Pay not only UA incentive, panel says

Moderator Margaret Sova McCabe welcomes guests Friday at the E.J. Ball Courtroom in the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. A panel of campus leaders discussed how the university is enhancing its status as an employer of choice. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

FAYETTEVILLE -- While salary is obviously a critical element of making the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville an attractive place to work, members of a panel who spoke Friday of making the university an "employer of choice" noted there are myriad other important benefits to lure -- and keep -- talent.

"This is not only about salary, [but] the broad reality of campus, [feeling] valued by the institution," with a life-work balance and flexibility, said Chancellor Charles Robinson. The university must "signal that you matter to us. When people feel that, they tend to give more."

There's "incredible job stability here -- that's one of the great benefits -- we went through the [pandemic] without laying people off," said Ann Bordelon, the university's executive vice chancellor for finance and administration. "Most people here have a pretty predictable schedule, and we offer a safe working environment."

The university is also working to "streamline" jobs in order to "make it easier to do your job," Bordelon said. Rather than "doing a lot of low-value paper pushing, [we want] you focused on high-value activities."

Bordelon and other university leaders want to hear from employees about what they value and prioritize as part of this process, she added. "What is it that keeps people here?"

As the university embarks on the strategic planning process for its next 150 years, Robinson and other university leaders are conducting town hall meetings to gather important feedback, and being an employer of choice was the topic of the final meeting in a series of three.

Each town hall focused on one element of three strategic priority areas -- student success, research excellence, and the university's status as an employer of choice -- and Robinson participated in all three sessions, with Margaret Sova McCabe moderating all three.

The university's town halls became popular means of communicating during the covid-19 pandemic, so Robinson wanted to continue them for the strategic planning process, and "your thoughts are as important as my thoughts," he told his audience during the first meeting last month. "We want to hear from you. What matters to me is what you're thinking."

As part of the employer of choice emphasis, the university announced a classification and compensation project for staff roles last year and has partnered with Huron Consulting Group, according to the university. UA-Fayetteville has also sought feedback from stakeholders across campus to revamp the university's job classification architecture for staff roles and evaluate the university's compensation structure.

The project team recently began working with a variety of subject-matter experts across campus to establish job families for staff roles that more consistently represent responsibilities and ultimately create clearer paths to development and career advancement, according to the university. The team is also refining the university's compensation philosophy to better attract, inspire and retain talent.

Competitive salaries will allow the university to compete for the best people, who can best execute objectives that lead to the best outcomes, Robinson said. However, the university is limited to a degree on salaries, because so much of its budget is from tuition and fees, and whenever students are asked to pay more, that "has a negative impact on accessibility," which is antithetical to the university's land-grant mission.

"We are mission-driven, and our mission is clear," Robinson said. The university must serve students to create opportunities for them to maximize their talents and "achieve beyond their wildest imagination."

In a "very competitive environment, getting class and comp right is critical," said Michelle Hargis Wolfe, the university's "chief people officer." Data analysis is a major piece of that, and "a structure will come from this [as] we define the work" in order to be market competitive.

"On the heels of the" class and compensation study, "we're going to look at faculty salaries at the department level," said Terry Martin, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. "Classification is pretty well [established] for faculty, but compensation" remains an area for additional study and comparison.

"I can't emphasize enough the value of service," said Anna Zajicek, vice provost for faculty affairs. "I value and love research -- we want to hire great researchers who can move us forward in innovation, creativity, and discovery -- we also need great educators, and the people who carry the everyday work in service."

Employee evaluations may also be revamped as part of this process, Bordelon said, because the university "runs on people, and people [are] how we move forward."

"The feedback process has to be fair and honest, [because] people want to know how they're doing [in order to] rectify shortcomings," she added. "If people don't know how they're doing, that's unfair to them."

As part of the overall strategic planning process, the university and higher education research group EAB are working to define an employee value proposition, which will describe the characteristics and environment the university wants to foster among both current and potential employees, according to the university. Throughout a hybrid and compressed schedule pilot over the past year, a flexible work task force has captured valuable feedback from members of the campus community to inform recommendations.

"The next step is making flex work a permanent feature" at the university, said McCabe, interim vice chancellor for research and innovation, senior adviser for strategic projects, and a law professor who is teaching and researching food law and policy. In the new year that begins July 1, employees will have three options for flexible work.

They can work from home a couple of days per week, they can choose compressed schedules -- such as working 10 hours per day four days a week -- or they can utilize flexible hours, such as coming into work later/earlier on certain days and/or leaving earlier/later on certain days, she said. "This is a huge win for campus."

However, employees still must communicate first with their managers/supervisors to determine how best to approach flexible work, and 100% remote work is not currently offered in most cases, she said. "Is 100% remote work completely off the table? No, but it requires more" research and scrutiny.

Being an employer of choice is "a work in progress, and always should be," she added. The university ought to always reflect and improve.

Being an employer of choice is "about more than what we do," Bordelon said. It's "about how we do it."

The employee value proposition is "the soft stuff, why you come to work," the reward, impact, and service, said Wolfe. Diving deeper into those concepts will inform "what that means," and that will tie into job postings and job descriptions.

Employees need to see chances for growth in their role and/or career and thrive both personally and professionally, Bordelon said. Supervisors and managers are responsible for creating those quality work environments.

The work environment the university strives to create will come from feedback of employees, Wolfe said. "You will also hold us accountable for [upholding] that work culture."

Being an employer of choice has been a priority of Robinson's since he was interim chancellor -- he was officially named chancellor in November 2022 -- and the university has been working on this effort "to some degree since I came here in 1999, so we're not starting from scratch, but ramping it up."

And "these are not just words to fill the air and look like we're doing something; fundamentally, we will be a better organization after this" process, Robinson said. Though undertaking a project like this is "hard and expensive, we are going to do it, and I want you to believe we're serious about this work, [because] we're changing the university for the better."

  photo  University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Chancellor Charles F. Robinson speaks at the E.J. Ball Courtroom in the UA School of Law. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)