2012 Workplace Survey results: A conversation with Michael Peel

Michael Peel, vice president of human resources and administration, recently discussed the results of the 2012 Workplace Survey with YaleNews. That conversation follows.

The good news from the survey is that a high percentage of staff members indicated that they are proud and satisfied to work for Yale. In what areas are staff members the most positive?

Staff members gave the University the highest marks for staff commitment (their own and that of their colleagues), for our diversity progress, the quality of workforce communications, and the extraordinary financial security provided by University healthcare and retirement benefits. In the verbatim comments, many staff members pointed to the improvement they see in the University’s relationships with its unions; the dramatic evolution of the quality of life in the City of New Haven; how the investment in the University’s infrastructure is translating into better work environments; and the supervisory training curriculum “Managing at Yale,” which more than 2,000 Yale managers have attended in the past four years. Staff members in a number of large University units also commented on the workplace progress they have seen in their organizations in the past several years.

Conversely, what results do you feel the most concerned about?

The areas which need the most attention are development and advancement, teamwork across University boundaries, the speed of decisions, and overall morale in a number of our units. Many staff members commented on how difficult restructuring actions taken in response to budgetary reductions have been and the continuing challenges of doing more with less.  Others pointed to variations they see in performance standards, workplace flexibility, and rewards between the various University staff groups.

Where were the most gains seen since the 2010 survey?

The favorable scores of 21 of the 55 survey questions improved by a statistically significant percentage (more than 4 percentage points) versus the 2010 survey. The questions with favorable scores which increased the greatest were the following:

Question: I have confidence in the decisions made by the senior leadership of the University (favorable score increased by 12 percentage points to 62%).

Question: Yale University’s mission and core values are clear (favorable score increased by 12 percentage points to 76%).

Question: Compared to other organizations with which I am familiar, Yale’s medical/dental benefits are better (favorable score increased by 9 percentage points to 72%).

Question: Yale University is changing for the better (favorable score increased by 9 percentage points to 55%).

See more about the survey.

The promotion of development plans for staff members has been a priority for Human Resources, but this is one area that employees rated the least favorably. Do you have any thoughts about how to ensure employee development in the future?

Staff members at all levels believe that greater development and internal advancement support are major opportunities to further improve the Yale work environment.  Development was the only one of the 11 survey categories which didn’t show improvement from 2010 and — at only a 52% average favorable score — is the category with the weakest overall rating.

We have begun to introduce our new Individual Development Planning process, which is already in place for approximately 20% of our managers and professionals. Its introduction has been slowed by the capacity of many of our units to execute it well given all the restructuring change and conflicting priorities they have been attempting to manage. In the units in which Individual Development Planning has already been introduced, the scores for development are up sharply from 2010, so I believe it is clearly part of the solution.  Focusing more on development is an opportunity to both improve productivity and to be able to do more promotion from within, important University priorities for the future.

What were some of employees’ other concerns, and what might be done to improve in those areas?

Beyond the broader based concerns I have already identified, most of the concerns voiced were unit specific or group specific. There was wide variation in the response from the more than 200 University units large enough to have their own report (a minimum of 10 staff members is required for confidentiality purposes). On many questions, the average favorable score for the units with reports ranged from 0% to 100%. The University’s make-up is so diverse, and the work cultures vary sufficiently that, aside from a few common issues, the improvement opportunities are unique to specific University organizations, and must be addressed that way.

What advice do you give managers for improving employee morale in their individual units?

My advice to managers who want to improve the morale in their units is simple: Listen to your staff. Paying particular attention to the verbatim suggestions for improvement that those who participated in the survey provided is one way of listening. Another is sharing the results of this latest survey with your staff and asking them what steps they believe should be taken to improve morale. A third is engaging a group of your staff members to evaluate the morale issues in your unit and develop an action strategy to address them.  Problem solving always starts with a candid diagnosis of the issue and ends with action and effective follow-up. Listening and team involvement are usually important at both ends (and everywhere in between!). 

Are there any University-wide initiatives under consideration that might help employees feel more confident about advancement opportunities at the University?

We expect to have many more of our units introduce Individual Development Plans for their managers and professionals in the next 12 months. In addition, many of our units are working on making developmental and promotional career paths clearer for their staffs. In our most recent union contracts for our C&T and service and maintenance staffs, we identified actions which will be taken to improve both skill development and advancement opportunities. And, as we know that much professional development occurs as a result of challenging job assignments, we are attempting to fill a greater percentage of our promotional positions internally. We also believe that many great ideas and best practices on development will emerge as our various units create action plans to improve development in their organizations.

Overall, did staff members at all levels respond as favorably to the workplace survey and, if not, what were the key differences?

The overall favorable response of M&P and C&T staff was almost identical, while the response of our service and maintenance staff was notably less favorable. M&Ps tended to be much more favorable than both of the other staff groups in their view of their manager, productivity, performance feedback, respect, and empowerment. Their scores in teamwork, decision speed, and several of the rewards questions weren’t as strong by comparison. The service and maintenance group’s scores tended to reflect the tougher physical realities of their jobs and had far less positive scores on productivity, empowerment and innovation, communications, and decision making.

How do the Yale Workplace Survey scores compare to those of other organizations?

The external company (Sirota) that tabulates our workplace survey questionnaires does this same work for 160 organizations with 2.5 million survey responses annually. While their response norms are not just composed of higher education employers, they do give some idea of how our survey response compares. On the plus side, the pride and commitment of the Yale staff is one of the highest they have seen, much higher than their norm. On the less positive side, our teamwork scores stand out, as teamwork within our units and between our units score in the bottom quartile of Sirota’s norm base.

In some survey categories, the University has fared better than ever since it first started surveying employees about their work. Were you surprised by any of these results?

Given the difficult budget challenges we have had to confront in recent years, I was encouraged that our survey scores re-bounded so well from the declines we experienced in 2010.  As you point out, several scores were the highest since we began conducting these surveys in 2005.  Among the questions that hit all-time highs were these three important items:

Question: Taking everything into account, I am satisfied with Yale University as a place to work (83% favorable; up 12 percentage points from 2005).

Question: I have clear performance goals and know what my manager expects of me (71% favorable; up 15 percentage points since 2005).

Question: Labor and management relations are changing for the better at Yale (61% favorable; up 7 percentage points from 2005).

Finally, what are your hopes for the next survey, and when will that take place?

We will do the next survey in November 2014. My hope for that survey is that we build upon the organizational progress we are making together. I particularly would like to see us do a better job of both development and advancement and in creating greater teamwork throughout the University, while attacking the morale issues that still exist in a number of our units. I particularly hope that we use this survey to open a dialog within all of our units about how each can increase their organizational excellence — while making the work environment more rewarding and fun.