The University Record, April 15, 1998

Training food for thought for Benefits Office team members

Bernadette Davis (standing), from TIAA-CREF, taught one of the 'nuts-and-bolts' sessions at the Benefits Office's Team Training Week. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

Paper plates were the order of the day when Benefits Office staff developed their Team Training Week. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Vivian Byrd
Benefits Office

When staff in the Benefits Office decided to have a Team Training Week, they knew they wanted to hear from experts in the field, but knew they had to be creative and innovative to meet their second goal: keep the week to a minimal cost.

In June 1996, benefits representatives, the staff who provide customer service, were organized into self-directed work teams. Nuts-and-bolts training is an ongoing process; special training events like the Team Training Week provide an opportunity for teams to work on improving the way they function as a team.

The training week revolved around a food theme from the very beginning, "since food is imbedded in our office culture," says Jan Katz, training team leader. "And since these terms are also used to refer to work volume, which is heavy, there was a dual meaning for us."

"What's on your plate?" began the planning process for the program. Going a few steps further, team leaders were asked, "What plate would you like to pass?" and "What else do we need for the potluck?" Suggestions were recorded on paper plates.

When the planning group looked at the plates, it was evident that a lot of the needs revolved around communication, Katz says. "How can we effectively resolve differences." "How can we communicate more fully?" "In what ways can we better support each other?"

To lead the training, planners sought effective resources that would also keep costs to a minimum. They called on benefits staff with special skills, University programs, TIAA-CREF, and a lecturer on how teams work from the Ann Arbor community.

To build a sense of trust among participants, the Challenge Program of the Department of Recreational Sports presented a session that was customized to meet goals identified by the planners.

Katz is enthusiastic about the Challenge Program. "I'm really glad we have the R.O.P.E.S. program at the University. It's a useful tool for a lot of groups trying to put together teams."

Stephanie Souter, a benefits representative and graduate student who is conducting research on cross-gender communication, presented a program on her findings, and lead a discussion of team experiences and how to approach them. Jeremy Little, benefits representative, a process mapping specialist who also conducts surveys, helped participants understand what is involved in strategic planning, how to conduct effective meetings, and how to brainstorm to get past the "We've done that before" excuse.

A CareerTrack video on "21 Ways to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down," a course on how to keep your cool on the phone and be helpful too, involved two two-hour sessions filled with proven techniques to "defuse anger and calm people down," both on the job and at home. Topics included guided problem-solving, the art of listening, understanding the elements of empathy and getting along as a group. Benefits representatives who viewed the "21 Ways" video applied the techniques immediately and reported great success.

Margaret Kotowicz, an Ann Arbor lecturer on how work teams function, says, "The most important ingredient in a workplace that depends on teamwork is cooperation from all members. Success rests on everyone taking responsibility and being willing to share tasks.

"I've had a lot of jobs, and this is a great way to do things," says Kotowicz, who for worked four years as part of a team in a business that has been completely team-managed for 30 years.

Kotowicz's advice to teams? Meet regularly as a group, at least once a month, to review problems and create solutions. Kotowicz said the approach works because "all the decisions are by consensus. "If we used majority-vote decisions, there would always be someone who disagreed and would not contribute." Reaching consensus is hard, she said, "but when everyone agrees in principle, they work hard to make it happen."

Team Training Week also included some nuts-and-bolts presentations, one a refresher on the TIAA-CREF retirement plan, and one on new technologies in the office.

Participants found the program energizing. Many evaluation comments echoed one participant who said, "It will change how I view other people's opinions, and how I listen."

Team Training Week was a dramatic demonstration of the powerful training that can be undertaken at little cost to the department. Katz says she ishappy to share ideas with departments interested in setting up a similar event. Call her at 763-1214.

Participants pleased with Team Training Week

Karin Roberts says there definitely will be changes in the way she approaches her job as a result of the Benefits Office's Team Training Week.

"One of the first sessions I went to focused on dealing with changes that need to be made in the office, learning how to approach people who say, 'It's always been done that way.' We also got tips on different words to use, questions to ask that will generate more discussion."

Roberts, who is a benefits representative working with faculty and graduate students, also liked the video on defusing anger. "We get a lot of angry people. That session was excellent." A relatively new member of the staff, Roberts would like to have more training. "This was a good overview. I would like more in-depth training about how people can work together as a team, with role-playing or videos with real scenarios."

Elizabeth Hagey, who is part of a self-directed work team helping bargained-for employees, said the sessions will help her relate to her team more and be a better listener. "It also has made me want to take a more proactive approach to how I deal with team matters."

Jeremy Little is one of three males in his part of the office and found the session on cross-gender communication particularly helpful. "It helped me understand how different genders communicate. The psychological aspect of the session was helpful."

Little's work focuses on process improvement, "ways to make our jobs better and helping the benefits representatives come up with their own ideas and bring them into focus."

Benefits representative Stephanie Souter, who presented the session on cross-gender communication, "definitely learned a lot of informaton that pertained to my job. The strategic planning session way really helpful in learning how to work with others and how to persuade others to listen to your ideas," she says. "I learned some good tactics and how to not back down from an idea that someone else doesn't agree with."

Souter also found the refresher on the TIAA-CREF retirement plan helpful. "I learned a lot that will help me help our customers with retirement questions."