The University Record, May 10 , 1999

LS&A staff briefed on results of forums

By Jane R. Elgass

LS&A staff who served as forum facilitators and were available to answer questions at the May 5 Town Meeting were (from left) Julie Mattucci-Clark, Robin Sarris, Dorothy Marschke, Jennifer Eshelman, Janice Williams, Cheryl Zello and Katherine Johnson. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
Access to the tools that will help them excel in their work, recognition for the work they do and problems caused by increasing workloads are among major concerns aired by LS&A staff members in a series of open forums that were conducted in January and February.

Results of the 28 forums were unveiled May 5 at the first of two LS&A Staff Town Meetings, attended by about 160 individuals.

Jane Johnson, one of two emcees at the meeting, noted that “there was a tremendous amount of positive energy” exhibited by forum participants, who did not come in with a lot of criticism but rather ideas for solutions and a desire “to work collectively to improve life in the College.” Johnson, an administrative assistant in the Department of English, organized the forum project and also served as a group facilitator. She was joined in hosting the Town Meeting by E. Karen Clark, LS&A manager of human resources services.

About 26 percent–228 persons–of LS&A staff participated in the forums, a counterpoint to faculty focus groups conducted in the fall. Staff volunteers who served as facilitators and note-takers received training from Human Resource Development.

Staff were able to attend a forum with individuals from their job family or could opt for attending a forum whose participants represented several job families. All forums had several common questions related to barriers to getting work done and “connectedness” to LS&A, with individual forums covering five topic areas: LS&A administration and services, unit level leadership, student academic services, environment for staff, and computer technology and technical support.

Incoming Dean Shirley Neuman was on campus last week and attended the LS&A Staff Town Meeting. Noting that she has had considerable experience with an M-Pathways type system, she said, 'I have empathy for the chaos, but it does get better.' She also acknowledges that 'It does move work, and we have to address that.'

Commenting on the evaluation process, Neuman noted that 'bottom-up feedback is extremely important.' She also indicated she has found that through evaluation processes 'often very simple changes can be identified to help staff do their job better.'

She tole her appreciative audience that she is 'a great fan of training' and also was happy to see that information-sharing was high on staff members' agenda. 'I will rely on you to continue to help me identify issues and help us move forward to resolve them.'

Neuman will assume the deanship Aug. 1. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

Johnson noted several overall themes, in addition to those above, that emerged from the forums:

  • A desire for cross-College staff meetings–held during work time (not lunch hours) and supported by the Dean’s Office–as an opportunity to share problems and learn from others.

  • Input on policy decisions, especially those that affect the daily life of staff. Johnson noted that staff feel “respected when asked for their opinion and when that opinion is listened to.”

  • Training for faculty and staff supervisors. In many instances, forum participants noted, staff must take responsibility for training new chairs and directors.

    Clark cited two similarities in responses of faculty and staff:

  • “A culture of tiredness,” a result of overwork and conflicting demands.

  • The notion among faculty that chairs work for the College and among staff that key administrators work for the College.

    Here’s a quick look at some of the issues identified in discussing barriers to getting work done and whether or not staff feel “connected” to the College:

  • More effective communication is needed between the Dean’s Office and staff in units. Key administrators, who are supposed to be the pipeline between the administration and the unit, sometimes do not share information with staff. Some suggested that Dean’s Office staff could benefit from customer service training, citing a sense of “differential treatment” based on status or personal connections. Staff want to feel connected but “too often they feel controlled instead,” the report notes.

  • Understanding and implementing policies and procedures is a challenge for staff. They would like more unit-level involvement in developing College policies and procedures. Policies and procedures should be documented and the documentation should be easily accessible to those who need it. Staff also noted that there is a lack of consistency in interpretation and application of both LS&A and University policies and procedures among LS&A units.

  • LS&A’s organizational structure is hard to understand, sometimes making it hard to get work done. “Who does what in the Dean’s Office?’ is a continual question for staff,” the report notes. Some participants also cited a “we/they” atmosphere between departments and the College.

  • Paperwork takes too much time due to many bureaucratic layers, and it is hard to track its progress. Valuable time is spent hand-carrying paperwork because the University mail system is not fast or dependable enough.

  • Compensation concerns and lack of staff advocacy create low morale. Specific concerns in this area include insufficient salary increases, lengthy reclassification reviews and hiring processes, salary compression caused by a tight job market, and the need for a staff advocate to listen to and address staff concerns.

  • Lack of training is a barrier to getting work done and makes staff turnover hard to tolerate. Suggested solutions included hiring “permanent floaters” who could fill in during transition times, more time for training, more cross-training, and job-specific orientation and mentoring programs.

    Issues raised and solutions suggested in the topic areas:

  • LS&A administration and services. Some staff have had positive experiences with the Dean’s Office and many commented that things had improved under Interim Dean Pat Gurin. Others cited problems with micromanagement of budget and facilities and an atmosphere of mistrust, inconsistency in policies and procedures and the need for more information, such as directories, organization charts and direct e-mail communication with staff.

    Facility repairs and furniture replacement need to be attended to more quickly.

    Staff would like more opportunities for training and networking, including time to practice what they learn in classes and information about training opportunities and funding sources. A policies and procedures manual that units could customize should be developed.

    Flexible work schedules and appointment of individuals to closed-end positions during peak times would help improve the work climate, as would stress reduction and customer service training for Dean’s Office staff.

  • Unit level leadership. Leadership change at the unit level is not always handled well. The College should provide a model for systematic handling of leadership change and “focus on appointing leaders who can interact with all job levels,” the report stated. Staff commented that leadership changes affect job security and noted that if unit leadership “falls out of favor with the College it affects resource allocations.” They also would like input on the selection of chairs and directors and suggested creation of a mentoring program for new faculty administrators.

    A mentor system for training in new systems and in computer skills would be helpful for long-term staff.

    The frequent turnover of administrators means “staff carry the burden of insuring procedural continuity.” New chairs and directors need training and documentation of LS&A policies and procedures. Faculty supervisors and key administrators should receive supervision and conflict management training.

    The staff classification system needs updating and clarification, opportunities for promotion within departments should be provided and merit increases should be tied to evaluations. In addition, staff would like to see creation of a tool for “bottom-up” evaluation of unit leadership.

    Communication could be improved through implementation of regular department staff meetings or cluster meetings within departments, as well as networking across departments and among those with jobs with similar tasks.

  • Student academic services. There are a number of “pluses” in the student services area, including increased information access for students; improved advising and counseling; and beneficial programs such as summer orientation, living/learning communities, research opportunities, and good libraries and librarians. Better financial support for graduate student instructors (GSIs) has enabled them to offer better teaching.

    More faculty support and leadership is needed relative to undergraduate issues, and the number of advising and student service positions in units should be increased. The importance of serving students needs to be communicated at all levels.

    More faculty are needed to teach core courses and attention should be paid to coordinating key courses with sequencing when faculty are granted leaves and sabbaticals.

    Advisers need better office space and GSIs need more office space.

  • Environment for staff. “The processes of performance evaluation, salary merit adjustments and overall compensation were very important issues for staff,” the report notes. “The College has many dedicated staff whose major discouragement is their paycheck.”

    Among the negatives in this area are lack of compensation for additional work and responsibilities; the perception that one must leave a unit in order to get promoted; and loss of staff to outside industry, which is now offering similar benefits with fewer frustrations.

    Suggestions for improvement include conducting a salary study of outside organizations and other academic institutions, compensating staff for team work, offering incentives that will encourage staff to stay in their positions, providing written information about the merit system, clarifying overtime policies, and compensating staff for additional training or attaining a higher skill level.

    Staff should be treated with the same respect as faculty and all staff should be treated fairly and equally. Leadership should provide support when a staff member has to say “no” to a faculty member.

    Staff cited the need for an advocate, “someone they can go to when they have a problem with a supervisor or faculty administrator,” the report stated.

    The physical environment also affects one’s job performance, with staff indicating a need for a “break” room and periodic checks of offices and workstations relative to ergonomics and lighting. Some raised health concerns related to renovation projects.

    Staff prefer direct communication if there is a problem and noted that evaluations written by individuals not familiar with the staff member’s work are not helpful.

    Providing interview and training models would help address some staff transition issues. Staff also suggested establishment of a Staff Exploratory, similar to the Faculty Exploratory that offers information technology training.

    New staff should be provided with procedures manuals. Training should be provided on dealing with multiple bosses and balancing customer needs with job demands.

  • Computer technology and technical support. Helpful improvements in the IT area included e-mail, new equipment that accompanied the NT rollout, informational and easily updated Web sites, and the appointment of a person to handle site licensing for the College.

    “Because of the rapid growth in this area,” the report notes, “many concerns center on the shortage of personnel and training. The need to fund more computer support staff positions was a recurring theme. Staff should catch up proportionally with the hardware/software investments the College has made.”

    Many computer staff support personnel feel disconnected and have poor morale due to low salaries, increasing workloads and lack of input on decisions.

    Creation of a transition relief team would provide support when local positions are vacant. Better feedback on the status of service requests is needed. The College should hire a Y2K coordinator and provide unit tech support people with funding to deal with Y2K issues.

    Training of one person in each department to provide basic computer support, and recognition of that role in job descriptions, would relieve the pressure on other technical support staff.

    A Web coordinator and team should be appointed to help units create and maintain their sites.

    “Get the best Web person, the best Mac person, the best data support person, the best tech support person to act as central coordinators for these areas at the College level,” the report states.

    Lack of basic skills make changes to new systems and software difficult.

    A software manual library and a primer on the Web and copyright laws would be helpful. There is a need for basic training in e-mail attachments and use of shared drives.

    A second Town Meeting will be held 3—4:30 p.m. May 13 in Auditorium A. Angell Hall.

    The report on the staff forums is on the Web at www.lsa.umich.edu/dean/bud/.


    Top priorities

    LS&A staff members were asked to name their top priorities for improving the work environment. Unranked, within LS&A they are:

  • Better salary compensation.

  • More access to training.

  • Respect.

  • Improved communication and access to information.

  • An improved performance evaluation process.

  • Equalized job classifications.

  • Hiring of more staff.

  • Flexible schedules.

  • Job security.

  • An emphasis on fairness and consistency in supervision.

    Suggestions for improvements at the University level included increased parking access and decreased parking costs and such non-salary benefits as better dental coverage, family care days, more liberal support for continuing one’s education, on-site day care, inclement weather days, half day off Dec. 24 and Martin Luther King day off, and fitness classes.


    Forum facilitators

    The following LS&A staff served as note-takers and facilitators for the 28 forums that were held in January and February:

    Judith Carothers, academic services secretary, Romance languages and literatures; Jennifer Eshelman, student services assistant, Asian languages and cultures; Jane Johnson, Dean’s Office and English; Katherine Johnson, associate editor, Romance languages and literatures; Dorothy Marschke, student services assistant, history; Julie Mattucci-Clark, academic secretary, and Lara Nelson, administrative associate, both from sociology; Robin Sarris, administrative manager, and Katherine Teasdale, student services associate, both from English; Janice Williams, executive secretary, political science; and Cheryl Zello, secretary, Museum of Zoology.

    Human Resource Development provided training for the facilitators. HR/AA Consulting also assisted with the project.