Feeling connected in the workplace is important for retention and employee satisfaction. But as more employees move to remote or hybrid work arrangements, a casual conversation in the break room be harder to come by, or even impossible. OneIT has launched a new program to help address that gap. 

The OneIT Belonging Committee created OneIT Conversation Partners Program to help employees meet new people and get to know their colleagues, regardless of work arrangement. The program randomly pairs employees who choose to participate with another person in the organization. The partners meet, in person or virtually, at a frequency that works for them to talk about topics of mutual interest. 

In its first year, 90 people participated in the OneIT Conversation Partners program. New partners are assigned each semester and the program has received positive feedback in participant surveys. 

Barbara Newhall, administrative services coordinator in the Office of the Chief Information Officer, signed up for the program because she is relatively new to the organization and wanted to meet others.  

“My experience so far has been amazing,” Newhall says. “I was paired with someone who was also new to the department—like two weeks new. They hardly knew anyone and they were in the same boat as me. We had similar interests in education and cats. Time flies when we get together.” 

Newhall says she has experienced an increase in mental wellbeing because of the program.  

“Being social once in a while does a lot for your mental health and I look forward to every session,” she says. “Another benefit is coming up with possible collaborations in our different fields because we are excited about what we do and the possibilities of what can happen if we bring what we do together.”  

The Belonging Committee also launched a monthly Connection Challenge, where employees can submit a photo of themselves meeting up with a colleague in person or virtually for a chance to win a gift card. 

Professional development programs 

IT professionals are also building their network through professional development programs. One program open to OneIT and Health Care Information Systems (HCIS) staff is the SPARK experiential learning program. They can arrange a short-term observation lasting an hour to a day, or a longer-duration immersion lasting weeks, months, or years. SPARK experiences can be in person or virtual. 

Through those experiences they are exposed to other types of IT jobs and can see what others in the organization do. Some of these experiences have resulted in staff moving to new roles as they developed new skills or interests.  

Such is the case for Ashley Glassberg-Nazette, who did two SPARK observations with Extended Technical Support (ETS) and one with the Learning Spaces Team (LST). Afterward, she was able to transition from her position on the ITS Help Desk to become a senior IT support consultant with LST. 

“I got to tag along and work with the technology and people they were supporting,” Glassberg-Nazette says. “It gave me a better understanding of the flow of work between OneIT teams and how I fit into that. My SPARKs also solidified the relationships I had with a whole bunch of colleagues. With these boons and having had firsthand experience with LST, I had confidence I was prepared for the then-posted position and the challenges that would come with it.” 

Another professional development program OneIT and HCIS sponsor is the MOR IT Leadership Program. The program has been part of the IT leadership development efforts at the University of Iowa and several other Big Ten institution for many years. It covers topics like strategic thinking, leading change, exercising influence, emotional intelligence, communication, delivering results, ethics, and resilience. It entails workshops, applied learning, individual development, and executive and peer coaching. 

This year, 34 individuals from OneIT and HCIS participated in a joint cohort spanning several months. As part of their training, they completed group projects on current issues the organizations face, developing recommendations for employee retention, increasing employee engagement, how to manage joint ITS and HCIS services, and evolving work practices for a variety of work arrangements. Their work and ideas will be helpful inputs into strategic planning activities planned for 2023. 

Understanding employee experiences 

In the wake of the pandemic, many employees transitioned to remote or hybrid work arrangements.  

As these work arrangements became more permanent, ITS gave up about half of its office space in University Capitol Centre for use by other units. Remodeling is underway on the remaining area to create the best possible space for staff who do work on campus. Hotel spaces have also been created for employees who don’t have dedicated office or cube space to use when they come to campus. 

Through the transitions, ITS wanted to understand how the changes in work arrangements impact employees. ITS teamed up with UI Tippie College of Business researchers for a series of five surveys.  

Seung Whan Ryu, a doctoral student who conducted the research with Associate Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship Beth Livingston, said ITS transitioned well to flexible work arrangements. There were no significant changes in self-rated productivity, and the average level of productivity was high (4.6/5). Employees were satisfied with their work arrangements and reported a good fit between their jobs and the arrangements. There were no meaningful changes in employee engagement, support experienced at work, sense of belonging to the organization, or wellbeing.  

The studies also looked at turnover intention. The overall level of turnover and job searching behaviors were very low (about 2 and 1 on a scale of 5, respectively). The research identified key contributing factors to turnover intention, such as employee exhaustion from work and satisfaction with pay. Conversely, factors such as commitment to the organization, fit between a person and organizational value, sense of belonging, and wellbeing were found to prevent employee turnover intention. 

Ryu says the high participation rate from ITS employees—about 65%—was impressive and that employees reported a strong commitment to ITS. 

“This suggests that ITS has a strong organizational culture and a sense of community among its workforce,” Ryu says. “In a similar vein, it was interesting to find ITS employees were able to maintain a high level of support at work and a sense of belonging in the transition to flexible work arrangements.” 

“This is important because many organizations report a decrease in these factors during the transition to flexible work arrangements due to a lack of interpersonal interactions and limited availability of coworkers. Understanding how ITS maintained the social side of the work environment well could provide valuable insights for other organizations looking to implement flexible work arrangements.” 

Stay interviews are another strategy ITS is using to understand employee experiences. The structured discussions with employees can help leaders identify ways to strengthen engagement and retention.  

ITS Senior Human Resources Director Julie Cunningham started these conversations in August, aiming to get to know employees and to discuss what is going well for the organization or what could be improved. She plans to continue the practice going forward and has already observed a few themes. 

“Staff have commented that they are very thankful for the monthly CIO Listening Posts, and that ITS has done a good job adapting through many changes, including the pandemic,” Cunningham says. “These conversations really help us understand their perspectives on the work environment, and we always want employees to view human resources as a partner. The door is always open to reach out to us.”