“There must be a better way!”
I find myself saying this at least once a week after stumbling through a complex system or process for the umpteenth time. Student affairs departments and divisions often function like separate entities from their own institutions. They have their own unique rules, systems, and processes, making it easy for SA pros to feel siloed.
By getting in a steady rhythm with these norms and traditions, you risk never taking the time to pick your head up. You could go years without realizing that you could’ve been doing things differently — and better.
As someone who currently leads a large team of students and professional staff, with three distinct areas to prioritize, I understand how detrimental that common mentality is to a team, their work, and the institution as a whole.
Higher education is, at its core, a business entity. There is a lot that corporate America could learn from our systems, and there’s also a lot we can learn from them.
About six years ago I had the opportunity to visit a friend who worked at Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco. When I first entered the building, my jaw hit the floor. There were lounges on every floor with rotating kombucha on tap and themed snacks. (Childhood candy! Trail mix! Cookies! Kale chips?!) Employees discussed work projects while rollerblading and scooting around to visit their colleagues’ dogs that were in for the day.
Many of the workspaces were even decorated like Airbnb’s most unique rental listings. A vintage airstream trailer and a glassed-in ball pit were two of my favorites. Employees were free to come and go as they pleased, supported by mobile technology and a culture that prioritized deliverables over hours worked.
I felt inspired. The next day, I came back to my office with a plan. I told my supervisor that we needed to use our technology budget to start transitioning everyone on our teams to laptops so that they could work from anywhere, on-campus or off.
He was hesitant at first. “But the residence life staff literally live next to their offices,” he pointed out, worried that people would take advantage of the new policy to work from home. And he also asked, “How can we possibly keep track of those laptops?”
To address his concerns, I did my research and found compelling evidence from successful companies, along with other offices with our institution that were already supporting the shift to more mobile technology. I wasn’t merely asking for sleeker tech for the team; I also argued that laptops would allow for greater flexibility and a renewed sense of autonomy and ownership in the workplace.
Once more mobile technology was in place, even pre-pandemic, if my staff had a rough night but still wanted to get some work done, I’d say “Sure, go ahead. Stay in your pajamas and work from your couch; see you tomorrow!” Or if someone told me that they could focus better at Starbucks, I’d be happy to let them complete conduct case notes there. I knew that I could always send them a message via Microsoft Teams if needed.
This flexibility helped us tremendously with the transition to mostly working from home throughout 2020 and early 2021.
Your teammates should be doing this type of reflection, and making appropriate changes as a result, on an ongoing basis. Streamlining systems leads to greater efficiencies in work output, the ability to provide greater service to our students, and a wider variety of ways to support employees in their work.
Below are some tips to spark creativity in identifying new ways of approaching the systems in your own work.
1. Get out of your space
Visit other institutions, talk to professionals within a variety of other industries, and check out the processes and systems at places you frequent. For example, what type of front desk management systems are employed at local museums? Hotels? Libraries? Restaurants? You may find some great software to employ or maybe just a fresh perspective.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my local library offered curbside pickup craft bags. They were a great way to keep patrons safely engaged, and also encouraged me to check out what other resources the library had to offer.
Not surprisingly, when my staff implemented a similar programming model in the residence halls, we saw great success! Students hated Zoom bingo but were all in on cake-in-a-mug that they could grab from the front desk. It offered another entry point into relationship building for the staff.
2. Get comfortable with tech or at least befriend folks who are
I’m not very tech-savvy, but I’ve built great relationships with colleagues who work in my institution’s tech realm.
I try to touch base with them regularly to see what’s new or to seek out their advice for problems I’m wrestling with. For instance, did you know that Microsoft Teams has a built-in scheduling app? I didn’t! But now that I do, my team is actively looking into whether it is a good option for us to use rather than continuing to manually input hourly schedules into a Google Calendar for over 200 student desk assistants.
In the world of fraternities and sororities, pulling rosters was a huge administrative burden due to how students were coded within our management system. I brought this challenge to the attention of our IT team, who made some suggestions for coding and report options which have cut our administrative time in half.
If you’re not sure where to start, see if you can set up a systems review meeting series. Pick a few different systems that your department employs and have an IT expert at your institution review them to offer feedback.
When I first took over overseeing the office of student conduct, students were still paying sanction fines in cash at the bursar’s office. I contacted our IT team and the bursar to explore options for automating it. IT immediately presented a solution in the form of an online store. The website was actually already set up; the conduct team just needed access and to input the different fine amounts. We were up and running within a few weeks!
3. Ask your people
Ask your colleagues, supervisees, and students about their biggest pain office pain points. Is it the excessive paperwork? The lack of automated processes? The rigidity of the office culture? If folks are reluctant to share or are unsure of what’s frustrating them most, then dedicate time to listening.
Listen to what folks complain about. Maybe every other parent email in your inbox is about the website being out of date. Maybe your employees who commute by train are always late because the train is unreliable. Figure out what the biggest problems are and start to identify ones that could be most easily fixed.
As my teammates and I entered the pandemic and looked to digitize remaining paper processes, the one that loomed largest in our minds was our Room Condition Reports (RCRs). The staff hated doing them. It really begged the question of whether we need to do them at all, especially while working to minimize our COVID-19 exposure risks.
So, we met with our general counsel to ensure that our housing agreement included appropriate language about either accepting the room as-is or alerting the staff of major issues. And then, to everyone’s immense relief, we stopped doing RCRs.
I don’t intend to ever bring them back. Gone went hours of work, grumpy staff, and countless trees, and we haven’t lost any revenue or operating budget as a result of fewer fines.
When you listen to your team, you can open up a world of options to improve your communal workspace and increase positivity on your staff. Never do something just because it’s the way you’ve always done it. Use technology and be creative in seeking out inspiration to come up with new solutions. Innovation is critical to keeping our teams and work moving forward.
By the way, every Presence feature is built on innovation! We know that being a great #SApro requires working smarter, not harder. So we built top-notch tools that empower your creativity while saving you time and increasing accessibility. Plus, each of our campus partners gets paired with a Happiness Expert — an experienced higher ed professional who’ll help you assess your outdated procedures and inspire you to try out new ones, customized to your campus and needs. Connect with us to learn more.