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Fighting Staff Resistance to Change

When the e-learning team at Northern Virginia Community College doubled in size, not everyone was happy. Here are five ways the school is building trust and acceptance to ease the transition.

Two years ago, when Jennifer Lerner, associate vice president for e-learning at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), got approval to double the size of her staff to keep pace with enrollment growth, she knew she would have to help employees work through a period of rapid change. What she didn't anticipate was the erosion of trust, turf battles, and a rift between new and longtime employees. "I did not see it as change that was going to be hard for the longtime staffers to accept," she says.

In a presentation at the January Mid-Atlantic Educause meeting in Baltimore and in a follow-up interview with Campus Technology, Lerner described the challenges inherent in managing such a fast-growing operation and some of the efforts she made to improve morale in her office, including brown bag lunches and the use of social media to share stories of workplace interest.

NOVA's Extended Learning Institute (ELI), a centralized distance learning operation, serves 23,000 students annually in more than 400 online courses. It provides services ranging from 24/7 IT support to an embedded distance-learning librarian and co-curricular experiences in an online student life program.

From 2010 to 2012, ELI's staff grew from 25 to 50 employees to keep pace with the 15 percent enrollment growth it is experiencing every semester. Faculty numbers have doubled in that time to 450. The number of managers grew from four to nine, and the institute added several full-time telecommuters. To top it all off, the office is planning a move to a new building in spring 2013.

Lerner, who has been in her position since 2008, expected staff members to be pleased to have so many new resources, because they had been overwhelmed by the burgeoning student population. She foresaw improved job satisfaction as the workload reduced. But she soon noticed back-biting directed at people in newly created job positions. "Because there were new positions, we felt we had to keep explaining to everybody the purpose of those new roles," she says. "But when we did so, some people got defensive because it was perceived that we were elevating those roles by talking about them so much."

Some people responded by snubbing the new staffers and the projects they were launching. Rather than being interested that the new librarian was starting a book club, for example, they just ignored it.

Perhaps some of the longtime employees felt that their positions were threatened by all the change, but their displeasure usually manifested itself in complaints about seemingly small policy decisions, such as whether a dog that had been adopted by the office could continue coming to work every day.

Lerner also soon realized that office social norms that worked for 15 or 20 people didn't hold up in a group of 50. The staff had been the same size for a long time, she adds, and there were social rules and a sense of the responsibility to the group, such as putting money in a jar to replenish a communal supply of coffee. But when that office balloons to 50 people, the sense of tight community can be lost, leading to resentment.

Going on the Offensive
Lerner, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, has tried several different approaches to break down barriers between new and longtime employees and to maintain cohesion across departments. Some have been more successful than others, she admits, but combined they have had a positive impact. Here are a few she tried:

1) Rotating brownbag lunches. With one to three new employees starting each week over a six-month period, Lerner decided to try informal lunch get-togethers that gave new staff members a chance to meet all current staff members over a period of six weeks. The lunches were informal with no assigned topics, and current staff members were encouraged to sit with colleagues outside of their direct work areas. "The overall response was positive," she says. There were some negative comments about it being "forced socialization," but most people liked the chance to meet new colleagues.

2) Catered luncheon. As an overall welcome to a set of new staff members, Lerner arranged a catered lunch and used more formal assigned seating and team-building exercises (for example, telling two true things and one false thing about yourself). She assigned group leaders, who were not managers, to facilitate the activities. Lerner hoped this might foster new leadership. Although some employees loved the team-building exercises, this effort was less effective, she believes, citing complaints about forced socialization.

3) Anonymous Q&A. Within NOVA's enlarged e-learning staff there are now a few layers of management--and as a result, Lerner has sensed employees are less comfortable coming directly to her with questions or problems. To help dispel rumors and gossip about policy changes, she set up a box where people could drop anonymous questions, which she would answer to the whole group. Although the effort did allow a couple of common questions to surface, anonymity proved to be a double-edged sword, generating comments such as, "I know who said X and he is lying/trying to cause trouble. Why can't he ask in a way that others can respond?"

4) Individual thanks and praise. Because she sensed that some people were feeling underappreciated amid the turmoil, Lerner decided to try handwritten thank-you notes and a kudos board to highlight employees' strong efforts. "I think this was positive and effective," she says. "I was initially hesitant to do it, because I wondered how meaningful people would find it since they all were getting thank-you notes at once. But because they were personal and specific, it worked." One challenge, she notes, is to figure out how to make sure you are delivering that praise on a regular basis, especially if it doesn't come naturally to you as a manager.

5) Increased awareness of roles and projects of other staff. When the staff was still small, employees understood each other's roles well and often covered for each other. For instance, the instructional technology designers would answer the incoming calls from students when support staffers were in meetings. But with the growth, there was less communication across departments.

Lerner sought to address that problem in two ways: First, she held all-staff brownbag lunches at which people described projects they were working on. There was a positive response initially, she says, but fatigue seemed to set in after the first few. There seemed to be less interest in learning across functional areas.

Another effort involved the use of the social media tool Yammer, which has been described as a sort of Facebook for the workplace. "At first there was very little interest," she admits, beyond a few social media fans. Believing that it would help employees value each other's contributions, Lerner decided to make posting on Yammer once a week mandatory and monitored that for three or four weeks. Yammer has since become a regular tool that about 60 percent of employees use on a regular basis, she says. Some employees post once a week, while others use Yammer several times a day, often to praise other colleagues. Some use it as a social tool to post pictures of their kids or dogs, and that is fine with Lerner.

Still, staff problems persist at NOVA's ELI, Lerner says. "We made changes to departments at different times, so the issues didn't all surface at once," she explains. Plus, the impending move to new office space may prove stressful for some employees who must move from private offices to cubicles.

Lerner says she plans to try another idea given to her by an attendee of her presentation at the Educause meeting: "This person suggested showing employees more support from higher levels of the administration. We are having a staff appreciation lunch next week, and our college president is going to be a surprise guest."

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