Make your office the best place to work

January 10, 2020
  • Competencies
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five smiling people sitting around a meeting table

In this era of professional mobility, it’s not always easy to cultivate and keep reliable, long-term staff. So how can you make your office a place people want to stay?

Employee tenure: the long and the short of it

It’s important for certain staff, particularly in the registrar’s office, to develop expertise, which only comes with time and experience in the role. 

“The type of work our office does is very detailed and particular. It takes an entire year and often longer to really learn the position, so we want to keep people long enough to become good and great at what they do,” said Rebecca Mathern, Oregon State University Registrar. “We have to create a positive environment both because we want our colleagues to be happy and also because we don’t want people who are not experts doing work that is mission critical to the institution. We need to be able to rely on people who are experts to keep systems running successfully.”

Nota bene: there can be an unexpected upside to staff turnover. Employees who begin their careers in the registrar’s office and move on to other positions in the university help build cross-campus collaboration, and also build the reputation of the registrar’s office as a resource for developing staff with a comprehensive understanding of academic policies and other ins and outs of higher education administration. So, while you can’t retain everyone, at least you can try to build staff who reflect positively on your office when they go.

Creating a positive work environment

“We want to create an inclusive place to work, where people have a sense of belonging,” says Mike Burke, Registrar at Harvard University. “We do it for students, and now we’re doing it for faculty and staff. And this is some of the most challenging work we do.”

There are many potential tacks one can take to fostering a positive work culture--these five ideas can get you started:

1. Improve onboarding. “Onboarding starts with the interview,” Burke said. “How you greet them, who they meet with, and how you explain the office goals right from the start really matters.” 

It’s also helpful to provide an employee manual that goes beyond HR policies to help demystify and translate office culture -- including places to eat, commonly used acronyms, directions to the bathroom, and other esoteric office knowledge. And consider making time for them to meet with everyone they’ll engage in their new role, to get an understanding of others’ jobs and see their own position in a larger context.

2. Prioritize team-building. “It’s important to get to know one another as a person, not just an employee,” said Sinclair Community College Registrar Tina Hummons. “At Sinclair, we get to know your family, grandkids, pets, and everyone feels like family because we know non-work related things about each other.”

Team-building activities -- both professional development and social -- can take many forms, including book clubs, training opportunities, painting classes, and more.

3. Model and support work-life balance. “Our lives are more demanding -- or at least, culturally, we’re acknowledging the demands placed on us trying to manage everything at work and home,” said Audra McQuarie, University of Phoenix Registrar. “To be the best place to work, we need to support our employees’ efforts to handle stress and create balance in their lives.”

4. Offer professional development. Giving your staff professional development opportunities, even when you know it might launch them into careers outside your office, is key to building trust and enthusiasm in the office. It helps staff feel supported, rather than feeling they have to hide their professional ambitions from their supervisors.

“That way they know we’re behind them and helping them grow their careers,” Hummons said.

“And [employees who leave] are great allies because they know how complicated our work is,” Mathern added.

5. Provide feedback opportunities. Having an avenue to provide feedback is critical to helping staff take ownership of their jobs, and it can lead to more intuitive processes. 

“Particularly for more tenured employees, their contributions can be invaluable,” said McQuarie, who holds regular “hackathons” to brainstorm on process improvements. “We don’t always expect big ideas, but even improvements in routine things help employees see that they can make a real contribution.” 

Positive culture is a team effort

“There’s no one single person responsible for everyone’s happiness,” Burke said. “It’s all of our jobs.” 

Creating a positive, inclusive work environment requires constant gardening from everyone in the office.  From leadership to entry-level employees, each person in the office has the agency and obligation to make their office the best place to work. 

Join a panel discussion with these registrars at AACRAO 2020 to hear about specific initiatives and share ideas about creating a positive work environment. Learn more about this and other career development sessions at AACRAO 2020 in New Orleans and register now to get the early bird discount.


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