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Great Place Initiative turns ideas into action

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Virginia Commonwealth University’s Great Place Initiative, which was formed nearly three years ago to celebrate and enhance the university’s human element and to promote service excellence, is helping to bring change to VCU and its academic and administrative units.

The GPI was created in the spring of 2012 to support Quest for Distinction, the university’s strategic plan, through a collaboration of senior leadership, faculty and staff.  

In 2013, the GPI became a presidential initiative and the committee created to guide the initiative sought feedback about the university’s culture from a survey of faculty and staff, through town hall meetings and during focus group sessions.

The feedback identified the university’s people, diversity, inclusion and working environment as strengths. But compensation, recognition, trust, advancement and communication were identified as growth opportunities.

Subcommittees analyzed the feedback and suggested new programs or policies to address some of the growth opportunities. And in 2014, implementation of those efforts began to ensure VCU’s future as a Great Place.

The development of a standardized assessment process for faculty and staff and the establishment of a faculty club are two universitywide efforts brought about by the Great Place Initiative in 2014.

Kathleen Shaw, vice provost for planning and decision support, is leading an effort for developing a standardized assessment process for university employees. The project emerged from the campus survey feedback.

“When we did the climate survey, we saw some areas of opportunity. One of them had to do with how people felt about how they were assessed and evaluated and particularly how that ties to professional growth,” Shaw said.

When Shaw and her subcommittee began to examine the issue, they found the assessment process was inconsistent across the university and varied between classified staff, teaching and research faculty and administrative and professional faculty.  

“Administrative and professional faculty are our first target area,” Shaw said. “We’ve found in some cases those individuals have received consistent feedback but that’s not happening everywhere and the process isn’t standardized. Some administrative units have a formal document but not a specific process.”

Shaw and Cathleen Burke, assistant vice president of human resources, are assessing current practices to determine which units have a process, the tools and a timetable for assessments in place.

“We want to have a consistent process so that every employee gets feedback,” Shaw said.  

The next phase of her subcommittee’s work is to make sure everyone gets an evaluation, which will serve as a baseline for measuring progress, and to improve the quality of the assessment process for the assessor and the recipient.

Everyone is owed a fair and high quality assessment of their performance. In addition, they should clearly understand the expectations of their performance. Good feedback allows employees to grow and improve so that they have a path to professional growth.

“Everyone is owed a fair and high quality assessment of their performance,” Shaw said. “In addition, they should clearly understand the expectations of their performance. Good feedback allows employees to grow and improve so that they have a path to professional growth.”

Tim Davey, Ph.D., associate vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention, helped to make the faculty club a reality. The first faculty social gathering, held Oct. 7 in the Scott House, attracted 150 participants.

“The intent of the faculty club is to help faculty members cross-pollinate and to increase cooperation between faculty members,” Davey said.

A post-event survey validated those goals were met. Participants gave high marks to the club’s ability to allow faculty to mingle outside of work, meet new people and reconnect with colleagues.

“We tried to create an atmosphere where people can get together with other folks and collaborate but it’s also another way to demonstrate that the university values you – beyond paying you twice a month,” Davey said.

The faculty club social gatherings are scheduled for the first Friday of the month. The location changes but includes venues on both campuses. Efforts are underway to consider a similar club for staff.

GPI efforts at the unit level

Changes are taking place at the college and school level as well. James Coleman, Ph.D. dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, incorporated the GPI into his strategic plan for the college and appointed Marquita Aguilar as director of the college’s program in April.

The program has three goals: formation of a staff council, offering professional development for employees and improving recognition for faculty and staff.

“We need to focus a spotlight on those in the college who go above and beyond the call of duty,” Aguilar said. “And when we focus that light on these outstanding performers, that light will start to spread across the university.”

And in the School of Education, a GPI task force is working on building a pilot flextime program for staff and redesigning awards programs for faculty and staff to recognize outstanding teaching, scholarship and staff efforts. The school also recently hired a new communications director, who is working to revamp internal communications.

“We’re looking at a number of additional ideas, said Maike Philipsen, Ph.D., foundation of education professor, and GPI co-director. “We want to boost respect for term and adjunct faculty and really be inclusive toward nontenured and nontenure eligible faculty. We also want to enhance trust, respect and voice for our staff members and design successful faculty meetings and examine wellness and work life balance issues for both groups.”

Structural changes

With so much change starting to occur across VCU, the Great Place Initiative steering committee structure has also changed.

The committee’s work is now part of the Division for Inclusive Excellence, which has been facilitating speakers and programs aimed at strengthening the workplace.

“The VCU Great Place Initiative focuses on service excellence through recognizing the role and contributions of a talented and diverse workforce that has been instrumental to VCU’s growth and success over the years,” said Wanda Mitchell, Ed.D., vice president for inclusive excellence. “Therefore, this university-level initiative promotes the creation of a nurturing dynamic living, learning and working environment where attention is directed to campus climate; human talent recruitment, retention, and promotion; and advancement of policies and practices that support a 21st century workplace.”

Mitchell said the Great Place Initiative is a logical fit with the division, by promoting campus education and professional development; identifying growth in communication, trust and transparency, and employee appreciation; identifying policies, practices and initiatives that make VCU a more welcoming and inclusive learning community for all of its 11,000 plus full-time and part-time employees.

“We have more work to do actualize our vision for achieving all of our goals for becoming a Great Place, but we are certain to attain that recognition in both word and deed, because of the many great people that VCU employs,” Mitchell said.

A third co-director has been named to more closely connect the Great Place Initiative to the medical campus. Alexander Tartaglia, D. Min., senior associate dean in the School of Allied Health Professions, joins Philipsen and Kawana Pace-Harding, director of employee relations and compliance, as a GPI co-director.

“I was impressed by the vision of the original developers to build and enhance an environment of trust,” Tartaglia said. “The values and behaviors of accountability, civility, fairness, honesty and respect are the basis of a just and caring community.”

Tartaglia formerly served as a director of pastoral care in two academic medical centers and said he understood the need to care for the caregivers as much as the patients and families that are served. The Great Place Initiative offers an opportunity for a similar focus at VCU.  

“I am still convinced that caring for others is contagious and that building structures to support that will impact individual attitudes toward the work we do,” Tartaglia said.

The GPI steering committee plans to introduce a follow-up survey for faculty and staff in the fall of 2015 to assess the progress of the changes.

“The progress may seem slow to some but it takes a while to integrate change at an institution level,” Philipsen said. “We’ve taken a deliberate and thoughtful approach that we’re confident will bring organizational change.”

I am still convinced that caring for others is contagious and that building structures to support that will impact individual attitudes toward the work we do.

 

Feature image at top: Some educational units are also focusing on the GPI. The School of Education has formed a task force to focus on developing a flextime plan and employee awards.

 

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The new faculty club was created from feedback offered by employees as part of the Great Place Initiative. Here, faculty members connected during the November event at the Biotechnology Building Atrium. Photo by Kate Vinnedge, public relations specialist, School of Engineering.
The new faculty club was created from feedback offered by employees as part of the Great Place Initiative. Here, faculty members connected during the November event at the Biotechnology Building Atrium. Photo by Kate Vinnedge, public relations specialist, School of Engineering.