This article actually has two introductions: one from spring and one from autumn.
In the spring of 2022, I promised to write about a sustainable university in terms of the motivation of our people and their interaction in Mente et Manu. After all, when describing a sustainable organisation, the development plan emphasises cooperation, involvement, supporting each other, and the inclusive and value-based management of the university.
However, when I started writing the article in the early autumn of 2022, I could no longer ignore the very pragmatic side of sustainability. More specifically, I had to think about how to cope with the expectation of wage growth in an environment battered by inflation – without losing employees –, cost growth, and the need for savings.
Tea Trahov, Chancellor of the University | Photo: TalTech
The rapid changes and often unexpected developments in our environment have created a completely new situation for this autumn, which we have yet to make sense of. However, in order not to get too worried or confused about the plenitude of topics, let us discuss our preferences first.
People are the most important factor. Without people, there is no organisation or sustainable development. If an organisation is going through tough times, whether due to a lack of money or ideas or due to market factors, climbing out of that hole is only possible if people come together and start working towards a common goal. Do we have the motivation to turn the ship around – together?
Inflation and the accompanying increase in daily costs makes us all analyse whether our salaries will keep up with the increase in expenses. If the pay stays stagnant while we have to increasingly worry about making ends meet, job satisfaction and motivation decrease. Some might start looking for other earning opportunities, which causes them to pay less attention to their main employer.
Salary or rising costs?
It is very important for the university to decide on which principles to distribute the money – there is never enough of it to do everything we want to do – between salary increases and growing costs. How do you find a balance that supports both? There is only one rule: people are the most important. That is why we support people first and believe that the employees, in turn, will help the university through the tough times.
Economic forecasts predict wage increases of at least 10 per cent this year. No downward trend is expected in 2023. It is easy to think that as we are the leaders in the salary comparison of Estonian public universities, we do not have to worry too much. However, the situation is very different when it comes to different academic positions. While the salaries of researchers and professors firmly maintain their position in the comparison of universities, then other universities are starting to catch up when it comes to lecturers. In addition, many of our students get paid more when they start working than their lecturers who have built a long career at the university. If we compare the salary levels of researchers and support services with those of the business sector, we can see that companies offer higher pay rates for equivalent qualifications in many fields. Therefore, we simply cannot ignore the topic of salary increases.
Employees want a sense of security
The university is characterised by the high autonomy of its academic units. The units have the opportunity to decide on their own development and activities to a very large extent, which means that if they are successful, they are bound to see good financial results – and vice versa. As the crisis deepens, we will certainly see the units coping differently. Sticking together and implementing value-based management allows us to give clarity and a sense of security to our employees in a confusing situation.
Often, the way our employees feel about the university and their connection to it is more important than money when it comes to motivation. The employee satisfaction survey also confirms that although satisfaction with remuneration is not high, it does not affect commitment to the same extent. It is also important whether the work is interesting, whether the team sticks together and is characterised by a good atmosphere, and whether the employees are involved in planning the development of the university.
The three most recent satisfaction surveys have showed us that people at the university work on things that they really like. The study also shows that people have enough discretion in their work.
Close colleagues are more important
The smaller the group, the more important a sense of unity. Research groups or services generally receive higher satisfaction ratings than departments. Assessments of the activities of the university as a whole are currently the worst, but they are fortunately improving.
I believe that two factors are critical to the development of employee commitment. Firstly, the ability of leaders to develop teamwork and manage the flow of information in the unit. Secondly, the ability of the university to give employees the opportunity to have a say on important topics and to make use of their initiative.
The current situation amplifies the value of good leadership. Calm, expert support for employees, informed analysis of the organisation of work and operating principles within the framework of changed opportunities, and constant communication are invaluable from the point of view of both employees and the university. I dare to say that the rapidly changing environment, fewer opportunities to work as normal, and the fact that we do not yet know the impact of the changes, increase the expectations of employees for the quality of management.
If we as leaders ignore the growth of insecurities among employees and do not take steps to create clarity, we can, at worst, contribute to the deterioration of their mental health. You do not have to be a psychologist or a counsellor to know how important it is to notice your employees and do your best to keep them motivated. If necessary, help must also be sought.
Back to drinking coffee
The implementation programme of our development plan is committed to increasing the development and involvement of communication tools in several projects. A fast-paced and information-saturated environment has reduced our ability to focus on long stories. That is why we will start producing video clips to share information within the building and repeatedly take on the issue of the structure of information and its method of presentation to find the most convenient solutions for the user.
In order to gather the opinions of employees and students, we use both electronic communication environments and start organising physical so-called coffee meetings again, where you can express your thoughts directly. Special emphasis must be placed on mediating the feedback of the collected ideas to acknowledge those who come up with ideas and inspire others to do the same.
As university employees, we are good with words. However, words are not enough. Are we ready to take action to make these things happen as well? Everyone contributes however much they are able to, but the university must consciously focus on making use of the initiative. The current energy crisis and changes in the world order give each of us the opportunity to do so.
We are looking for both ideas and action
We are looking for ways to reduce energy consumption, which is currently the heaviest burden on the finances of the university. Can we identity where time, money, or resources are wasted? Should we reduce operational costs? Should costs be reduced only in support services or in the organisation of teaching and research as well? Besides cost management, we must think about whether and how we can create new income streams. One thing is certain: the contribution of each individual employee, both in terms of ideas and action, is important now, because it creates new opportunities to cope with difficulties and create a positive outlook for the future.
Let us start with the basics. Think about how you save money in your home. We turn the lights off if we do not need them. We turn down the heat as much as possible and wear warmer clothes. We consider when it is smart to use household appliances – for example, we only do full loads of laundry, not use the washing machine for three pairs of socks. We turn off the tap. These are just a few examples. We can incorporate these habits into our time spent at the university as well. This helps us save money in the current difficult situation, but also forms permanent habits which contribute to the development of a sustainable world in the long term.