Workforce Planning during the Pandemic and Beyond

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development

While it was true before the pandemic, it is now abundantly clear that we need to examine the way we do work, the structures that support it, and the skills needed to be successful. It is not uncommon for structures and processes to stay the same for many years, even though the work has expanded or changed. This generally results in high performers picking up additional work, ineffective workflows, and dropped balls due to inadequate expectations or skills. It also contributes to burn out and low morale as some are overworked, others appear to contribute very little, and new employees are often disappointed as the work they are doing does not match their promised job descriptions. This situation calls on leaders to ask the questions: What has changed in the last several years? What does the work entail today? Do our current roles and structure support that work now and into the future?

Here are some points to keep in mind as you evaluate your organization:

  • Start with mission, vision and strategic plans as the foundation for your work. Examining the priorities for your area of work, your department or college, and the university at large helps to ensure alignment and that you are building something sustainable.
  • Consider changes that have occurred. Has the department or college grown or the work shifted? Is there new technology being utilized and/or new data collection? Is there a new leader in place with new expectations? Do you have a role in new university or college initiatives that would impact workloads or work needed? Have positions and practices changed to meet that need or does it just keep getting cobbled on to the existing structure?
  • Review current work. What work is being done today, by whom, and what are the pain points?  Have position descriptions been updated to reflect actual responsibilities? Are responsibilities grouped in a way that makes sense? Do some people have incredible workloads while others carry very little? Does the work being done align with the stated priorities? What work can be done remotely and what requires employees to be onsite? Are there glaring inefficiencies and risks with the current structure and assignment of duties? Include your people in the effort, as they will likely be a wealth of information about what is working well and where the gaps are. Engaging a cross-functional team for the analysis can help to ensure that you are getting a systemic view with reduced bias.
  • Consider upcoming changes. Identify any anticipated variables that could change the work that is needed in the future. Where are opportunities to innovate? Will new technology be adapted in the next couple of years? Is there a new executive coming in who may have new priorities that you need to be prepared for? Has a new, large research grant been awarded that will need to be maintained and accounted for? How will these changes impact the day-to-day work?
  • Analyze possible changes to workflow, structure and positions. Work with MSU HR to review what positions and structures make sense going forward, rather than just filling open positions. Design your structure, not only for efficiency, but for resilience and responsiveness. For example, one college identified that they increased their number of events by 300% in the past few years. No one was clearly identified to manage that new work and so several staff just picked up pieces of it, which took them away from their other priorities. When a position opened, they decided to repurpose the role to a new Event Planner position that would meet their needs. The people who had previously been doing parts of the work could then serve as back up for that role.
  • Evaluate skill gaps that will be barriers to moving forward. Organizations “also face a learning curve as managers figure out how to lead their teams virtually as they build social capital and how to maintain cohesion without the benefit of informal coffee, lunch, or corridor chats. As companies contemplate returning to the workplace, a new set of skills is also likely to emerge for the transition“ (McKinsey, 2020). You can utilize this list of questions as you develop learning plans for each of your staff. Remember, you make these workforce plans based on the work that needs to be done, not on what tasks people prefer to complete. It’s great when those two things align, but ultimately the work needs to get done. Create a plan to help individuals and teams strengthen their behavioral and technical skill sets, establish clear expectations, and hold people accountable. Building new skills not only helps the unit but the individual strengthens their career prospects as well.
  • Communicate often. Make sure you are keeping people updated as changes are made, explaining why they were needed and the gains you hope to achieve. Check in frequently to see how individuals and teams are doing with the changes, looking for any tweaks that would be helpful or additional support needed.
  • Adjust any practices, processes or policies that will be impacted by the new structure. Workflows may be different after staffing changes. Not only should that be clarified within your area, but with other stakeholders or customers who may need that information. Will forms be submitted to someone new, is there a process change that others will need to abide by? Does it affect any project plans? While doing that analysis it is also a great time to document and improve processes as you go. Look at this systemically to avoid items falling through the cracks.

As flexible work arrangements, remote learning and tight budgets continue to impact how work is done, it is up to leaders to create plans to address those needs in ways that are thoughtful, adaptive, and allow employees to be responsive to changing situations. “Gartner research shows many employees want to be responsive, and believe they know how to be, but a huge amount of work ‘friction’ stands in the way.”  They define “friction” as misaligned work design, overwhelmed teams, trapped resources and rigid processes.  Gartner found that “two-thirds of employees are hacking their work to get around these obstacles, and that’s costing organizations time, money and energy” (Wiles, 2020). Together with your team, you can set a path so that all can be more effective and adaptive going forward.


McKinsey & Co. (2020, May 7). To Emerge Stronger from the Covid-19 Crisis, Companies Should Start Reskilling Their Workforces Now. Retrieved September 30, 2020 from

Wiles, J. (2020, September 23). Design Work to Help Employees be Responsive. Retrieved September 30, 2020 from

Employee Engagement in a Rapidly Changing Workplace

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development 

Recent research analysis (Quantum Workplace, 2020) seems to indicate that employees are feeling more engaged now than prior to the pandemic. While that certainly isn’t true for everyone, there are a number of variables in this situation that have led many employees to rate their engagement as higher and their leaders as better than in the previous year, including increased communication and a focus on wellness.

Engagement during this time is complicated though, and efforts must be intentional and thoughtful as people struggle with a variety of new challenges.

Here are strategies that can help. 

Frequent, Honest Communication 

When times are ambiguous and rapidly changing, some leaders pull back, gloss over issues, and avoid decisions, which can cause more difficulty. “Cognitive biases, dysfunctional group dynamics, and organizational pressures push (leaders) toward discounting the risk and delaying action.” (Kerrissey 2020). Being straightforward with people about what you know and don’t know is essential, and it can include warnings that the direction could change as new information comes to light.  

Action Step: Share information frequently. Consider brief meetings with your team multiple times per week. This allows all to touch base, ask questions, and share new information. Don’t make them any longer than they need to be and make sure you ask “how” people are doing, not just “what” they are doing. 

Demonstrate Empathy 

The combination of direct honesty noted above must be combined with deep caring. When you do meet with others, make note of their behavior and level of interaction. If they don’t seem like themselves, check-in to see if they’re ok. Without the social contact we usually have, we rely more than ever on our work colleagues for compassion and the sharing of our human experiences. Taking a bit of time to do this helps to increase trust and the sense of being “in it” together. Also, be aware that people may be juggling multiple, additional responsibilities (such as helping kids with schoolwork) while doing their job. As much as possible and if the role allows, consider flexibility in schedules so that people can work when they are most able to focus.  

Action Step: Reflect and support. Take time to think about how individuals who report to you are being impacted by this situation. When people share good news, join in that celebration. Consider what they might be struggling within their individual situation and how you can empathize and offer support or resources. Make sure people are aware of the MSU Employee Assistance Program services available to them. For resources related to flex schedules, childcare, elder care, and more, check out the WorkLife Office. 

Keep an Inclusive Eye to Innovation 

Engage your team in a fresh look at the work before you. What has changed? What has continued? What could benefit from being done differently? You may find that some of your employees have untapped skills that are now very useful or inventive ideas that might successfully move forward in this environment. Create a safe space for people to bounce around ideas and take some ownership in reinvention. Make sure you are listening to ideas from all team members, not just those who think like you. Diversity of thought and experience is what drives innovation. Empower your team to work together to solve new challenges, rather than having them passively waiting to be told what to do. 

Action Step: Set the expectation that all team members stay up on best practices and future trends for their area of work. Set regular meetings (monthly or bimonthly) to share and brainstorm ways to integrate what they are learning. 

Manage Performance and Support Development 

The pandemic has resulted in many changes in how we approach and bring forward our work. Are you and your team prepared to meet the demand? Have you reviewed processes and expectations given the shifting environment, and made the expectations clear to your team? Be aware that employees might need help in developing new skills to carry out the work effectively in the new world. It is not uncommon for people to feel awkward or embarrassed about this need. 

Action Steps:  

  • Consider what materials, equipment, and training employees might need to be effective in this environment. If working from home, talk to employees about their home set-up. Is there something they could get from the office to aid their effectiveness, such as a desk chair or a second screen?  
  • If they are now coming into work, how are things going from a safety and process perspective? Frequently assess the situation. Make a plan to address any unexpected barriers and follow through. Be prepared to address non-compliance with the MSU Community Compact
  • Normalize the learning curve that exists and explore training programs and/or assistance from a colleague that might be helpful. Check out programs available from Organization & Professional Development, AANIT Services, Broad Executive Development Programs and elevateU

Difficult times can often provide opportunities to draw people together around the mission and culture of the organization. Spartans have long been hard-working, problem solvers and there are countless examples of how our teams have risen to the occasion despite shifting ground and tight resources. When leaders exhibit honest, compassionate communication, flexible support, inclusive problem solving, and the ability to respond to changing needs, people are likely to be engaged, even during tough times. 


Kerrissey, M. J., Edmondson, A. C., (April 13, 2020) What Good Leadership Looks Like During this Pandemic. Retrieved September 3, 2020, from 

Quantum Workplace (2020) The Impact of Covid 19 on Employee engagement. Retrieved September 3, 2020, from 

Culture Building: It’s On All of Us

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development

The topic of workplace culture often comes up when people are unhappy, or significant problems have occurred. Leaders get blamed, and we wish for the proverbial magic wand that will transform a troubled culture into a good one. There is no doubt that leaders have a vital role in setting the tone, practices, and behaviors that shape a culture. According to a 2019 research from the Society of Human Resource Management, “58 percent of employees who quit a job due to workplace culture say that their managers are the main reason they ultimately left. And the cost of this turnover? $223 billion in the past five years” (Mirza, 2019). Leaders can be underequipped to step into that responsibility in a meaningful, conscious way, and as a result, may also look up and down the chain for someone to blame. When no one takes responsibility for the culture, the accepted norms of behavior in an organization contribute to its deterioration. When all take responsibility and work in concert with informed leaders, transformation is within reach.

What can we do to help ensure MSU develops and maintains a culture that lives up to the University’s ideals and best serves its mission? The NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) points to three key variables that make all the difference:

  1. Priorities. Leaders may have different priorities for their area of oversight, but what are the priorities for our institution at large, and how do the two intersect? We can start by looking at our mission statement, identified values, and strategic plan (all of which are currently being evaluated). These foundational priorities are particularly important in times of significant change when we need to be flexible and adaptive to a situation that seems to shift by the minute. It is also essential to act rather than waiting to see what priorities are determined by others. Take advantage of opportunities to have influence where you can. For example:
  • Use this link to let the Strategic Planning Steering Committee know what you think is important as MSU moves forward.
  • Let the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Steering Committee know what your priorities are by clicking here.
  • Provide input to the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Committee here.
  1. Habits. Our ideals and beliefs are important, but actual behaviors are what change a culture. We must ask ourselves, what habits do we need to embody to reinforce our stated values and priorities? For example, if we say that having a safe, inclusive workplace is a priority, what actions do we consistently take to make that happen? Habits related to this topic might include:
  • Speaking up to remind someone to follow safety guidelines and/or thanking someone who reminds you to do so
  • Directly addressing the use of stereotypes and derogatory language
  • Inviting those who are being ignored to share their perspective
  • Seeking out diverse opinions to broaden one’s own perspective
  • Saying “thank you” and honestly considering the constructive feedback someone provides you
  • Expressing empathy to those who share a painful experience
  • Demonstrating civil, respectful behavior to all, regardless of level, title, or perspective

In some cases, moving something from being an idea or belief to an actionable habit takes practice and skill-building. In fact, the habit of being a continual learner can magnify the other habits you identify as priorities. Training and other learning activities can support the creation of new practices. NLI has found that “scaling learning by giving people managers small bites of compelling content to share with their teams a few minutes a week” has resulted in significant behavior change (Rock, 2019). To try this approach, check out Team Talks in elevateU, which provides a discussion guide (under the “custom tab”) and video for key topic areas.

  1. Systems. Systems are basically how the work of the organization gets done. They can be formal, like policies or defined processes, or informal, “it’s just ‘how we do things around here’”. If systems don’t change with the desired culture, they will become barriers to creating the habits that further our priorities. For example:
  • If we say that having a diverse workforce is a priority yet continue with the same recruiting and hiring practices we’ve used in the past, nothing is likely to change.
  • If we say that we want a culture in which speaking up about problematic situations is the norm, but we don’t hold offenders at all levels accountable, or reporters are retaliated against, people will not speak up.
  • If we say strong leadership is the key to a healthy culture, but we don’t have a systemic method to set and measure expectations or strategically develop our leaders, we are leaving it to chance.

We need to analyze our systems to see if they reinforce our stated values and make changes as required (Weller, 2019).

Perhaps a good starting point is striving to understand the current culture. While not necessarily easy, given how decentralized MSU is with a variety of subcultures, we do have information that provides direction, such as the 2019 KnowMore@MSU Campus Climate Survey results. We can also be thoughtful about our own experiences and observations. The article, 5 Simple Ways to Assess Company Culture suggests reflecting on the following questions:

  • What didn’t go so well last year?
  • Were there any cringe-worthy moments?
  • What is the one thing your organization was worst at last year?
  • What did we learn from our mistakes?
  • What lessons can our organization leverage?
  • What could our organization do differently over the next 12 months?
  • What break-through moments did we experience last year?
  • What is holding our organization back?
  • What can each of us do to be more helpful to the team?

The mission, values, and priorities established organization-wide must be informed by and reflected throughout the organization’s breadth (Thiefels, 2018). Individual leaders at all levels then have a responsibility to connect those dots and make it real for all in the important work they do and interactions they have. All of us, regardless of role, have a responsibility to each other and to making the organization the best it can be. Together We Will.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” -Barack Obama


Murza, B. (2019, September 25). Toxic Workplace Cultures Hurt Workers and Company Profits. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from

Rock, D. (2019, May 24). The Fastest Way To Change A Culture. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from

Thiefels, J. (2018, April 24). 5 Simple Ways to Assess Company Culture. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from

Weller, C. (2019, June 20). The 3 Key Components of Behavior Change. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from

Mentoring in the Workplace

This is a guest post written by Sr. HR Professional, Kathie Elliott. 

Have you thought about participating in mentorship to learn new skills and expand your career network? In mentorship, both mentors and mentees benefit by developing rich and unique networks, and by being able to see tasks, skills and issues from different points of view. 

There are many mentoring structures to choose from, depending on the goals of the mentors and mentees. Below are a few examples.

  1. Traditional – a senior employee teaches a junior employee the skills necessary to succeed in their company. 
  2. Reverse – a less senior or different classification employee mentors “up.”  This is an emerging trend in mentoring, particularly for teaching other employees new technologies, how to use social media, and emerging trends in their field.
  3. Mutual – parties with differences in experience and/or position level are both free to ask questions and learn new skills from each other.
  4. Peer-to-Peer – employees of comparable experience and position assist one another, each bringing their individual strengths and knowledge to the relationship.
  5. Board of Directors – acknowledges that people have different strengths and experiences and learning from multiple individuals may be more helpful than relying on a single source. The mentee selects several “board members” based on the mentors’ strengths.
  6. Informal – an organically developed mentoring relationship.  Any of the above structures may be informal or formal.

Is there an aspect of your career where you would benefit from working with a mentor; or from sharing your knowledge as a mentor? Consider which mentoring structure would best meet your goals and watch for our November article about considerations for selecting a mentor or mentee. 

Find Mentorship Resources on elevateU

Visit elevateU to find free resources on mentorship, including videos, books, courses and more. Access elevateU here or log into EBS and look for the “elevateU” tile under the “My Career & Training” tab. The easiest way to find resources on mentorship is to type “mentor” in the search bar at the top of the page. Learn more about elevateU on the HR website.