The following is an essay written for my comprehensive exam to graduate from the Education Specialist (EdS) program at Appalachian State University.
For a student to successfully enroll and graduate from a higher education institution, they have to interact with a number of faculty and staff to set them up for optimal success in their program of study. Whether it is financial aid, advising or the bookstore, these offices need to perform with efficiency and accuracy, both within their own department and with others, to help get the student from one point in their experience to another. But what if that doesn’t happen and an office or individual cannot or will not work with their stakeholders because of personal or professional reasons, or simply because they are incompetent? This review will look at common reasons why interoffice relationships may or tend to fall apart, what prevents this from happening and what can bring a broken system back to a well-oiled machine. Specifically, we’ll look at the individuals that assist students on the front lines, the different types of cultures that can exist within higher education, the internal and external communications that come from an office, the leaders who help shape the environment employees work in, the negative effects on work relationships as a result of COVID-19 and how workplace spirituality can help balance out the negative experiences individuals may frequently face.
Keywords: Employees, Leadership, COVID-19, Remote Work, Interoffice, Higher Education, Commitment Communication
The Higher Education Employee
Once considered to be a low-stress sector to be employed, employees of higher education are now carrying a heavier burden because of increased competition, changing cultures and changing leadership, according to Katherine Hyatt (2022). While Hyatt’s literature review looks at faculty members specifically, she mimics M.K. Johnson’s (2021) description of higher education staff, stating that longer hours, productivity demands and eroding working environments contribute to an increase in stress for employees (Hyatt, 2022). All of this can contribute to little or no work satisfaction, which according to Ngobeni et. al (2011), promotes an employee’s intent to leave the organization.
Because so much time is spent in the workplace, and because of proximity to each other, it is inevitable that informal relationships can develop among employees, whether that is a good or bad thing, according to Amjad et. al (2015). A friendship at work is a deliberate, but voluntary, relationship that exists for pleasure and gratification where mutual trust exists and interests and values are shared between the two. While friendships can encourage the culture fostered by the institution, it could also lead some employees down a path of inefficiency and inconvenience. One benefit to having casual relationships within an institution is it can enrich the work environment and enhance sociability among workers. It can also reduce work stress, improve individual attitudes, promote critical and creative thinking and increase the commitment to the organization. Some may even develop the initiative to help their friends with guidance, support, advice, feedback and suggestions on certain projects or ventures. Overall, the study by Amjad et. al showed that employee job satisfaction, and overall performance is greatly influenced by workplace friendships.
Unfortunately, Amjad et. al (2015) also reveals how these same relationships can hinder progress and productivity. Instances such as developing a romantic relationship with a colleague, having favoritism towards someone, or having a conflict of interest, can cause someone a loss of focus and performance in their work. If a negative tone were to develop between two workplace friends, that could reduce the level of commitment to the college for one or both parties involved. With that, Amjad et. al recommends that organizations take a very close look at their policies, mission, and vision to keep their employees deeply engaged, as well creating a friendly environment among employees and introducing benefits, rewards and opportunities to learn as an incentive for their continued commitment and quality performance.
To prevent losing qualified employees, and limit the stressors just mentioned, there are some things that institutions can do to engage their interest and produce maximum effort, says Ngobeni et. al (2011). Things such as flexible work schedules, autonomy, career mobility, and challenging assignments are a couple of things recommended to keep employees engaged. Managers can try to attempt to motivate their employees, giving them more to work for than just money, such as giving them different goals or talking to them about promotion opportunities they could one day be eligible for. They can also keep employees engaged by giving them challenging work assignments and opportunities to participate in professional development. They can also be a mentor and coach their employees and keep them focused on their professional goals and provide feedback as they meet certain milestones.
Institutions can focus on raising the level of commitment by its employees in many different ways that benefits their students as well. For some workers, their positions are just a job that meets a means to an end. Administrators may be limited to poor applicants in an employment search pool because of low wages, no professional development benefits, like tuition reimbursement, and limited resources to employees, such as additional staff members, software, etc. (Bray et. al, 2017). Regardless of how the institution can retain an employee, their level of commitment must be high enough for them to engage within their position, be more productive and be more efficient.
According to Bray et. al (2017), “An employee who is not committed to an institution will harm the institution” (Bray et. al, 2017, p. 490). In their study, they found employees who reached the level of affective commitment, the emotional connection they have with the college that they work for. Even employees who have been employed less than more seasoned professionals can attain this commitment. From there, it can be expected that their commitment to the institution would involve engagement with their fellow stakeholders, therefore making the institution as a whole more equipped to help students be successful in their college career.
Communication within an institution with many educated individuals leading in the day-to-day duties can be a critical component to directly or indirectly affect the success of a student, as well as retaining quality employees who show commitment to their employer. Bray et. al (2017) says that communication within an institution is a key component in promoting employee engagement and organizational commitment. According to Samir Ljajic et. al (2021), communication such as newsletters, staff briefings and internal reporting goes a long way in providing transparency and engagement within the college’s workforce. Internal, informal friendships could also help with effective communication, says Amjad et. al (2015).
There are two different types of communication within higher education: internal and external communication (Barreto, 2020). According to Ananias Barreto (2020), internal communication within higher education is “an important way to make decisions and correct work procedures” (Barreto, 2020, p. 135). Barreto states that in order for internal communication to work effectively within a school, the workers who communicate amongst each other have to have a common frame of reference and to share a set of values. To ensure there is not too much unnecessary communication going to unrelated stakeholders, workers need to follow the correct communication channels within the institution. Not only is communication within higher education institutions important because it allows the employees to perform their duties better, but it also allows them to get to know the institution they work for better.
There is a striking difference between what an employee wants to get out of internal communication and what they actually get (Bray et. al, 2017). The more they get out of communication from colleagues, the more informed they are and the more investment they make in the college’s mission and vision. This is especially true with communication that comes from employees that have more authority; employee communication satisfaction rises in this instance. Bray et. al found that there is an “explicit positive” relationship between communication satisfaction and the employee’s commitment to the organization (Bray et. al, 2017).
The performance of an employee directly affects how that employee will communicate and by improving their performance helps increase the chances that their communication with stakeholders will also improve, according to Emanuela Maria (2015). A lot of this can be contingent on the relationship between the employee and their respective manager and how accessible the latter is to their subordinates. Further, Maria says that internal communications are a multidimensional construction, including “complex rules, values, the internal climate and objectives”, requiring employees to have good communication skills and a sense of empathy to be able to effectively relay information to a stakeholder (Maria, 2015, p. 274).
There are some high rewards if good communication is reached and maintained on a campus, says Barreto (2020), such as team participation, interest in the present and future of the organization, employees being prideful in playing a part of the school, which can result in them developing a spirit of loyalty. All of this contributes to the same goal that all employees in higher education should have, productivity in their jobs and obtaining student success. This is very important as changes are constant and services must also adapt to best serve the changing student population. All of this can be achieved if communication is “strategically elaborated and well controlled” (Barreto, 2020, p. 137).
Culture in higher education varies from school to school, but every school understands that the culture they foster will determine how students succeed and the level of commitment by their employees who make that happen. According to Peter Felten and Leo Lambert (2020), there are instances, though, where culture can divide the school and leave gaps between important stakeholders to effectively do their jobs. They also argue that key individuals within the respective institution are key to how an environment of relationship building is made and maintained, like a director, department chair or vice president These leaders instill the institutional values, customs and traditions, as well as enforce the institution policies and practices to shape the culture among the faculty and staff.
Through one of their case studies, Felten and Lambert (2020), learned that one thing about establishing a healthy institutional culture is to keep the interactions from feeling “transactional” and being intentional in growing relationships among stakeholders (Felten et. al, 2020, p. 60). They believe that this starts at the beginning of an employee’s journey with the college – the hiring process. They should express their intention and commitment to growing and maintaining relationships with their colleagues and it is the school’s responsibility to hire, retain, and promote these kinds of employees. They say, “if an institution is to be intentional about creating a culture that values mentoring and helping students form important connections, it must cultivate a workforce that views one of its principal responsibilities as constructing and maintaining a relationship-rich environment” (Felten et al, 2020, p. 61).
Because of the type of work higher education employees do, they must also foster an environment that values caring, inclusion and relationships, not just those in important positions (Felten et. al, 2020). Their interaction with fellow staff members may not only affect the mission and values of the institution, but stakeholders outside of the institution as well, such as prospective students or employers wanting to partner with an educational program (Bray et. al, 2017). The following sections will explore several cultural environments that exist within higher education and see how they succeed or fail.
Corporate Culture in Higher Education
There are many types of cultures that higher education institutions adopt in order to keep their processes going with as little deterrents as possible. One approach used is incorporating a corporate culture. According to Jamie Hennigan (2005), there are those in the field who believe that a corporate culture in higher education is something that cannot be done, nor should it, however, it is becoming the dominant model. Rather than focusing on just the academics within the institution, many employees with more prestigious titles, like a dean, are given additional duties such as faculty and staff recruitment, the recruitment of students, fundraising and receiving grants.
One risk, says Hennigan (2005), is the college coming off as a business, rather than a college. Key components of an institution, such as those who work there, student life, the curriculum and marketing could be significantly different from competing schools. There could be a shift from a focus on students and their success to concentrating on endowments and increasing the image of the institution. The school could also increase enrollment to the point where it could become too much for the faculty and staff to handle, unless more employees are hired to help balance things out.
In a case study done by Hennigan (2005), a school has done well by implementing a corporate model into an academic setting. Student enrollment grew by 40 percent, extensive campus improvements were made, a fundraising campaign brought in $75 million, both within four years under one leader. The student population became more diversified with the increase in enrollment. But for some members of the college, things were made harder with a more corporate approach. For example, one teacher said, “I have had to adjust my teaching and evaluation based on additional numbers in my classes. You can’t be expected to focus as much individual attention when you have more than 25 in the classroom. The way we educate students has changed and not for the better. I’m surprised we haven’t started losing students” (Hennigan, 2005, p. 107).
The Power of Trust
Trust among the employees at a higher education institution can be a powerful tool in building or rebuilding relationships in different offices. According to Jameson et. al (2020), a trusting organizational culture encourages “reciprocal, harmonious, working relationships among staff” (Jameson et. al, 2020, p. 2). Trust among staff members in higher education has been diminished because of things such as low voluntary commitment to the institution and more employees working remotely. Trust between staff members, according to Jameson et. al, is increased when they have more interaction with each other (2020). This could be harder to obtain and maintain if one or both parties are working remotely, which will be explored later.
Another important aspect of trust is that it can open the doors to employees sharing knowledge with each other (Jameson et. al, 2020). This could be critical when one of the parties has an expansive knowledge about the college, as well as trends and the student population they serve. This is important whether a stakeholder is trying to gain knowledge or give it out because of a colleague’s necessity within their job (Jameson et. al, 2020). It can be assumed that people who hoard knowledge, regardless of their amount of experience, can negatively affect other positions and ultimately the students.
There are certainly consequences if a trusting culture does not exist at a campus or campuses. A lack of trust could be because an employee gets promoted into a higher position (Jameson et. al, 2020). Unfortunately, there could be instances where an employee is bullied by other stakeholders. Or maybe the staff disagrees with how the administration responds to internal or external challenges the college faces.
Trust can also be built among employees if the supervisors who lead them furnishes a working environment that is functional (Jameson et. al, 2020). One of the biggest ways leaders can support this is by being accessible to their employees, communicating well and demonstrating why they are in that leading role. Another way employees know they can trust their supervisors is if they are reliable and consistent in their own work and are transparent in the decisions they make. And finally, those in charge could earn trust by trusting those who work underneath them, such as allowing autonomy and engaging in collegiate governance.
According to Lizier et. al (2022), trust in higher education has been identified as one of the key concepts for leaders to allow those who work underneath them to take on responsibilities and problem solve any challenges without much oversight on the supervisor’s part. The hope is that if employees feel trusted with certain areas of the organization that they’ll in turn trust the leaders in making decisions for the school as a whole. If trust is not obtained for either party, employee and supervisor, then there will always be questions about how a department is run and information may not always be communicated.
Cultural Change and the Staff Who Initiate Them
The staff in higher education are a major contributing factor in the culture at their respective institution. However, according to Briody et. al (2021), the staff is usually “invisible” when it comes to recognizing key stakeholders (Briody et al, 2021, p. 320). This has resulted in staff wanting to be more involved in the decision-making process, the communication with internal and external stakeholders, as well as being able to respectfully disagree with their colleagues, whether they are other staff members, supervisors or faculty. In the study conducted by Briody et. al, they looked at different institutional interactions and saw the results of change agents.
Collaboration was listed as one of the most important things among the members of the Flex Co-Op team, which consists of “sharing openly”, “cross-communication”, “engagement”, “trust and respect”, “non judgemental listening”, and “willingness to open up” (Briody et. al, 2021, p. 304). It helped with members who were resistant to doing a flexible co-op program, easing the tension that usually occurs in these situations where there is dissent to a proposal of change.
Remote work is nothing new to some in higher education, but essential staff was drastically and quickly changed to this online modality during the start of the COVID pandemic. Everything from how an employee performed their duties, to how information was shared, to the culture the institution adopted, was drastically changed. For some, according to Jay Grosflam (2022), working from home can cause social isolation and loneliness, which then affects self-efficacy. Throughout the pandemic, performing daily activities became more psychologically demanding and their ability to work efficiently was diminished. For a high-paced field, like higher education, with students reaching out frequently with a multitude of questions, professionals have to be at the top of their game to provide quick and accurate results.
Some of the stressors of higher education employees working from home was because they had to learn new skills, resulting in a decrease in competence (Rietveld et. al, 2021). Because so many were not equipped or familiar with working remotely, some were unmotivated to do their jobs, causing a slowdown in productivity. Many were uncomfortable with the pressure to participate virtually, feeling like they had to respond to inquiries quickly or be judged for not appearing to be easily accessible. As a result, employees became less motivated and less productive because a key component of their jobs was interacting with students and colleagues.
According to Tapani et. al (2022), a lack of social resources is one of the key challenges in relation to remote work. Fifty-two percent of employees who worked remotely during the peak of COVID expressed feeling “less connected to their coworkers” and 24% felt “lonely while working remotely” (Tapani et. al, 2022, p. 2). Further, they found that working remotely was a risk factor for feeling burnout from a lack of social support, weakening the relationship with the employer, or in this case, the school, and it affected the individual employee’s well-being, leaving them stressed and exhausted.
In the study conducted by Tapani et. al (2022), they received several direct quotes from employees on how working from home as a result of COVID-19 affected them, whether good or bad. One said, “It is possible for me to focus on my work much better than if there were some other people working in the same space” (Tapani et. al, 2022, p. 5). Some even went as far to say that they prefer to now work remotely than to be in person, stating, “Social interaction that I missed feels very stressful now. I feel more tired after working face-to-face than after working remote” and “Remote meetings have made my work more effective because I do not need to spend time traveling” (Tapani et. al, 2022, p. 5). But not everyone agreed; one employee argued that “Demands for continuing interaction and meetings create a burden on already stressed employees” (Tapani et. al, 2022, p. 5). Another one said, “Remote work is much more intensive and burdensome because there are no breaks and no stimulating interaction with colleagues” (Tapani et. al, 2022, p. 5).
For one reason or another, many employees did not have positive opinions about their leadership in regards to the move to remote work and maintaining the quality of service (Tapani et. al, 2022). They believed that they had lost the sense of community while working remotely, feeling like the school overall did not care about them, that the supervisors did not show interest in the work they would complete remotely and that nothing was done to promote engagement to keep workers from feeling “isolated” while they worked from home (Tapani et. al, 2022, p. 8).
Workplace Spirituality and Stress
Something that may easily be taken for granted and can help strengthen an individual’s commitment and passion for the institution they work at is the concept of workplace spirituality. Melinda Johnson (2017) defines spirituality in the workplace as a “framework of organizational values evidenced in the culture that promotes employees’ experience of transcendence through the work process, facilitating their sense of being connected to others in a way that provides feelings of completeness and joy” (Johnson, 2017, p. 2). Not only can this concept apply to individuals but the organization as a whole, nurtured by a sense of community.
To meet all the needs of the student population, higher education professionals have to work long hours, which develops into stress, which then leads an individual, in some instances, to not be able to cope with that weight they have burdened themselves with (Johnson, 2017). In a study looking at work stress and university employees, 32% associated themselves with clinical anxiety, 8% with clinical depression and 40% with stress-related illnesses. In the research by Johnson, employees were interviewed to give their common stressors in their daily tasks. One said she stressed over the balance of getting things done quickly and also being available to their students. Another said that their institution is understaffed and under-resourced, making things harder to get accomplished for those who are there and committed. Constant interruptions were also mentioned as stressful experiences. Unsurprisingly, dealing with political moves and maneuvering around people with personalities different than someone else can also be a source of stress.
Fostering a workplace spiritual environment may not necessarily reduce stress levels for employees, but it does provide them a tool to cope with the load they carry, says Johnson (2017). If employees believe that if their work is meaningful, finding a spiritual benefit to the job, their stress levels will go down, regardless of how challenging the task may be. There are several things that higher education institutions have implemented to facilitate workplace spirituality and moments where employees can cope with their stress while on the job, including the creation of meditation and yoga groups. And finally, if employees are able to find coworkers who also share a spiritual connection to the institution, they may be able to rely on them as a source of support when stressors do come up.
To understand an institution and why an employee or group of employees either excel in their jobs or is part of a larger problem, the leaders of higher education also have to be examined. According to Delati et. al (2017), concepts such as sustainability, trust in their organization and job satisfaction among the employees are key characteristics associated with the figureheads all internal stakeholders ultimately report to. There are many responsibilities that administrators have to tend to within their positions to guarantee a smooth-running school, such as corporate responsibility, ethics, stakeholder value and socialization.
Higher education is no exception to holding on to traditional methods of leadership, which is no longer an effective approach to working with employees (McDougle, 2009). In fact, McDougle says “Production in higher education, then, is not the transformation of resources into tangible products; rather, it is the transformation of resources into desired intangible qualities of human beings” (McDougle 2009, p. 5). Traditional leaders in higher education come off as isolated, in an “ivory tower” and unaware of what is going on in their own institution (McDougle, 2009, p. 5).
The roles of college leaders have constantly changed over the decades because the colleges they serve have also changed over time (McDougle, 2009). The type of leadership administrators follow can depend on the individuals at the helm and the situations they face at a particular time, which could also push leaders to change the type of leadership they invoke upon their institution. There are several types of leadership that pertain to higher education; situational leadership, transactional leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership and many more (2009). A couple of styles will be examined for the purpose of understanding interoffice relations better.
The distributed type of leadership is one that dominates the higher education sector, (Lizier et. al, 2022). Terms such as “shared”, “collective”, “emergent” and “democratic” are best associated with this form of leadership (Lizier et. al, 2022, p. 2). The advantages of having an administrator that emulates this kind of leadership are that boundaries of power are clearly and intentionally put up, as well as encouraging the institutional sharing of expertise so all stakeholders are better equipped. Leading in this way can help manage tensions within the work environment, creating a balance between the academic and the managerial responsibilities.
While this form of leadership is effective within higher education, Lizier et. al (2022) states it is mainly criticized because it is vague in how power is addressed. Some argue that it does not consider the power dynamics within the college, as well as the influence this power wields, saying “there is often an underlying assumption that distributing leadership means that ‘everyone is a leader’, occasionally suggesting that all staff members are included in leadership equally” (Lizier et. al, 2022, p. 3). In response to that argument, there are those who say that this concept should be used rhetorically, rather than a structure that is strictly followed. It can also be mistaken as just delegating tasks.
One benefit, specifically to interoffice relations, that comes from utilizing the distributed leadership approach is that it can help balance interactions among colleagues (Lizier et. al, 2022). It can also relieve the tensions between an individual’s responsibilities as both an academic and administrator, something that can be frequently at odds with each other. It also means that there has to be more trust among employees, “to ‘get on with things’ and work things out for themselves with minimal oversight” (Lizier et. al, 2022, p. 6).
With servant leadership, everyone has a voice in the environment that exists on campus and everyone has a set of values that they share (McDougle, 2009). By inviting shared leadership into the college, issues can get addressed quicker, rather than waiting on the few top administrators to become aware, such as “access to college, changing demographics, lack of science and technology graduates and global concerns” (McDougle, 2009, p. 6). There are several characteristics associated with the servant leadership style that administrators implement. For the sake of space, only the ones that directly affect the workers of their institution are mentioned. Servant leaders have foresight, which according to McDougle (2009) is the ability to learn from the past and use those lessons to create a path for the future. They are also skilled at conceptualization, where they can identify values for the institution and communicate those values to stakeholders. Leaders need to be able to listen and learn the needs of the respective stakeholder and reflect on what is said. They have acceptance and empathy, where they treat those associated with the college with dignity and respect and are able to acknowledge the special gifts that an individual possesses. Administrators are gifted with the ability to nurture an environment that encourages cooperation and teamwork among the faculty and staff. And finally, they have the power of healing and can see the emotional needs of the stakeholder, which can help with institutional commitment and job satisfaction.
In Table 2 of McDougle’s (2009) research, there are a number of attributes that make a leader a user of servant leadership. For example, they value people and serve other’s needs first and are receptive, being a non-judgmental listener. They help develop people, like providing professional development for employees to learn and grow more. They help build communities within the organization, building “strong personal relationships, working collaboratively with others and valuing the differences of others” (McDougle, 2009, p. 44). And finally, they share leadership by hosting a vision for the college, they share power with their colleagues and they release control to those they trust, and they promote others who also share the same attributes.
There is not one thing regarding interoffice relations within higher education that can be clearly identified as the thing that either makes or breaks the relationships among workers. It can be as simple as one employee who either is spiritually committed to the college or is isolated to the point where they cannot effectively perform their job. One thing is clear, that communication is a critical component to the dissemination of information and can help educate employees about the institution and get them closer to a solid connection for the mission and values. Being friends with some colleagues may help keep them retained, increase productivity and raise job satisfaction overall. Leaders are also accountable for how good the relationships are between employees and how they can change the environment to best point them in a direction that pushes them forward, not backward. If all of these components are present and are healthy, the respective college is best equipped to provide the highest quality of service to their students and make them as successful as possible.
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