Creating an engaging work environment for student employees is one of the most difficult tasks for a supervisor.
It’s complicated by the many factors you’ll need to consider to recruit and retain a diverse team.
While there is no magical formula that offers guaranteed success, the BICEPS framework created by Paloma Medina is pretty comprehensive. This researched-based approach is grounded by six core employee needs: belonging, improvement, choice, equality, predictability, and significance.
To complicate matters, individual employees will rank each of these needs differently, depending on what they value most. Knowing their rankings will help you make the employment experience fulfilling for everyone. You can even do some group or individual activities with new student employees, such as the ones described here and here, to find out their top needs.
In this post, I’ll explain how you can address the core needs of your student employees, as well as each subcomponent identified in the framework, in a way that reduces employee turnover, increases student learning, and promotes community development.
Belonging is made up of these components:
- Community: A feeling of friendship and closeness with a group, or being part of a tight community
- Community well-being: People feel cared for; the whole group feels happy and healthy.
- Connection: A feeling of kinship and mutual understanding with another person or group of people
You should design opportunities for community-building and connections right from the start, when the group gathers together for the first time during training.
Icebreakers and team-building activities can help jumpstart this process.
You could use some of the resources below to facilitate activities on your own. Alternatively, you could ask your student activities department to facilitate some during training, hire an outside facilitator, or visit a challenge course.
- 60 Awesome Icebreakers For Orientation and Beyond
- 100 Quick Icebreaker Questions to Keep in Your Back Pocket
- 40 Icebreakers for Small Groups
- Teambuilders and Icebreakers Packet
- 24 Virtual Icebreaker Activities That’ll Help You Build Community via Video Call
- Brightful Games
- Library of Facilitation Techniques
- 20 Unique Activities to Mix Up Your Next Staff Retreat
- Tools by SYPartners
- Virtual Team Building Games
- Virtual Team Building Activities
Later, to sustain the community that you started building during training, you’ll need to continually connect students to shared experiences. This could be done through a weekly ritual, such as a trivia question of the week or a social outing to the local mini-golf course, escape room, or other fun destination. Some more ideas for engaging student employees can be found here.
Frequent check-ins are key to every healthy, happy community. During one-on-one and team meetings, I check in with students by asking them “if you were a phone battery, what percent would you be at right now?” This activity allows me to quickly gauge if the students have any pressing needs before diving into business. The Rose, Thorn, and Bud activity is a similarly effective check-in activity.
Improvement is made up of these components:
- Progress towards purpose: You are helping make progress towards an important goal for the company, your team, or your own personal or professional life.
- Improving the lives of others: You see how your work helps improve things for others.
- Personal growth: Experiencing fast self-growth within the skills you value most
A common theme of improvement is making progress visible.
During training and before beginning new projects, take some time to explain how the work your student employees will be doing impacts the campus as a whole — even in roles that don’t interact with members of the community face-to-face. Being explicit about how their work improves students’ experiences, enables the department to run more efficiently, and fits into the broader campus ecosystem.
Once a semester, you could prepare an impact statement to share with students to illustrate how their work contributed to the department’s operations. For example, sharing with the event setup crew the number of events that they set up will give them an idea of their work’s importance.
Performance evaluations are a great tool for documenting individual student growth. Right from the first day of work, they should know what metrics they will be evaluated on and how those metrics will be measured.
Here are some resources for designing performance evaluations and offering constructive feedback:
- 10 Tips for Making Your Student Staff Evaluations Constructive and Productive
- Engaged Feedback Checklist
- Student Employee Performance Evaluations
- Supervisor Feedback
- Giving Student Feedback: 7 Best Practices for Success
Not only does a performance evaluation provide students with a visual representation of their progress, but it also provides them with time to reflect on their goals.
If you have students set goals at the beginning of the semester, then you’ll know which projects and responsibilities can help them reach those goals. Some frameworks to consider include SMART Goals, FAST Goals, WOOP Goals, and OKRs.
Choice is made up of these components:
- Choice: Having flexibility; the chance to have more control over key parts of your world
- Autonomy: Having clear ownership over a domain to do as you wish, without needings to ask for permission
- Decision-making: The ability to make decisions about the things that matter most to you
While it may not seem like there is a lot of room for choice within a work-study job, you can still carve out some ways for students to be independent.
One way is by allowing employees to work on side projects. A side project is something that employees choose to work on when they are not fulfilling a duty outlined in their job description.
When writing about the psychology of side projects, Kevan Lee notes these three guidelines:
- It is low-risk. It won’t be a disaster for the department if the project fails.
- It is low-pressure. There is no deadline, leaving room to experiment.
- It is a labor of love. Intrinsic motivation is the primary motivator for undertaking the project.
With guidance from their supervisor, employees could pick a project that interests them, such as :
- Improving the department’s manuals through visuals and infographics, using tools like Canva or Piktochart. (Read 10 Lame Documents that Would Be Better as Infographics for inspiration.)
- Creating how-to videos using screen-capture tools and/or a camera to answer your office’s FAQs or for employee training.
- Rearranging the furniture in public areas or researching new ideas to decorate those spaces.
Also, consider how you can get students involved with decision-making in the department. This could be anything from what brand of snacks are ordered for office programming to being able to serve as an interviewer for next year’s employees.
Equality is made up of these components:
- Access to resources: Distribution of money, time, and space feel equitable.
- Access to information feels fair: All employees have access to information that is relevant to them.
- Equal reciprocity: You support each other equally.
- Decisions: Are fair and everyone is treated as equally important.
When it comes to student employees, any discussion about the distribution of money will involve paychecks. An equitable allocation of work hours requires balancing students’ availability for work shifts, whether they have a second job, and if they are low-income or Pell Grant-eligible. This may mean making some manual adjustments, especially if your work schedules are generated by a scheduling software’s algorithm.
The best way to get this information is to get to know your students on a personal level. For example, if a student has open availability, you might allocate them more work hours in the schedule than a student who has two jobs or parental responsibilities.
To promote equal access to information, choose communication channels that work best for students. You could poll them on whether they prefer receiving information via email, GroupMe, Slack, or another messaging service. It’s okay to use more than one channel to communicate as long as every student does indeed receive each message.
Transparency is incredibly important when it comes to decision-making. Whenever you have to implement big changes, like cutting available hours or changing department policies, let students know why it’s happening well in advance. Ideally, students should have time to ask questions and give input before implementation.
Predictability is made up of these components:
- Resources: There’s enough certainty about resources (including money, personnel hours, and space) so you can focus on your job or goals.
- Time: There’s certainty about when things will occur and when you can prepare for them.
- Future challenges: You can anticipate future challenges and prepare to combat them.
- Direction: Goals, strategies, and directions stay consistent and don’t change too often or too quickly.
When employees are aware of deadlines and events that will impact them, they will be more likely to turn in paperwork on time and manage their personal schedules in order to meet work obligations.
A virtual or physical calendar that is displayed in the office could organize information in a central place. Entries might include:
- Dates when class will not be in session or when students are not expected to work (such as winter and spring breaks, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Veterans Day)
- Dates of training sessions
- Major campus events that impact departmental operations (such as concerts, homecoming, and family weekend)
- The deadline by which students should notify their supervisor that they want to be considered for employment by the department next semester
- Dates of employee performance evaluations
- Birthdays of employees and professional staff members (as long as everyone is okay with this information being shared within the office)
Even if you maintain a calendar, reminders should be sent out about deadlines and upcoming events. I find the FollowUpThen tool to be useful for sending out email reminders because it works with any email system.
Having consistent goals also lends to a feeling of predictability. You can work with students to set goals for the department during training as a way to cultivate buy-in from them. Some possible goals include having every duty log submitted on time or having no work-related injuries all year.
The Goals Grid, Prioritization Matrix, and RACI Matrix are all tools that can assist with goal setting. Hang any visuals in the office that you created during the goal-setting sessions to serve as a constant reminder to employees of what you’re all striving toward.
- Status: You hold a role that honors your worth among your peers.
- Visibility: Your work is highly visible to people that matter.
- Recognition: Your work is recognized and appreciated in ways that feel good.
A way to honor employees who are role models for their peers is to promote them within the department. Giving these students additional responsibilities shows your high level of trust in them.
Showcasing an employee’s work can boost their self-esteem and help them network with students and staff on campus. During a meeting, whether it is with student employees or professional staff in the department, you might call everyone’s attention to a project that a student just completed or to a situation they handled particularly well.
Employees who feel appreciated will be more likely to want to stay employed with you. A program that could contribute to feeling appreciated is a kudos board in which you display affirmations that students write for one other. Additionally, it might be fun to host an end-of-year celebration during which you distribute superlatives to each student.
Meeting the six core needs of every employee will be a challenging and ongoing process throughout the year. However, this can be manageable by focusing on the needs that are most important to each employee.