Keeping people engaged in service work

If you’ve been in higher education for any length of time, you know that we rely heavily on service work to accomplish goals and objectives. From search committees for hiring to task forces for high priority projects and college or system-wide efforts, we need the collaborative effort of faculty, staff, and often students to get things done in the Academy.

Unfortunately, in times where  we are all asked to do more with less, I’ve found that it can be tough to recruit volunteers for service efforts. Employees feel pressed for time and are increasingly selective about how they use it. 

Talent Management Steering Committee

Talent Management Steering Committee

Since I began my work at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities ten years ago, I’ve been fortunate to work with an 18-20 person steering committee that guides how we actively manage and develop our talent within our system.

I’ve noticed a trend in the last couple years with more members cycling off of the committee before their term ends due to lack of time. Often I hear that folks are taking on more responsibilities on their home campus as their institutions are trying to do more with less, so they have less time to contribute to service work.

In an effort to learn more about how leaders can better retain faculty and staff on service efforts, I asked a few members of my steering committee why they choose to serve on efforts outside their primary role and what keeps them engaged. Here’s what they said:

When something is a critical need for the institution, and it doesn’t look like we can meet the need, I will make the time,” said Michael Berndt, Chief Academic Officer for Century College,  “I will also make the time when I see a direct benefit to students.” Kristina Keller, Dean of Business and IT at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, said it is more about “filling her bucket.” Since her job focuses on so many details, she likes contributing to service work that helps her “see the big picture or set strategy.”  Mary Nienaber, Chief Human Resources Officer for Century College, says that she likes to focus on work with that “will improve things, move something forward,  and in short DO something.”

When asked what committee chairs and project leaders can do to keep them engaged in the work, here is what they advised:

  • Communicate goals. What is the goal for the committee and/or task force? Help people understand the larger picture and how they might fit in. Michael adds, “Continually tell me the story of my committee’s or project’s work. Here is what we did, here is what we need to do, and here is how it fits to the goals of the institution.”
  • Define roles and responsibilities. What are you asking from members? Clearly defining member roles and responsibilities helps them to know their parameters.
  • Clarify expectations! Let folks know what is needed and when it is needed. Discuss timelines and due dates, then hold them accountable to meet the expectations and report on their work. Kristina adds, “I need a clear understanding of the expectations and responsibilities before and during the work.”
  • Conduct organized meetings. Send out meeting reminders and agendas in advance. Let people know in advance what they will be reporting on. Mary says, “Be organized! One of the reasons I’ve stayed so long [on this committee] is that is planned out well in advance, a reminder is sent, and we are accountable to get something done.”
  • Use time-saving technology. When possible, use online meetings to reduce time and travel for committee members who would need to travel hours for an in-person meeting.
  • Celebrate milestones and recognize accomplishments. Keeping track of milestones and acknowledging completion of projects reinforces accountability. Kristina said, “I think setting and reaching milestones in a project keep me going…this ongoing sense of accountability with with recognition of accomplishment and completion are motivating to me.”

When I asked what made their service worthwhile, I learned that all three wanted to know that their contribution has made a difference.

Mary said that “there are too many committee or work groups that plod along without a clear objective, spend years “gathering information” only to decide the topic is being handled by all the sources “discovered” in the research…which means it wasn’t necessary in the first place!”  In addition to making a difference, Kristina said that the work must be “aligned with something I am passionate about.” Michael said, “We are so tremendously busy, so we need to make all our time meaningful.”

In your experience, what keeps people engaged in important service work?

Anita Rios



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