Tuesday 05-08-2014 - 00:00
Aberdeen University Students’ Association picked up the award for ‘Most Improved Employee Engagement’ at NUS Convention 2014. Their story is a compelling account of how a difficult situation can be turned around into something positive.
Claire Marsland, NUS HR senior consultant, explains.
In early 2013, Aberdeen University Students’ Association (AUSA) was facing a number of major challenges. Recognising things weren’t working well, NUS’ strategic support unit was invited to carry out a diagnostic of the organisation, with a view to helping identify the improvements required.
Around about the same time, AUSA had decided to take part in the first National Students’ Union Employee Engagement Survey commissioned by NUS’ HR support unit.
Feedback from both of these activities confirmed that there were high levels of discord and low morale among staff, as well as some fundamental problems with the way they functioned.
To make matters worse, over the course of the next few months, they were overtaken by a number of changes including some of the senior management leaving.
They also failed to share the engagement survey results with staff - something which they openly acknowledge was a mistake, only increasing the sense of disillusionment.
Turning things around
Graeme Hope, membership engagement manager at AUSA, explained that this was probably the lowest point in the story, but also the time when things started to pick up.
Using the recommendations from the diagnostic, and with the leadership of a strong trustee board and part-time interim chief executive, they began to focus their attention on making positive changes and on rebuilding staff engagement and morale.
As a litmus test, they decided to carry out the employee engagement survey again this year, to see whether it was having an effect. This was a brave decision, and AUSA had a lot of work to do, persuading staff to take part again and to give their honest feedback.
The organisation spent time talking to people, asking for their participation and feedback, and reassuring them that this time it would be shared openly, closely listened to and acted upon.
Their results came out in April this year and they showed that things were definitely improving. The response rate had increased from 52 per cent to 82 per cent and there was strong, positive feedback for the leadership team on how they were now leading the organisation.
One comment said: ‘The best thing about working here is the change we are currently going through as an organisation. It is exciting and bodes well for the future.’ Another highlight was that 100 per cent of participants said that they would willingly put in extra effort in order to help the organisation.
This time around, they shared the data at a recent staff meeting and are using it collectively to shape their new strategic plan and their Investors in People reassessment work.
Asking Graeme to reflect on what three key things had changed in their approach to leadership and management at AUSA, he was clear in his response. The first was a decision by the leadership team to be more open and transparent around decisions and clarity on why they were made.
The second was a drive to involve and share decision-making beyond the senior management team to include departmental managers and staff. Part of this was to encourage staff to challenge and question decisions, safe in the knowledge that managers would engage with them.
The third area was to encourage staff to take risks without fear of blame or failure. They are clear about wanting to build a culture where people feel supported in trying new things, and where it’s OK if it doesn’t work as long as the organisation learns from it.
Building on this new culture, they have also aimed to reward staff for their trust and commitment, for example, in giving everyone an NUS extra card and organising social activities.
In addition, they’re investing in and supporting staff with their personal development: they currently have four people on the NUS leadership programme.
Asked to sum up why this is such a positive story, Graeme said it was the staff that had made the difference and he felt a real sense of pride about that. Their willingness to put the past behind them, to give honest feedback and to actively engage in making things better had turned the place around. ‘They deserve real credit for that’, he said.