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Employee Engagement

Our Work Culture Is Evolving at NC State. Here’s How and Why

A photo of Ursula Hairston.

Since March 2020, this country has been on a difficult, dynamic journey: a global pandemic, the shutdown of businesses, political protests and civil unrest, to name only some of the challenges we’ve recently faced. All of these things have not only affected our personal lives but also changed how we work, and how we think about work. Nationwide, people have been leaving their jobs at higher rates for a variety of reasons, including their struggles to balance the demands of life with the rigors of work — a trend that includes NC State. We chose to address this critical workforce challenge by engaging in difficult conversations about what employees want relative to what the university needs. As a result, we learned important lessons, innovated processes, engineered efficiencies, amended long-standing policies and discovered that “normal” no longer means what it used to mean.

3 Changes to Our Work Culture

Efforts to create a workplace that truly meets employee needs while ensuring that the university continues to function at the highest levels of excellence have resulted in the following policy changes at NC State: 

  • We developed a flexible work program that addresses both employee and organizational needs. The program allows employees to work hours outside the standard 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday and to work from alternative locations with supervisor approval.
  • The state of North Carolina lifted a policy that restricted salary increases that SHRA employees could receive when they were promoted or when they transferred to another internal position. That policy had been in place for almost two decades. 
  • Employees can now take an additional paid day off to celebrate a cultural, religious or personal observance of their choosing each calendar year. 

These new policies demonstrate that NC State is willing to meet employee needs as those needs continue to evolve. Nonetheless, there is more to do. As a university community, we want to continue engaging in dialogue that stimulates new ideas and innovative programs and promotes a shift in our culture that embraces both traditional and nontraditional methods of work. We are moving rapidly into more integrated business models that demand flexibility, collaboration and perpetual innovation. But there is a level of connectivity that we must maintain. While some may think our workforce appears more fragmented due to vacancies, automation and hybrid work schedules, an ever-present thread still connects us. As we continue exploring new ways to work, we must maintain the connectivity that will keep that thread unbroken.  

Why We Must Change ‘Outdated Mindsets’

As we learn to adapt to new ways of working, our work culture must also evolve. We cannot continue holding onto outdated mindsets about work and work practices while we actively implement an innovative work culture. If we do we will implode  — and so will our operations. Tensions will mount, frustrations will cause lethargy, productivity will decline and customer service will falter. Now is the time to align our outcomes and our efforts to meet our strategic goals in a more effective way.  

A common criticism of hybrid work is that people don’t gather in one physical location to collaborate. But what is it that fuels ideas? Is it my physical proximity, or is it me actively engaging in a conversation with others? Can the latter only happen if we are in the same room? If so, how did we do it during the COVID-19 lockdown? Yes, physical interaction and the social cues we give and receive face to face are priceless. But if we tell ourselves that is the only way to achieve high-quality innovative thinking, then we may risk losing current employees and being able to attract new talent. Most people who currently work remotely have little interest in returning on-site to work full-time, and there is a trend among younger generations to seek employment at businesses that offer “innovative and unconventional benefits.”  Why should we consider the interests of younger generations? Because Millennials, people born between 1981 and 1996, make up 35 percent of the U.S. labor market, making them the largest generation of workers in this country’s workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. Millennials are expected to comprise 75% of the global workforce by 2025, according to a 2014 report by Deloittee. And while some may dispute the accuracy of that figure, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects people 25 to 54 years old will make up more than 63% of the U.S. workforce by 2024. We cannot afford to lose talent because we want to hold on to familiar norms. We also should not seek to diminish our high-caliber services by chasing trendy programs that demonstrate little value. 

It is time to bring together in a tangible way the lessons we have learned with the prospects  projected for the future. The same way NC State strives to meet the needs of students and constituents across the state of North Carolina, we must meet the needs of this great institution.  Our workforce — our people — will help us accomplish the mission of the university and the goals in our strategic plan: Wolfpack 2030: Powering the Extraordinary. Each of us must prioritize listening and learning from our colleagues to meet the needs of our workforce. Employees must seek to understand our roles in fulfilling the university’s strategic goals, just as leadership must seek to promote growth and eliminate barriers for success for faculty and staff.  We must continue to engage in ongoing dialogue to successfully accomplish this. 

Striving To Be the Best

We have a chance — for many of us, the first chance we’ve ever had — to significantly transform our workforce culture. We are on a brand new stretch of road on our journey, and the mile markers haven’t been posted yet. We are learning to navigate new work norms and rules and a new approach to work that seeks balance between the needs of the university, the needs of those whom it serves, and the needs of employees. This is an exciting time to be part of the Wolfpack community, when our Think and Do mentality will reshape our Pack. Forbes magazine recently ranked NC State as the No. 2 employer in North Carolina on its 2022 list of “America’s Best Employers By State.” We will strive to reach No. 1 on that list as we continue to navigate a new workforce together. 

Go Pack!

Ursula Hairston

Assistant Vice Chancellor, HR Strategy