important she felt it was to express gratitude, respect, and appreciation for others and their efforts. Recognizing the accomplishments of individuals encouraged them to give their very best effort, and enhanced their connection to the institution when they felt valued and respected.”
This shaped the kind of leader that Dr. Niles herself has become. She shares, “‘Treat others the way you wish to be treated’ was an important lesson to learn as a leader, and one I continuously aspire to realize in my own interactions with others.”
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