'Great Place to Work' Movement Hits Higher Ed

Release Date: April 10, 2008

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Scott Nostaja is working to transform UB into a place that possesses true and measurable characteristics of a great work environment, according to the principles outlined by the Great Place to Work Institute.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Colleges and universities don't usually focus on improving their status as "great places to work." Conventional wisdom says a college campus naturally provides a great work environment: There's constant intellectual stimulation, access to campus facilities and family-friendly work hours.

At the University at Buffalo, Scott Nostaja is one of the few in higher education who is putting conventional wisdom to the test.

Nostaja is working to transform UB into a place that possesses true and measurable characteristics of a great work environment, according to the principles outlined by researchers at the Great Place to Work Institute, which administers Fortune magazine's annual "Best Companies to Work For" compilation.

According to the institute, credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie are the characteristics common to great organizations, with the notion of trust being crucial to creating a cooperative, productive and enjoyable workplace.

"If UB is to become a truly great place to work, these are the embedded behaviors and principles that should guide every action at our university," explains Nostaja, UB's interim vice president of human resources and chief of staff for UB President John B. Simpson.

"Creation of a great work environment has not been highly valued in higher education, historically." he adds. "We're challenging that thinking."

The work of Nostaja and his team of UB human-resources professionals thus far has generated promising results and recognition: UB was a finalist in Buffalo's Business First newspaper's annual "Great Places to Work" ranking and is among a select group of colleges and universities invited to participate in the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Great Colleges to Work For" survey.

"These surveys provide external validation and help us determine where we should adjust our approach," Nostaja says. "Being recognized publicly as a great place to work helps raise awareness internally about our goals and helps in the recruitment of new employees."

The focus on improving the work lives of UB's faculty and staff, Nostaja notes, is an important component of the UB 2020 strategic plan to become a premier public research university and grow the university by an additional 10,000 students and 2,300 faculty and staff.

To infuse the principles of trust, pride and camaraderie throughout the university, Nostaja and his team have developed a slate of new programs, with more on the way, and have met with hundreds of people across campus.

"In essence, our goal is to create a culture of excellence that touches everyone who works here and which is evident in everything the university does," he says. "Creating a great workplace needs to be an important part of the university's value system, if our institutional goals are to succeed."

In discussions with faculty and staff throughout UB starting last fall, Nostaja came away with the sense that the university is widely considered to be a very good place to work but much more needs to be done. Several common issues arose.

Employees expressed a need for better work spaces and better internal communication. There's a sense that the university must do more to recognize individual achievements and there is a desire for better supervisor training and more opportunities for employees to volunteer in the community.

These conversations, and the concepts Nostaja took away from interactions with the Great Place to Work Institute, have resulted in new approaches to employee relations at UB.

The university now offers more than 30 professional development and training programs, ranging from "Supervising the UB Way," to leadership fundamentals, to managing conflict in the workplace. There also is a stronger emphasis on employee wellness and achieving a work-life balance, with new programs on weight loss, quitting smoking, fitness and stress reduction.

A revamped employee-orientation program emphasizes the vision, values and strategic initiatives of the university.

Nostaja is working with faculty from UB's School of Management to develop a way to measure the effectiveness of these programs. In particular, he's interested in devising a way to measure trust, pride and camaraderie across the campus and their effect on creating a great work environment.

"The great organizations have these common characteristics," Nostaja says, "If we, too, can increase our levels of trust, pride and camaraderie, we think we will advance the culture of excellence here."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system that is its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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John DellaContrada
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