Copyright 1998 EDUCAUSE. From CAUSE/EFFECT Volume 21, Number 2, 1998, pp.46-50. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the EDUCAUSE copyright and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of EDUCAUSE. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact Nancy Hays at EDUCAUSE, 4772 Walnut Street, Suite 206, Boulder, CO 80301 USA; 303-939-0321; e-mail: [email protected]

Improve Morale and Reduce Stress: Communicate!
by Karen DeMauro

How do you maintain employee morale in a time of decreasing budgets and increasing demands? Communicate! Awareness of the larger picture can reduce those unpleasant surprises that erode morale. Additionally, time spent building strong relationships with your users pays dividends in the long run. The ever-changing nature of our industry can translate into high stress levels but also affords high opportunity levels. Help your staff see the cup as half full, and do it with a sense of humor. This article discusses some strategies that have helped my departments through times of 0 percent raises, personnel shortages, and projects gone awry.

As managers in higher education, we all face similar issues: tight budgets, the move toward accountability, overworked and understaffed departments, and the migration of technical personnel to the higher-paying private sector. Because money often is not a feasible inducement to enter or stay in the higher education technology market, something else must take its place. Determining what that is for your staff members can�t be done unless good working relationships are developed, and that development won�t happen unless you start talking.

Communication is the key to helping your staff members feel good about themselves and their jobs. I have found that an improvement in morale and a reduction in the stress level among my staff naturally follow when communication is used effectively.

No matter what our job descriptions say, those of us who manage people really have one important task: to help our staff do their jobs and to make our bosses look good. I have found that if you do the former, the latter will follow. We can accomplish this by acting as a conduit for information sharing, as well as by determining how our employees define job satisfaction and by working with them to assure their positions meet that definition. This article will cover six points that I try to keep in mind when working with my colleagues, whether they are my staff, the general university user community, or upper management.

Keep everyone talking

Share news as you hear it. Pass on anything you hear from upper management levels (only things you are free to discuss, of course). This gives staff members a view of the big picture and, more importantly, lets them see how important their contributions are to that picture. Showing people how their jobs tie into institutional and system goals and how their performance has a ripple effect throughout the organization, fosters a sense of belonging to the whole, and helps dissipate the sense of isolation. This isolation is quite often felt by technologists who work mostly back rooms and interact more with equipment than with people. Likewise, if you read or hear anything of interest about technology, higher education, or local news, pass it on. We constantly pass around magazine articles or post snippets from electronic publications on our departmental listserv.

Building relationships with your users is important. Concentrate on the user areas that need some extra attention and bridge mending. Some problem areas, however, are not evident. Our department recently performed its first five-year self-study. One of the issues that came through loud and clear was a perceived lack of communication with the faculty, and some of our strongest critics were lab supervisors or coordinators. To help rectify the situation we implemented lab-coordinator meetings to share information. During those meetings, we have discussed the implementation of our new automated student CNet account project and how it affects the labs, the installation of a shared server to house standard software to give the students a common look and feel across the university, lab security, Web page development, and various problems experienced by the labs. We also try to involve the faculty in all university-wide committees that we chair.

Get your staff known outside of the department. This can be a problem with technical people, who can get caught in the computer room and rarely see the light of day. Although many claim to prefer it that way, are you doing them and the department a disservice by allowing it to continue? Gently coax them out of there. Have your staff use their own names instead of yours when they write memos or issue general announcements to the university community about interruptions or changes in service. And take advantage of the many vehicles that can be used to keep everyone talking, such as staff and user meetings, brown bag lunches, listservs, e-mail, committee memberships, and good, old-fashioned socializing. To build relationships with users, try user meetings. Users are unfamiliar with how technology can simplify their jobs and make them more efficient. As technologists, we know the capabilities of the technology but don�t know enough about other jobs to determine how technology can help the users at work. User meetings accomplish a merging of the minds that can lead to better use of the technology.

Our user meetings run weekly, bimonthly, every other week, or monthly as decided by the departments. We discuss everything from report requests and hardware upgrades to short-term and long-term goals and the introduction of new technologies such as Web and intranet capabilities and client/server data marts. We�ve had some rough relationships with a few of the administrative departments, not an unusual situation in our industry. However, these situations have improved tremendously now that we all better understand the issues that the others face. We also have a number of weekly internal staff meetings for various areas within the department as well as bimonthly full-staff meetings. These are used to discuss the status of various projects so everyone is aware of what is happening within the department and how it may affect them personally. We also use these meetings as brainstorming sessions, gripe sessions, and mini-training sessions. For example, the department developed its mission statement, goals and objectives, and identified its strengths and weaknesses at the full-staff meetings.

We also have had training sessions, conducted by knowledgeable staff members, covering the use of Schedule+, changes in our Usenet configuration, and modifications to our virus protection download procedures.

There is no doubt that all of these meetings take time, and that�s the last thing an overworked, understaffed technical department has. However, the goodwill that is developed and the sharing of knowledge, both within the department and with the user base, eliminates a lot of the wasted time and effort that result from misunderstandings and projects gone awry. Productive user meetings prod us to spend our time more constructively up front to avoid problems rather than after the fact, cleaning up the mess. Even when we go through periods of heavy workloads, everyone recognizes that we still derive benefit from the meetings, and we don�t want to stop them. Monthly brown-bag lunches, open to the full university community, have proven to be a popular communication tool. We invite everyone to request topics and to host sessions. We have discussed progress on the project to install CNet, the university-wide network, and held sessions on how to perform searches on the Web, how to use Schedule+, and tips for creating an effective newsletter.

Listservs have worked equally well to improve communication, and the use of this software has exploded across the University. Professors create them for their classes, various committees have developed them to facilitate communication between meetings, each users� group has a listserv, and and a university-wide list is available for use by anybody to announce events, furniture availability, system downtime, etc. E-mail is used heavily on our campus, and it is a tremendous time saver. Time is not wasted in trying to remember to call someone or by playing telephone tag, and the message is automatically documented. It can be saved and retrieved as a reminder at any time and takes less time than a formal memo.

Committees are another effective communication vehicle. Encourage staff members to join university-wide committees to get to know individuals they don�t normally meet in the course of their day and to learn of other perspectives on campus. Committee work is admittedly time-consuming, but well worth it when used judiciously.

Old-fashioned socializing is the final communication vehicle I�ll discuss. Of course, you can�t force people to get together after office hours, but you can help develop a working environment in which people enjoy each other�s company enough to want to spend some time together. For example, members of my staff get together once after each semester to celebrate (or perhaps to commiserate about) the passing of another semester. Several of us also volunteer for various activities, such as a local cancer walk/run, which was organized by a fellow staff member. If your campus is in a small town or rural area, chances are your staff knows many other employees through their children, church, and other organizations. All of this helps build better relationships that improve the morale and lower stress levels in your department.

Let your staff solve the problems

Why did you or your predecessors hire the people who work for you? Most likely, it was because they had the expertise to do the job or could learn it. Yet many of us believe that because we�re department heads, we should know all of the answers and be able to do everyone�s job. This is just not feasible in today�s environment. No one can know it all, and there is no shame in admitting that you rely on the experts in your department to answer some of the questions.

If you try to solve all problems and resolve all issues, at the very least you will become a bottleneck. Even worse, you will undermine the self-esteem of your staff and the confidence the users have placed in them. Your role is to help when asked and to give general direction when necessary. The users and your staff members are closest to the issue and they will come up with the best answer. You may have to direct that answer differently because of a political issue they are unaware of, but it will essentially remain their answer.

Once the work is completed, always give credit to those who deserve it. If you are praised for work performed by a staff member, make sure the individual understands who actually did the work, and equally as important, pass on the compliment to your staff member.

Invest in your staff

Invest both time and effort in your staff members. Human nature and office politics will always create problems; be there to listen and try to defuse the situation. Always strive to have all parties leave the conversation feeling they�ve gained something, even if it was just an ear to hear them out.

Ask questions and learn your staff members� personal goals. It�s a little like asking, �What do you want to do when you grow up?� Help define their goals, if necessary, and work to align them with departmental and institutional goals. Then invest the time and effort to help your staff attain those goals. People work better when they are doing something they like.

Take the time to jointly define departmental goals. Our five-year self-study really helped us in this respect. We put forth the effort to identify our mission and goals and, even more importantly, our strengths and weaknesses. We then went to work on our weaknesses as a team, and we continue to do so.

Realize that not everyone will be happy with your department�s services. When the criticism comes, back up your staff in front of others. If there is a real problem, resolve it privately with your staff. Most problems arise from a lack of communication that has led to a misunderstanding or a bad working relationship.

Everyone has limits. Recognize those limits and work within them. This is tricky because there is a fine line between holding people back and letting them work within their limitations. Push a little and see how staff members handle their own limitations. Talk with them, find out how you can help, determine their attitudes. If the work still doesn�t get done, you�ve probably hit someone�s limit. A more difficult situation is when someone stretches beyond his or her capabilities and doesn�t recognize it. Trying to resolve that situation without disillusioning a hard worker can be a delicate matter.

Invest not only time and effort, but money. In our industry, training--including conference attendance and structured courses--is critical and well worth the time and money. Not only does training hone skills and teach tools your employees need to do their jobs, it improves morale and self-esteem. Paying for training shows people they are valued by the organization. Most universities include travel and training in the same budget line, and that is the line that is most vulnerable when budgets are cut. Still, it�s good practice to put as much money in your training budget as possible, even if you have to rob your supply budget to do it. Two years ago, I had a $5,000 budget for training and travel for 19 employees. Last year I increased it to $10,000 and this year I upped it to $20,000; we set a departmental goal to get everyone to at least one training session or conference this year.

Training does not have to be expensive. We maintain a library of training videos and CDs for various software products and operating systems. These, combined with a VCR/TV, a PC, and a training schedule, can create a cost-effective training corner. We�re also setting up a CD-ROM tower on a server to make these resources available to a larger audience.

Employees are people, too

Your employees are your colleagues and must be treated with respect. My version of Robert Fulghum�s book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, is, �Do what your mother told you.� She taught us to say �please� and �thank you.� This holds true when speaking to employees as well as others. For managers, this means making requests rather than barking commands.

Own up to mistakes and apologize. At the same time, be tolerant of others� mistakes. Errors are not signs of weakness, but proof that we are all human. A bad situation can only get worse if your staff hides their mistakes from you out of fear.

Recognize that your employees have personal lives outside of the office. Be flexible without inviting employees to abuse the system. Allow staff members to occasionally leave a little early or take a long lunch for personal reasons. Work out arrangements for compensatory time or personal leave if a significant absence is needed. Be careful about being a clock watcher, or you will get a clock watcher in return. Most of my employees have put in much more overtime than they ever take in compensatory time.

Don�t sweat the small stuff

If you want to set a good example for your department, you must first reduce your own stress level. When you are uptight and ready for combat, the general stress level in your department will skyrocket and morale will plummet. Avoid conditioned responses; instead, think about what is really important. Everyone will do something that annoys you at some point. Don�t sweat it. Concentrate on the good and the annoyances will pale by comparison. Some of the small stuff truly is so small it should not worry a manager. Take, for example:

Chronic lateness. If an employee is often five to ten minutes late for work, think before you get annoyed. We have been conditioned to abhor tardiness and exalt timeliness since our first day in kindergarten. Instead of falling into a conditioned response, ask yourself what time the employee usually leaves at the end of the day? Does he or she usually work through lunch? Is the worker on call after hours or available to work on weekends when needed? Why is the employee late? Is there a child care problem? If you don�t think before you act, you could make the situation worse.

Staff meetings that start late. There must be an unwritten law in academia that says 1:00 p.m. really means 1:10, or 2:30 really means 2:40. This was my pet peeve, until I found people usually are late because they are helping a user or are in the middle of an operation that cannot be interrupted until it�s completed. Occasionally, someone forgot about the meeting, but that wasn�t usual. Now, instead of getting annoyed, I spend the time visiting with the rest of the staff. Rather than feeling that the time is wasted, I am using it to reinforce good relationships with my employees.

Personal phone calls. At the very least, managers frown on personal phone calls at work as a waste of time, a notion formed when we were teenagers and our parents limited the time we could talk on the phone. Of course, if the use of the phone for personal business is abused, it must be addressed. However, you have to determine what constitutes abuse versus a conditioned response.

Overwork. We�re all susceptible to this stress-builder at times. Learn how to organize and make lists. But don�t expect to cross everything off of your list every day. Consider the wisdom of Richard Carlson, author of Don�t Sweat the Small Stuff, who reminds us that when we die, our in-baskets will not be empty. In other words, don�t create stress by struggling to complete your list because as you check things off, you will always be adding new tasks.

The solution? Be flexible. How often have you placed an order only to learn that the requested item is obsolete and you have to take a new model with slightly different functionality (and not always with backward compatibility)? Learn to expect and even welcome change, because there is no avoiding it.

Of course, in many instances (I might venture to say most instances) stress comes from outside of your department. Working with users, especially non-technical, higher-level management, can create some extremely stressful situations both short- and long-term. How you handle these situations will affect morale in your department. So be conscious of your reactions. You can�t change other people or past events, but you can change your reaction to them. When you find yourself under stress and ready to explode, go for a walk across campus. Visit someone unrelated to the stress. Exercise naturally lightens your mood and visiting gets your mind off of the problem. It also makes you more visible across campus and gives you an opportunity to build stronger relationships with others. If a walk won�t do it for you, close your door and take some time to compose yourself. It is better to be out of touch for a little while than to lash out at someone or say something you will regret.

Two questions I try to ask myself to put things in perspective:

  1. Will this matter in five years?
  2. Is this worth getting sick over?

The answer is always �no.� But if you find you are getting sick and you don�t see a workable solution, it may be time for you to move on.

Just smile

As managers of customer service departments, we will always face stressful situations. That is why it is so important to maintain a sense of humor. Remember, you set the tone for your department. Learn to laugh at yourself. My employees joke about my lack of both height and memory, because I do.

Be aware of your facial expressions. You don�t always know what impression you are giving others. Make it a rule to smile at everyone who enters your office. When a staff member comes in with bad news, a smile puts the person at ease. And smiling automatically lightens your mood. If someone has come in with good news or just to talk, you�ve set a light tone. So make it a habit to smile at everyone.

Always look for the humor in things, and encourage your staff to do the same. Even when you are fuming and ranting, you can always find something to laugh about. Make it a goal to laugh at least once in every meeting, even if it�s at your own expense.


Of course, my staff doesn�t work in a constant state of bliss just because we have implemented these six points. And I don�t profess to have all of the answers. But I have seen effective communication turn people around. It won�t stop the overtime, it won�t increase the paycheck, and it won�t completely stop the griping. It can, however, make a job more enjoyable, build self-esteem, and engender a more positive attitude. And maybe next time, the griping will be done with a smile.

Karen DeMauro ([email protected]) is director of Computing Services at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. the table of contents

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