By Dr. Rodney Parks, AACRAO Consultant and University Registrar at Elon University.
Higher Education has been plagued for many years with phrases such as, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” and we serve as “gatekeepers of policy and versed in student systems to frequently say NO with fervor.” I’d be remiss in not stating the obvious to this way of thinking; it has hindered Enrollment Managers and Registrars for years. While higher education has historically faced minimal turnover rates, our current graduates frequently leave their employers to find companies aligned with their values and overall goals. And that’s a good thing: Gallup reports that only about 36 percent of Americans are engaged at work.
While COVID-19 has impacted college and university employees struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance, many residential campuses stand firm, communicating an unwillingness to support flexible work schedules. This, in turn, has been shown to create higher levels of dissatisfaction among workers and increases in employee turnover . While some institutions are forming signature initiatives to identify new opportunities focused on professional development and work/life balance initiatives, these concepts run central to a key theme: a willingness to think outside the box and inspire creativity.
When fostering creativity, leaders should ask themselves, “Will I have to “gamble” to instigate change?” “How often will I have to ask for forgiveness to move the institution in the right direction?” At policy-driven institutions, fostering creativity given time constraints, growing workloads (frequently without new staff positions), and uninspired staff can feel like a daunting task. Start your journey by thinking of a few core tenants that have inspired a creative workplace in your past. One of the main themes to inspire creativity in your staff is empathy. How do you embrace and allow for new perspectives while at the same time combatting your complacencies? One example I used a few years ago was hiring a faculty member to teach ten one-hour sessions on using sign language in a service office. Not only was the class entertaining for the staff, but each left with a newfound empathy for those that rely on sign language as a primary means of communication. Second, think about the way your office is designed. This change can feel very limiting for many offices, especially when staff may be located all over the space and even in different buildings. However, having a central space with a conference table, whiteboards, or even virtual areas such as Microsoft Teams can allow for creative thinking and trialing new ideas.
Service should also be a central tenet to inspiring creativity. Encourage your staff to teach classes, collaborate with other offices to learn new skills, invite qualified experts to meetings, and don’t forget to do something together for fun occasionally. For example, we recently took a pottery class together as a team. During class, we encouraged each other to embrace failure and not be afraid to try things that seemed impossible. And let’s face it, we all had some questionable-looking pots at the end of that class! However, the fun of being together, helping one another, celebrating success and failure brought the team closer together in the end, and those pots are still proudly displayed in the office, always making for a good story when people ask.
So, what can we do to foster even greater creativity? Without a doubt, make innovation a priority. Encourage your team to write a list of accomplishments every month, quarter, and year. Encourage your team to challenge existing ways of thinking. Even for existing processes that work, challenge your experts to think about ways to make the process even more efficient. Ask questions such as, “How much time can we save by not doing mundane tasks?” And, never forget to celebrate the successes, even the small ones. Take a moment to think of all the changes your office has endured during COVID-19. We all had to embrace new ways of thinking and doing our work. For many of us, we now cringe when we think of some of the original ways we handled specific tasks. Additionally, market team innovations inside and outside the campus, celebrate your accomplishments, and encourage other offices to partner with you for even bigger changes.
Creative minds are often drawn to new ideas. Don’t be afraid to engage faculty to try out some of your latest innovations and give you feedback. Present ideas at committees, and never underestimate the power students have to propel your ideas forward. And finally, provide flexibility to your staff, but set expectations and hold them accountable. I frequently let my staff go to the coffee shop or other places on campus to work (and get away from distractions), but expect your team to show something tangible by the end. In other words, go with purpose.
Interested in exploring new perspectives? Visit AACRAO's Consulting page to learn about the wide variety of services we offer institutions.