Early last Thursday, I was sitting in the drive-thru line at Starbucks, checking Twitter. I noticed a slightly desperate-sounding tweet from @kellimarks, a friend who owns a bakery in Little Rock. She had three weddings to prepare for and several other cakes to bake and no help.
I had an appointment with the oral surgeon that day, so I really needed something to take my mind off that wonderful event. I ran home, changed into my Sweet Love Bakes T-shirt (the approved uniform), and headed to the bakery.
Kelli had just had a horrible experience with a new employee – a young person who didn’t appear to understand the importance of hard work and punctuality. As we stirred up cake batter and washed dishes, Kelli and I talked about “this generation” and its members’ seeming inability to get the work thing down.
Later that day, I realized that it probably wasn’t just “this generation.” There have always been those individuals who’ve had trouble performing up to expectations, and they can be 18 or 40. There are also those bosses who fail to express their expectations clearly. Communication issues can certainly add to problems with even great workers.
Many of us in higher education rely on student workers to get our jobs done. They gain valuable experience about the real working world, and we get cost-effective completion of some of our daily tasks. The relationship can be mutually beneficial, but only if both sides communicate what they need up front.
This past week, I’ve thought much about the relationships we develop with our student workers. They can be so rewarding, but they need ground rules. Here are the basics I came up with, but there are so many more:
Define expectations up front. Outline which tasks are most important to have done, and then add a few nice-to-haves. I also try to figure out what my student workers like to do, and then have them do a good bit of that. That means that my current worker takes photos a lot – something he likes and is very good at. He also posts those photos to Facebook, a task that I consider a nice-to-have since it saves me time after events and lets us appear on top of things.
Communicate deadlines. If I want you to complete a task, I better give you an idea of when I need it done. This has been a shortcoming of mine in the past. I tend to think that the way I work – finish a task when I’m given it as soon as possible – is the way of the world. It’s not. Many people will procrastinate if they don’t have a hard deadline. The object is to ensure they know what I need (see point No. 1).
Be flexible. Student workers are students first. School is their first job, and I pledge that in my office they’ll get as much respect for that job as they do for mine. If my student worker needs to study, or cut his hours, or complete an assignment for his campus newspaper, he has my blessings. If our student workers cannot graduate, then all the practical learning we can give them is of no benefit.
In the end, our relationships with our student workers – and other co-workers – depends on our effective communication and listening. Showing our respect by communicating better in the workplace can benefit everyone.
How do you establish relationships with your student workers? Tell us more.
Jeff Stevens (@kuratowa to most of us) serves as web content optimizer for the Academic Health Center at the University of Florida. He studied history and advertising account management before deciding that the creative side was more where his heart belonged and he became a graphic and web designer, working freelance and in a variety of small jobs. Eventually this led back to higher ed and webmaster positions with Student Financial Affairs and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where he worked in communications, marketing, design, and web development.
Jeff is a fixture at HighEdWeb events, traveling via bus to attend the HighEdWeb Arkansas 2012 regional conference. He documented the trip on Instagram, endearing himself to all of us in Arkansas for his tenacity and enthusiasm. If you don’t know @kuratowa, it’s only a matter of time before you notice his funny hats, outrageous outfits, and infectious laugh.
While he’s not currently a solo practitioner, Jeff knows that position well. He served as an Army of One earlier in his career, and he uses the knowledge from that tenure to inform his decisions today. Sit back and read about his experience as an Army of One…
We know you’re not a solo now, but still tell us a little bit about your job. What does it encompass?
My new position is Web Content Optimizer for the Academic Health Center at the University of Florida. In this position I’m responsible for information architecture, usability, accessibility, content strategy, SEO, and social media strategy for the 400 sites spread among our six colleges, centers and institutes, and hospitals. I also advise, consult with the 800 or so content editors that work within the system. The position is part of a office of nine that oversees the management of the AHC’s WordPress multi-user environment and our health system’s Drupal platform.
Tell us a little about when you were an Army of One. Where were you?
I was web master for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida (CLAS). The position was part of the Communications Office, reporting directly to an Assistant Dean. When I started, the office had a team of four – a communications director, a feature and web content writer, a print production specialist, and myself – and on occasion an intern or two. Just prior to my leaving the office, we had been downsized to two – the print production specialist and myself, with me having taken over a majority of the writing assignments in addition to the web side of things.
Tell us about that school. How many students, where is it located, etc?
CLAS is the largest college at the University of Florida. Although the primary building is at the heart of campus, the full college is spread out across fifteen or sixteen buildings across campus. At the time I worked in the college, we had around 17,500 students in 36 departments, with around 800 faculty. The departments are divided between three primary areas of focus: natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.
What was your biggest challenge as a solo practitioner in higher ed?
By far the biggest challenge in the position was being able to work at a 30,000 foot view – i.e. being able to work strategically rather than operationally. When I first took the position, the role was primarily as the web master for the Dean’s site and the central college site. However, it rapidly expanded to providing web development and support for many of the units within the college, which had only put .25 to .75 FTE support to their web presences. As a result, much of my time was simply in assisting in putting content on the site, modifying existing content, and in training the content editors in units with crash course in basic HTML and Dreamweaver.
What was your biggest win?
It’s a toss up. I think my biggest win was moving around 80 percent of the college into a standard web HTML template. It took about two and a half years, but the template was readily accepted by most units and greatly simplified the site editing and deployment process, and created brand consistency among our web presences.
By far the project that had the most appreciation during my period was the construction of a comprehensive list of undergraduate majors available in the college – that launched about three months before I left the college. It provided potential students the groundwork for what each major was about, and what some of our most prominent alumni did with the degree after graduation. It helped to break preconceptions of the career paths of certain majors and allowed students to make much more informed choices between majors, and rapidly became one of the most used sections of our site.
What did you wish you had accomplished as a solo?
I wish I had been able to put into place a CMS for our college. I had begun moving us to a WordPress multi-user install, but hadn’t been able to bring it into test or production. Ironically, my new position allowed me to complete that initial work, and the template we developed in the AHC has now been adopted by the new Web Manager at CLAS and is moving towards deployment within the college.
From a communications perspective, I wish very much we had been able to strategically go beyond just a unified web layout for branding and been able to create a realized strategic communications plan for the college. Liberal Arts schools face a lot of challenges today, both internal and external to their institutions. These pressures are exacerbated by the siloing that occurs in large organizations. You’ve got the silos of colleges in the university; the silos of the college – Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities; and finally the silos of individual departments. It’s like a Higher Education Inception. Ultimately is makes it extremely hard to speak as a single voice as a college, because units become too insular to their own needs. Interdisciplinary studies are breaking down those barriers, and I wish we had been able to harness that, as it would have been a tremendous asset. I think our web and print efforts would have flowed organically with that kind of messaging in place.
Do you miss anything about working as an Army of One?
I miss the direct relationship I had with the faculty. Our office was right in the middle of the primary classroom space of the college, and out clients would often stop in between the middle of classes. It made you feel much more connected to the educational mission to be so closely tied to the process and to get input from faculty energized by their classes, coming in with ideas based off of the conversations they had just had.
Do you apply anything you learned as a solo to your job on a larger team?
One of the great strengths of our new office is that most of us have, at one point or another, served as Army of Ones. This creates a great collaborative space where we can bounce ideas off of one another, and, if anyone’s workload gets too heavy, the work can be shouldered by a another team member without much disruption to the team dynamic.
Who or what has been a source of inspiration for you?
The Higher Education Web Professionals Association has been a tremendous source of inspiration for me. The passionate and committed individuals that make up the heart of that organization helped to inspire me to think more strategically and to push more for resources. I can safely say I would not be where I am today without the support of that community.
I also got a great deal of inspiration from my new supervisor, Carlos Morales. His model for moving the College of Medicine to a WordPress CMS jump-started our migration process at CLAS. When I got the opportunity to move into his office and be a part of that process as it expanded to the whole of the AHC, I accepted without any hesitation. In fact, I get inspiration daily from my team here – it’s so by far the most proactive and forward-thinking web office I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of.
What will be your next big project?
My next big project is creating a strategic plan for usability testing for our web presence. We’ve just come off a year of migrating all of our sites into our new CMS platforms, and we’re beginning a cycle of making refinement and iterative changes. Following that, we’ll be designing and constructing a social media hub for all of our official channels.
Quick Five – Don’t think, just answer
What’s your favorite food?
Pork and Rice.
What was the last book you read?
John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
You have a day to live, what do you do first?
Buy a plane ticket to New Zealand. Wait, I forgot the flight time. I just died in mid-air. Bummer.
You can invite 10 people – living or dead – to dinner. Who are they?
Bravery Transmedia‘s Joel Goodman is just getting started making big changes for higher ed – and other industries – with his new company. He is currently working with Eastern Wyoming College on a redesign of its web presence as well as several other universities throughout the United States.
Joel is well-versed in Armies of One – he was practically a solo practitioner at Trinity International University in Illinois. About four months ago, he and his wife picked up everything and moved to Austin, Texas, to chase dreams.
The rest is history, right? Well, before he writes some new history for more clients, Joel sat down with us to talk about best practices when working with freelancers and vendors.
Joel also took time for a new feature on Higher Ed Solo – the Quick Five…
Do you have any tips for working with freelancers? Share!