When you spend a lot of time telling students and postdocs that it’s important to find work and workplaces that align with your values and are healthy, you’re met with a lot of skepticism that such places even exist. Since UCSF is a health sciences campus, filled with labs, we designated our office as the lab to see if we could intentionally build a high functioning work environment, where we define ‘high functioning’ as both healthy and productive.

Over the years, we’ve tested out several organizational and change management best practices. We’ve considered ideas from  Jim Collins Good to Great and Tony Schwartz’s The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, to pretty much every article in Harvard’s Business Review, and my personal favorite,  Gallup’s Employee Engagement research on the State of the American workplace.

We’ve tested strategies from the articulating a vision and mission for OCPD,  developed a five year strategic plan, identified the benefits of  retreats, and tailored team building activities, reflected on office vs personal designed a telecommuting process, clarified our roles and goals, offered leadership opportunities, considered how we use performance evaluations, identified the purpose and value of meetings and assessed our differing work styles using the MBTI. In the future, we’ll do more – talking about how we would like to hear corrective feedback from each other or have ‘difficult news’ told to us, and examine our preferences for the language of appreciation in the workplace.

This isn’t about spending valuable time navel-gazing about people ‘feelings’, rather than doing our work. We’re doing something that smart managers have done since time immemorial; we’re trying to find ways to increase our productivity. But it’s based on the principle that if you take care of the people, they will take care of work.  It’s about recognizing that there are more and less optimal environments where staff feel ‘work ready’ (motivated, etc.), and therefore productive.

For example, let’s say I identify a need to a staff person (e.g. postdocs need help managing the Q&A skillfully after their presentation) and they say our best strategy is to design a new workshop. To get it done, they say they need some uninterrupted time. Who am I to deny them a weekly work at home day to achieve my (and ultimately their) goal? And if they take a break to do some laundry or go for a walk (engage in self-care) while creating that workshop, how am I anything but thrilled that they are taking care of both themselves and achieving the goal.

An exempt employee’s work is never done; the university will ‘get back’ that ‘lost’ hour next week when the staff person stays late to offer the workshop, or when they stay late to counsel a postdoc, or end their break a little early to help a colleague set up a workshop. With motivated employees, it’s never a question of them working 40 hours a week on average; it’s about giving them the flexibility to shape those hours in a way that is truly sustainable and livable for them.

The principles shaping our approach are based on Gallup’s research, which showed that job satisfaction comes from a feeling of “engagement”, which includes things like staff having clarity around goals, a level of trust that leads to autonomy and flexibility, recognition of progress and achievement, the feeling as if they are part of something greater than themselves, and the joy that comes from working with good colleagues. We’ll pretty much try to implement anything that suggests that it fosters an environment that results in staff having this experience.

That’s why we have an ongoing “It’s healthy; let’s try it” initiative in the OCPD.  It’s amazing that I have leadership willing to allow this approach and a team game to try it. It’s not all peaches and roses;  it’s not just about figuring out how to initiate these efforts but the work that goes into using Jim Collins’ ‘flywheel approach‘, of repeatedly investing in those efforts that work and discarding the rest. We’ve made mistakes, had to backtrack, and been unable to achieve goals. Also, there’s handling the skepticism. I once had a conversation with someone I respect who asked,”sure, people are happier, but are they more productive?”

Well, in addition to scoring highly on the university’s Gallup employee engagement assessment each year, the first year we implemented these efforts, the number of programs we offered or co-sponsored jumped from 114 to 229, and it’s remained around that number since. Yes, I can get people to be productive – actually, if you hire the right people, they will be productive on their own –  but if I can foster an environment that makes them happier and more engaged, which makes them even more productive, why wouldn’t I do that? As a supervisor, what else would I bee spending my time doing?

But in the end, it’s about a core question: who are we in the OCPD to encourage any student or postdoc to seek and create healthier work environments, unless we’re willing to do the work ourselves? Academe and the health sciences are not the healthiest of cultures; though they are often exceptionally productive. But it comes down to an office value for us: what you achieve (your goals) is as important as how you achieve it (is your process one of transparency, integrity, consideration for others, etc?). Over the years I’ve found we – myself included – are all at times unconsciously more interested in what we think they will gain from working in a healthy environment than we are aware of what we have to do, and learn and change and grow, to contribute to the fostering of such a work environment. But it’s worth it.

When clients I counsel ask, “are there healthy work environments out there?” I can at least say that I know at least one, and over the years, our efforts have encouraged Ph.D. and professional students and postdocs to find and/or foster their own healthy labs and workplaces.  It’s a pretty satisfying way to spend a work life; and I highly encourage everyone to try it.