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Campus Technology Insider Podcast June 2022

Listen: What Southern New Hampshire University Does to Engage a Remote Workforce

Rhea Kelly: Hello and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast! I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

Southern New Hampshire University is well known for innovation in online learning, so it may surprise you to learn that prior to the pandemic, the institution had less than 100 employees working remotely, and had only just begun building out its remote work policies. Employee culture was largely reliant on working in a face-to-face environment. But in March 2020, the abrupt shift to fully remote work required a new approach to employee engagement. In this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Jennifer LaFountain, director of employee experience at SNHU, about how the institution is developing a culture that allows employees to feel connected no matter where they are located. Here's our chat.

Hi Jenn, welcome to the podcast!

Jennifer LaFountain: Hi, thank you for having me.

Kelly: So I'd love to start by just having you introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about your background and the work you do.

LaFountain: Yeah, awesome. I have been working with employee experience and customer experience teams for about 15 years. I joined SNHU, Southern New Hampshire University, in December of 2019. I'm currently the director of employee experience at SNHU. And I've always just been kind of a, I would say, like a people-obsessed, people-first person no matter what I was doing.

Kelly: I know that Southern New Hampshire University is well known for innovation in online learning. So thinking back to the start of the pandemic, I imagine that the sudden shift to remote learning that happened in higher ed really wasn't much of a problem. But how did that pivot impact staff?

LaFountain: Yeah, believe it or not, and I think folks find this hard to believe, but prior to COVID, at SNHU, we had less than 100 employees working remotely. We had like 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. Previously, we had a, 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 really was how do we recreate what we had on site from a culture perspective, in a virtual way. I think ultimately, the impact to our staff is, was really positive, it was really easy for us to shift just tactically and operationally to remote work. And then knowing that we had a team dedicated to making sure that there was some equitable version of our culture virtually, I think, really, really helped us out. Ultimately, our employees, like everyone else, want flexibility. And flexibility, especially in the heart of the pandemic, is what we were able to provide. So I think we did a pretty good job from that standpoint.

Kelly: So building that culture was definitely a challenge with a distributed workforce. Were there other challenges that that remote pivot introduced or just exacerbated?

LaFountain: Yeah, I think, you know, we are, we are unique in many, many ways. But we are also just like everybody else in a variety of ways. Like, you know, 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, you know, 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. And this has opened us up to recruiting from over 15 states that we previously were not recruiting, which has ultimately really allowed us to more deeply connect with our learners, because we have learners everywhere. So now we are, you know, our goal is to have employees everywhere so that our learners see themselves in our staff. The big, big challenges that I think were exacerbated by going remote so quickly were really about change fatigue and change management, which I don't think is a surprise to anybody — you know, folks were experiencing all kinds of changes in their personal lives, and then changes in their work lives. And so we really just have focused, my team particular, on creating places and spaces virtually for folks just to connect, just to have that human-centered connection to hopefully ease some of that change fatigue.

Kelly: Yeah, that empathy for remote learners is an interesting silver lining that I hadn't thought about.

LaFountain: I mean, yeah, because now all of our employees are basically remote learners. You know, like, when you think about, from a talent development perspective, it's, you know, many folks have kids, pets, parents in the background that they're, you know, caring for as well as trying to work, you know, potentially in a very small room in your house that you've never had to work for. Guess what, that's what our learners experienced prior to the pandemic. So it's a real level playing field now.

Kelly: Well I'd love to hear kind of some of the ways that you gather employee feedback and take the pulse of your workforce culture and how people are feeling.
LaFountain: Yeah, so we have, we actually, our Voice of the Employee program, which is what we call it, has multiple channels. First, we have a monthly pulse survey that goes out every month. And then we also utilize Gallup's Great Colleges to Work For annual survey, which we've participated in since its inception, I think this is the 15th year. We've actually won that distinction 14 years in a row — we're one of one or two organizations that have done that. So we take that feedback incredibly seriously. And then beyond that are, my team specifically, we also utilize focus groups and interviews to dig deeper into topics of interest. So for example, recognition was one of the areas that we identified from our Voice of the Employee surveys. And we use that as kind of a jumping off point to really dig into the problem and figure out what we needed to do, where our gaps were. We're currently doing that right now with exit interviews, we have revamped our exit interview process, and are including stay interviews to really understand our retention challenges. The analogy that I like to use with regard to our, specifically like our surveys, is: Employee engagement opportunities and employee experience, it's 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 specifically monthly, monthly survey does is it helps 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 the bulb, but that's how we know where to start.

Kelly: Yeah, I was gonna say determining which end has the plug, that's always my problem.

LaFountain: Yeah.

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

LaFountain: So, it would probably be a huge whiff if I said that we didn't start by looking at our data. Because I just told you that we use our data. So the first thing that we did was, and we did this back actually 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 what we, what our hypothesis was, was that our, at the time, so 2020, our current recognition was ineffective in that it wasn't an equitable experience. So what we did was we began to untangle our ball. And our first step was we wanted to learn more. And I knew that I couldn't possibly, with everything happening, learn what I needed to learn alone. And 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. And the very first thing after looking at our data that we asked them to do, was that we asked them to do what I called a recognition inventory. So we gave them a series of questions, we sent them back to their business units, and basically what we found was prior to creating our program Shine, 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. And what we then did was, you know, with design thinking in mind, we used that group of folks to continue to look at, okay, what is the individual experience of our employees when it comes to recognition. And we did that through a series of virtual focus groups. And what we did end up validating and learning was that we had all kinds of fun stuff that was going on, but there was very little insight, not just in budgeting, but also in what someone might have access to, from the employee experience when it came to recognition. And we knew that we needed, not just because of COVID, but just 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.

Kelly: So a centralized program. Can you walk me through the steps you took to kind of manage and get that project going?

LaFountain: Absolutely. So we took a phased approach to rolling out our program. And so 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. So we started with that. We very quickly learned that we would need a technology to be able to do this, given how we were distributed. And so we very quickly started looking at vendors who could meet our needs. And we, we pretty early on, based upon industry knowledge that I had from previous roles, were able to narrow it down to three folks, three organizations — Reward Gateway being one of them, spoiler alert. And 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, does this meet your needs? Do you like this? So that we could move on. So our first phase was non-monetary e-cards, 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. We wouldn't have been able to do that without Reward Gateway. And we just kept going back to the employees every step of the way and said, Hey, what do you like? What do you like? One of the things that I will say we had to do before getting there, and I get asked a lot, was how, how did I get buy-in from stakeholders. And what we did, we were very intentional. We had to present the proposal to the executive leadership team. And we felt like, well, I definitely felt like I wasn't going to be the person who presented, but we were going to present and elevate the voices of our folks who had told us all their great stuff. So what we ended up doing, the council that I worked with, was we put together a multimedia presentation that included audio clips from the focus groups, that included some video testimonials, of what it meant to be recognized at work. And then we also created an experience in which we 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. Which, 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. And we did all of that, and then we said, hey, we have a solution. And one of the things that Reward Gateway really helped us with was they helped us build a demo site that was branded so that the leadership team could really be immersed and see and feel and like touch, so much as you can touch virtually, what it is, what it will look like to utilize the platform in order to get buy-in from the leadership team to move forward.

Kelly: When you were choosing a platform, can you share some of the features that were like key to your decision, like things that other people would help them in choosing the right platform for, for their institution?

LaFountain: Yeah. Absolutely. So the first thing that I did was I looked at a series of scorecards, I think McLean had a series of scorecards on their website that was available, which gave indication as to like what best-in-class requirements would be. So as an example, I'm trying to think of something that was on that scorecard. I think one of the things like price, obviously, per person for value of customer service was on that scorecard, as an example. Very important, not super important to our employee base. So what we did was, 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; control of 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. So we didn't just want to send e-cards, we wanted the ability to send e-cards, and then eventually have like an Excellence Award that could be hosted and like implemented through the platform. We wanted, when we think about the award for the employees that they get when they do get a monetary award, one of the big pieces of feedback we got was we want flexibility. We want to choose what we get. We don't want just to get a clock, because I forgot to fill out the survey and a clock is the default gift from the catalog of gifts. And then the last big piece for us was, and this was something we didn't anticipate in the beginning of the work, but because of 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, for Reward Gateway, their social feed well does just that. Folks can see, no matter where you work, what good stuff is happening, and which I think is really good, not just for acknowledging and recognizing and driving behaviors that you want to see your employees do, but just that sense of openness, transparency and community.

Kelly: You mentioned getting buy-in from executives. But did you also need to get buy-in from, you know, the regular employees that, that this recognition was going to be meaningful and important to, you know, participate in?

LaFountain: Yes. And we have done, I can't say yes enough. I want to say yes with a bunch of exclamation points. But that would be yelling, and I don't want to yell at you. But yes!! So we've done so many things. And this is probably for me, the part of the program that I'm most proud of. Our program, I can confidently say, is very unique. One of the things that is a piece of our program is the idea that, 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 said, Hey, great job. Some people actually really don't love that. So we built into our program this idea of preferences. You can identify and share in the system what your preference is. For example, I am a big fan of private praise. And so I have put in my profile in our, in Shine, our program, that I, that I like private praise. And in the program, you can actually send someone private praise. The other piece of really, a learning and development campaign around preferences and what's meaningful to the individual and how do you have those conversations, was, we have a group of dedicated what we call Shine champions — Shine is the name of our program, I don't know if I've said that, that's why I keep saying Shine — who act in a variety of ways to either come up with programming that we do around the program — so for example, in February, we do what's called candygrams, which are special e-cards that are fun puns that you can send to one another — or doing road shows and education around why preference matters, how do you have those conversations. They, this group did videos on how to start the conversation and how to honor preferences. And these are all individual contributors that have, that feel passionately about recognition that have volunteered to be champions that have infiltrated our business operations to really make the program successful. And we love them and we continue to use them in fun creative ways to help our adoption and utilization of the program.

Kelly: I'm also curious about sustaining the enthusiasm for using the recognition program. I mean, I imagine when it first was rolled out, and everyone's like, Yeah, I'm gonna give recognition right and left. But then does it dwindle over time? Or how do you keep it going?

LaFountain: Such a great question. We have talked at great length about how do we do exactly what you said, reduce those peaks and valleys. It turns out that our employees really, really like sending e-cards. And as long as we keep those e-cards fresh, and we listen to what they have to say, they will continue to use them. Employees will often e-mail us and say, Hey, we have an idea for a card, we do whatever we can to make it happen. We are very mindful of not having fresh, new shiny things every month in Shine. But we have the resources to continue to innovate and push the envelope and do as much new stuff as we can. And we will continue to do that to keep the momentum going, in addition to, it's all about building the foundation of the behaviors. We just want folks to use this site in a meaningful way, and if we can just keep folks doing that, we are willing to do the back-end work to make it happen. And it just so happens Reward Gateway's a perfect partner, because we have asked for some crazy stuff, and they have helped us make it come to life, which is pretty fun.

Kelly: So 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, or how do you measure sort of return on investment?

LaFountain: Great, great, great, great question. So another reason that we chose Reward Gateway specifically is because of the amount of data and their reporting functionality. It, it makes my heart giddy, there's just so much data. It's amazing. And I, yeah, we just love data. So it was pretty great. So for our first 30 days, our KPI was a 60% adoption, meaning that what we were hoping for was 60% of our employees were 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, we've issued over 2,000 service awards. Again, took a very manual process and automated it, which has been crazy for our payroll folks. We had, in March alone, over 600 new employees log into the system. Our, our employees love Shine, and they see themselves in Shine. And so what our current KPIs, what we're currently doing is we're developing KPIs for our third phase, which is going to be monetary recognition, and also looking at what is the benchmark for where we really want to be. I can't imagine we'll get any higher than 85%, I think probably 80% is gonna be our sweet spot. The other thing that Reward Gateway's data functionality is allowing us to do is we're currently working with some of our larger business units to create what we're calling like State of Recognition reports, and then provide custom solutions to drive recognition on their team. And we're seeing, we've done that with, we've done that with one of our three largest business units, and we've seen a tremendous amount of success. We're actually going to be scaling a pilot that we just finished. Again, we would not be able to do that without the data. And then we're even taking that and drilling that down micro, and we can provide individual leaders with, this is what it looks like on your team. This is, this is where you maybe have areas of opportunity. Cross-functional recognition is an area of opportunity for us. And it's been all very, very helpful. And we probably would not have been able to do it without the data provided within the system.

Kelly: Oh, that's interesting, so sort of giving feedback back to, say, managers to figure out what, what they could be doing more of.
LaFountain: Yes, and there's a lot of power in, what we're starting to do now is we're starting to take our, and this, we did this with that pilot I was just talking about. We took our monthly pulse survey, which has a variety of drivers, recognition being one of them. We took that, the pilot group of folks and we compared the data that we're seeing in their monthly pulse survey to the usage and adoption in Shine, and showing the value that using the system has from not just a recognition driver perspective, but a feeling of accomplishment is a driver, another driver is growth, community. Our next iteration of that is then to extend it to business results, right? Like, what do you, what does the business then get when their employees feel recognized? We know that our engagement drivers go up, but what, what do our learners get?

Kelly: So besides recognition, what are some other ways that you've engaged remote employees, and kind of cultivated that sense of connection and community?

LaFountain: Well, my team, I'm, this is one of the things I'm most passionate about, I'm so excited to be able to share this with you, my team is actually responsible at SNHU 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 and establishing governance, creating a hub so that people can find those communities, tying those communities into new hire training and manager training so that folks know that there are all these different communities that they can participate in, so that they don't feel alone. We even have an app that we're developing that if you're a new employee, you can be like, I like to read this book, and I like this and that, and it will pop out for you, hey, here are three communities at SNHU you can join. Our communities are almost exclusively virtual. We have communities of practice, which are really, like for example, there's a project management community of practice, 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, people share baking recipes, what they've baked, fails. We have employee resource groups, and then we have what we call 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. And all of these are communities that are supported by my team. We're the center of excellence, we provide guidance on how to stand it up, how to engage. And then we help elevate , the work that they're doing, if they want to do programming, if they want to do education, we help them elevate that and get the word out. And this is all done virtually. We do most of this work in Microsoft Teams. We have pushed Microsoft Teams to new limits, it's very exciting, just like we're pushing Reward Gateway, and really making it work for us. We just hosted our second annual Employee Appreciation Week in March. We had over 20 virtual events that over 50 employees designed and implemented for their peers. Everything from a, our 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.

Kelly: Did all those, the communities sort of start up since going remote or was that in existence before?

LaFountain: No. And one of the things, so we had all these communities that lots of people did not know existed prior to going remote. And so one of the challenges has been unearthing all this great work that's been done and making it remote-first friendly, so that more people can participate in them. Like we have a, we have a Toastmasters group, right, that meets or used to meet on campus. You know, that's a group, that's a long standing group. How can we make that more accessible to remote folks? We don't necessarily own it, but how do we help them make it more accessible? And that's really what we're trying to do.

Kelly: Oh, it's so interesting. And I love that it's part of the onboarding process for new employees too.

LaFountain: Yeah.

Kelly: So what are the university's plans moving forward with remote work? Will some portion of employees continue to work remotely or have the flexible option or, you know, are people coming back to a central location, or …?

LaFountain: So, we are committed to being an employer of choice, which means we are deeply invested in keeping our workforce distributed. Number one, it's what our, it's what our employees want. I mean, it's pretty hard to be anywhere on social media and not see something about employees want flexibility, they want to be able to work anywhere. So that's the first thing, we're committed to that. We still have, we have our physical campus, which is in New Hampshire, and then we also have our really one location, which is also in New Hampshire, obviously. But we are in, I think 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. Having staff that look, sound, feel like your neighbor, much like any other industry, is what's best for our learner. And so we'll continue to keep a remote-first mindset with regard to our workforce.

Kelly: And do you have any advice for other institutions that are trying to engage a remote workforce or kind of embrace that remote-first philosophy?

LaFountain: Yeah, I, so I thought probably the most about this question, because I want to give all of the advice. I think, obviously, listen to your employees and honor what they tell you, right? 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. And one of the things that I tried to do was we, Halloween is a really big deal for SNHU. There's a, there's a huge onsite parade that happened, very big deal, elaborate costumes, super fun, very, very big. And I was like, we can do this, we can do this virtually, we can do it. And it was one of the biggest failures of my career. It was an epic failure. Nobody was interested in doing a virtual Halloween parade. It just did not work. And that was okay. Like, we didn't say, oh, man, we can't do this virtually. We said, that's not it, but what is it? And so we just kept trying new things, right? Our first Employee Appreciation Week was virtually, we just kept trying new things and asking our employees, what would make it easier for you to participate? One of the things that we found through trying and trying and trying is you 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. You know, we had less than 30 people came to that first Halloween parade, we had over 50% of our employees participate in Employee Appreciation Week this year. So you just have to try things, knowing that some things are gonna go super well, and some things are gonna be big duds. And that's okay.

Kelly: Yeah, I love, I really love that you brought up a big failure, because it is something you hear a lot, but it is worth repeating that like embracing and learning from failure is so important.

LaFountain: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I mean, I have a ton of, this is what I tell my team, I have a ton of ideas. Many of them are not good ones. And that's okay. Like 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 I would say try. Don't be afraid to try.

Kelly: Yeah, that's great advice. Well, thank you so much for coming on. That was great.

LaFountain: Thank you so much for having me.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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