5 ways to create a positive, productive work climate

Jobs in registrar and admissions offices may not have a reputation for being glamorous and lucrative -- but on some campuses, they have become popular and coveted positions thanks to deliberate efforts to create a positive, productive workplace climate.

“It can be a problem for registrar’s offices -- we recruit and train great people, but they move to other offices that can pay better,” said Kara Saunders, University Registrar at the University at Buffalo. “All too often, we look at the success of the office in terms of how we’ve served the institution or the students. As leaders of the office, we need to ask what have we done for our staff? How can we make this a place people love to be, have great job satisfaction, take pride in their work, and enjoy their colleagues, along with the salary that we pay?”

Full disclosure: there isn’t a finger-snappingly simple solution to improving staff’s job satisfaction and boosting office morale. Instead, it’s a an alchemy that is as individual as each each campus, but typically includes the following elements:

Prioritize professional development. “There’s been a sea change in the type of work being done in the registrar’s office in the last decade,” said Beth Warner, Associate Registrar at University of Wisconsin - Madison. “The office of the registrar has become an innovation hub and our staff needs to develop the skill sets to address that. Different generations have different sets of skills and we need to cultivate that.”

Build a career track. A fair wage is important to employee satisfaction, but there may budgetary limitations on salary progression, especially for state institutions. Creating internal opportunities to progress with titles, skills sets, and professional development can help spur and acknowledge staff growth. Having coordinator and manager positions gives people opportunities to grow within the office.

Lead with kindness. “I like people to be happy and feel their work is appreciated,” said Adrian Cornelius, University Registrar at University of Maryland - College Park. “I visit my staff -- I walk down the hallway to chat with people and I tell them thanks for what they’re doing. I believe working hard and working happy are not mutually exclusive, but leaders and managers have to create the environment.” Being sensitive to the people around you and developing strong interpersonal skills can go a long way toward building a culture of positivity and inclusivity in the office. Planning office social events to celebrate important days breaks down silos. Cornelius also looks for positive attitudes in the people he hires.

Advocate for good salaries. “Train people well, and fight to get their salaries as high as possible,” Cornelius said. “My objective is to price my positions out of the market so my staff know they get paid best here. It’s taken a lot of hard work with HR, but I try my best to optimize the pay scale to build internal capacity.”

Empower staff with transparent decision-making and mentorship. There are many proven organizational models that can help improve and maintain a positive workplace climate. Saunders has found success with the Great Place to Work Trust Model, which emphasizes open communication, transparent decision-making and staff empowerment.

“We’ve built trust among staff and positive relationships between employees and management, employees and their jobs, and employees and one another,” she said. “We focus on camaraderie, pride in our work, and credibility and fairness in the office. Instead of complaining, the staff feels like they can take ownership and take action.”

Warner’s office has been most influenced by Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence in leadership.

“There’s a strong link between leadership style and climate and performance,” Warner said. “We prioritize flexibility, consistency, and clarity of (and alignment with) the organizational mission.” It’s also important that performance evaluations are accurate and rewards are commensurate with those evaluations.

In addition, Warner’s staff often serve as spokespeople on campus committees. “They’re most often providing the front-line services,” she said, “and they should be our representatives on campus rather than a top-down approach.”

Warner, Cornelius, and Saunders will share their insights in greater depth at their AACRAO Annual Meeting discussion “Creating a positive, productive workplace climate.” In addition, the presenters will elicit strategies and lessons from the session attendees, guaranteeing a broad spectrum of approaches to building camaraderie and job satisfaction. (Cornelius and Warner also offer the related session “How to Develop Staff: An ‘Uncut’ Discussion of Staff Engagement Strategies.”)

Join us at the 2018 AACRAO Annual Meeting, March 25-28 in Orlando.