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Podcast Remix

Tips for Engaging a Remote Workforce

As flexible work policies become the norm, institutions must rethink their approach to employee engagement and workforce culture. Here's how Southern New Hampshire University is building a remote-first workplace centered on the employee experience.  

Southern New Hampshire University is well known for innovation in online learning, so it may surprise you to learn that prior to the pandemic, its workforce was rather traditional: The majority of staff members worked on site, and employee culture was largely reliant on a face-to-face environment. But in March 2020, the abrupt shift to fully remote work required a new approach to employee engagement.

We spoke with Jennifer LaFountain, director of people experience at SNHU, about how the institution is developing a culture that allows employees to feel connected no matter where they are located. The following conversation features highlights from the Campus Technology Insider podcast, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Campus Technology: Thinking back to the start of the pandemic, how did the sudden shift to remote learning impact staff at SNHU?

Jennifer LaFountain: Believe it or not, prior to COVID, SNHU had less than 100 employees working remotely. We had just begun discovery work on building out our remote work policies. So even though we obviously have a very rich remote learning learner base, it was new for most of our employees. We are a company that is well known for its culture, but that culture was really fixated with being on site, particularly in New Hampshire, from an employee perspective. And so the big challenge for us in going remote was, how do we recreate that culture in a virtual way?

CT: Were there other challenges that the pivot to remote introduced or just exacerbated?


Hear the full interview with Jennifer LaFountain in season 3, episode 8 of the Campus Technology Insider podcast: "What Southern New Hampshire University Does to Engage a Remote Workforce."

LaFountain: With any quick change there are challenges, and like other organizations, we've continued to face challenges with recruitment and retention and managing the volume of communications. But ultimately, our North Star is meeting the needs of our learners, who are experiencing all of the same obstacles that we are experiencing. So from an empathy perspective, we're in a great position. And the good news for us is, we're used to moving quickly. We innovate in higher education, and so we were able to very quickly innovate from an employee experience perspective, to create and implement a full, robust distributed workforce program, which we call Synergy. This has opened us up to recruiting from over 15 states that we previously were not recruiting from, which has ultimately allowed us to more deeply connect with our learners. We have learners everywhere. Our goal is to have employees everywhere, so that our learners see themselves in our staff. And now, all of our employees are basically remote learners. Many folks have kids, pets, parents in the background that they're caring for as well as trying to work, potentially in a very small room in their house that they've never had to work in before. Guess what? That's what our learners have experienced, even prior to the pandemic. So it's a real level playing field now.

The big challenges that I think were exacerbated by going remote so quickly were really about change fatigue and change management. I don't think that's a surprise to anybody — folks were experiencing all kinds of changes in their personal lives, and then changes in their work lives. So we have focused on creating places and spaces virtually for folks to connect, just to have that human-centered connection to hopefully ease some of that change fatigue.

CT: What are some of the ways that you gather employee feedback and take the pulse of your workforce culture?

LaFountain: Our Voice of the Employee program, which is what we call it, has multiple channels. First, we have a monthly pulse survey. We also utilize Gallup's Great Colleges to Work For annual survey. And then beyond that, we utilize focus groups and interviews to dig deeper into topics of interest. So, for example, employee recognition was an issue that we identified from our Voice of the Employee surveys. And we used that as a jumping off point to really dig into the problem and figure out what we needed to do, where our gaps were.

The analogy that I like to use with regard to our surveys is: Employee engagement is like a big ball of Christmas lights. It's all tangled, you don't know which end to start with and how to really begin to untangle it. What our monthly survey does is help us determine which end to start with. So it doesn't completely solve the problem, but it helps us identify which end to start with — so we can actually untangle that ball to get to a place where we can plug the lights in and see if they work. Sometimes they work, sometimes you have to replace a bulb, but that's how we know where to start.

CT: You mentioned employee recognition. What kinds of recognition did you have in place already, pre-remote workforce? And were those methods compatible with working remotely?

LaFountain: Back in 2020, prior to the pandemic, we looked at all of our data, and our data told us that recognition was an area of opportunity. And what that meant we weren't entirely sure, but our hypothesis was that our recognition was ineffective in that it wasn't an equitable experience. So we began to untangle our ball.

Our first step was we wanted to learn more. So we created what we call the Engagement Council, whose sole responsibility was to dig into this topic as a project team. That council consisted of about 25 folks from across the university; we made sure that we had folks from everywhere we could find to make sure that we had diversity of thought in the room. The very first thing that we asked them to do was what I called a recognition inventory. We gave them a series of questions, we sent them back to their business units, and basically what we found was that we had over 200 individual recognition programs. Twenty-six percent of those were tied only to performance. Many of them had to do solely with food — there was a lot of food, so much pizza. We had all kinds of fun stuff that was going on, but there was very little insight, not just in budgeting, but also in the employee experience. To be an employer of choice, we needed our employees to have at least a foundational equitable experience when it comes to recognition. We needed a university program that touched everybody.

CT: Can you walk us through the steps you took to get that project going?

LaFountain: We took a phased approach to rolling out our program, which we call Shine. The first thing that we started with was non-monetary recognition: the day-to-day thank you e-cards. Those are the foundational behaviors that will get us to where we want to go, which is having a culture that is rich in appreciation and recognition. We very quickly learned that we would need a technology to be able to do this, given how we were distributed. We started looking at vendors who could meet our needs, and pretty early on, we were able to narrow it down to three organizations — Reward Gateway being one of them, spoiler alert. The entire process, we always made time to go back to the employee to get their feedback. Everything we did, we kept bringing back to our employees to say, "Does this meet your needs? Do you like this?"

Our second phase was the reimagination of our service award program. We had a pretty traditional, very manual service program. After working with Reward Gateway, we now have a flexible, automated program where our folks are recognized in real time and have the flexibility of the marketplace, including Amazon, to choose an award.

One of the things that I get asked a lot is how did I get buy-in from stakeholders. We had to present the proposal to the executive leadership team. So with the Engagement Council that I worked with, we put together a multimedia presentation that included audio clips from the focus groups and some video testimonials of what it meant to be recognized at work. We also had the executive leadership team participate in a couple of activities that allowed them to experience what it feels like to be recognized at work. Ironically, not a lot of executives take the time to recognize one another. They don't have the time. So that in of itself was novel. Then we said, "Hey, we have a solution." Reward Gateway helped us build a demo site that was branded, so that the leadership team could really be immersed and see and feel and touch, so much as you can touch virtually, what it will look like to utilize the platform — in order to get buy-in from the leadership team to move forward.

CT: When you were choosing a platform, what features were key to your decision?

LaFountain: Based upon the feedback that we heard from our employees, through all the discovery work that we did, we knew that we needed a platform that was completely and totally branded SNHU. It could not look like an external website; it had to look like an internal website, it had to feel like an internal website. So the flexibility and branding of the site was very, very important. We also knew that we wanted something that could support a phased approach for a long-term culture build. We didn't just want to send e-cards — we wanted the ability to send e-cards, and then eventually have an Excellence Award that could be hosted and implemented through the platform. We also wanted flexibility in the monetary awards. One of the big pieces of feedback we got from employees was, "I want flexibility. I want to choose what I get. I don't want to get a clock, just because I forgot to fill out the survey and a clock is the default gift." And then the last big piece for us was something we didn't anticipate in the beginning of the work. Because COVID happened, we needed a social component where folks were able to not just recognize one another, but share in the recognition of others. And for us, Reward Gateway's social feed does just that. No matter where you work, folks can see what good stuff is happening, which is really good, not just for acknowledging and recognizing and driving behaviors that you want to see in your employees, but also for that sense of openness, transparency, and community.

CT: Did you need to get buy-in from employees that this recognition was going to be meaningful and important to participate in?

LaFountain: Yes. I can't say yes enough. I want to say yes with a bunch of exclamation points. Yes!!! This is the part of the Shine program that I'm most proud of. Based upon our research, we found that one of the things that makes recognition/appreciation meaningful is that it's tailored to the person that you're delivering it to. And it turns out people have preferences. Not everybody likes to be called up in front of everybody else and told, "Hey, great job." So in the system, you can identify and share what your preference is. For example, I am a big fan of private praise. So I have put that in my Shine profile, and in the program, you can actually send someone private praise.

We have a group of dedicated Shine champions who come up with programming that we do around the system — so for example, in February, we do candygrams, special e-cards that are fun puns that you can send to one another. They also do road shows and education around why preference matters and how to have those conversations. These are all individual contributors who feel passionately about recognition, have volunteered to be champions, and have infiltrated our business operations to really make the program successful. And we continue to use them in fun, creative ways to help our adoption and utilization of the program.

CT: How do you track the effectiveness of the Shine program? Did you have goals that you set in terms of results you're hoping for?

LaFountain: For our first 30 days, our KPI was a 60% adoption, meaning that we hoped 60% of our employees would be engaging in the system, either by sending a card or receiving a card. We blew that out of the water. We currently have over 85% engagement, and we've issued over 2,000 service awards.

We're now developing KPIs for our third phase, which is going to be monetary recognition, and also looking at what is the overall benchmark for where we want to be. I can't imagine we'll get any higher than 85% engagement; I think probably 80% is going to be our sweet spot.

CT: Besides recognition, what are some other ways that you've engaged remote employees and cultivated a sense of connection and community?

LaFountain: My team is responsible for creating spaces and places for employees to connect with one another, and we do that in a variety of ways. We have over 20 formal and informal employee communities that my team is bringing together, establishing governance, creating a hub so that people can find those communities, and tying those communities into new hire training and manager training. Our communities are almost exclusively virtual — we do most of this work in Microsoft Teams. We have communities of practice — for example, there's a project management community of practice, where folks come together and share expertise related directly to business processes and skills. We have communities of interest, which are literally just fun groups — we have one that's a baking one, where people share baking recipes, what they've baked, baking fails. We have employee resource groups, and then we have communities of connection, which are akin to affinity groups. We just launched a parent community of connection, and we're launching a military community of connection.

In March, we hosted our second annual Employee Appreciation Week. We had over 20 virtual events that over 50 employees designed and implemented for their peers. Everything from a "feel-good huddle," which is a 15-minute dance party — we have a resident DJ, he plays music for 15 minutes in a chat, it is one of the most joyous things we do — all the way to a career seminar on how to help yourself stand out and network in order to further your career at SNHU. And it was all designed by employees for employees. So we are constantly looking for ways to use the technology that we have, with very little money, to bring our employees together to connect in whatever fashion, whatever topic makes the most sense for them.

CT: What are the university's plans moving forward with remote work?

LaFountain: We are committed to being an employer of choice, which means we are deeply invested in keeping our workforce distributed. We still have our physical campus, which is in New Hampshire, but we are in 19 states at this point, with a goal of building out as many as it makes sense, because it's the best way to serve our learners. And so we'll continue to keep a remote-first mindset with regard to our workforce.

CT: Do you have any advice for other institutions that are trying to engage a remote workforce or embrace that remote-first philosophy?

LaFountain: Listen to your employees and honor what they tell you. It's not enough just to listen, but you have to actually do something with what you hear. But all of that being said, my biggest piece of advice is to try things. When we first went distributed, I was really focused on replicating what we previously had. Halloween is a really big deal for SNHU. There was a huge onsite parade that happened — very big deal, elaborate costumes, super fun, very, very big. And I was like, "We can do this virtually! We can do it!" It was an epic failure. Nobody was interested in doing a virtual Halloween parade. It just did not work. And that was okay. We didn't say, "Oh, man, we can't do this virtually." We said, "That's not it, but what is?" And so we just kept trying new things.

One of the things that we found through trying and trying and trying is, you've got to do it where the people are doing the work, and at SNHU people are doing the work in Teams. So we do a lot of stuff in Microsoft Teams. We would not have learned that without failing at that first Halloween parade.

I tell my team, "I have a ton of ideas. Many of them are not good ones." And that's okay. It's okay to fail. In fact, I think you get a lot of credibility with your workforce when you transparently say, "That didn't work." And then you try something new and parts of the new thing work and parts of it don't. But don't be afraid to try.

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