It’s the environment isn’t it?

There has a been a recent flurry of interest in workspace design ( Google, Apple and Facebook are often cited for their creative office spaces, designed to enable or even enhance the creative thinking of their design

However it is not clear if a creative office space stimulates creative thinking, or whether it is the elimination of bad office design that appears to free up the minds of workers (i.e. workers may have been creative already, but just get it sucked out of them by a poor environment). After all did the innovative and creative workers of the past have wacky working environments (maybe they were  not really as creative!)?

It could be that the managers of these organisations might just be fiddling with ‘hygiene factors’, the things that Herzberg identified in the 1960s as having no positive impact on motivation, but are merely the basics that need to be sorted out (along with pay, management style, working relationships etc). Over the long term there is a risk, unless the managers at these organisations are doing something else, that their workforce may not be motivated to make a real difference to the performance of the business – will they still have leading products and services of the future or will better alternatives emerge from their competitors?

Over the past few decades it has become clear that whilst many ‘enlightened’ managers have dutifully followed the good manager mantras: developed themselves as leaders, worked on motivating staff, built trust and rapport, coached and developed, and engaged in team-building, the things that really matter is a common sense of purpose,  how work is designed and what power people have over decisions and quality of the work that they do. This sounds fine in theory, perhaps, but in reality job design often sits in the lap of central departments (like HR), rather than the worker or the team, so the power even to design jobs is not at the point of knowledge – the people doing the work. The result is that managers can only be left to fiddle around the edges with team-building and cheer-leading. Or perhaps some just repaint the office.

An effective manager will learn how to understand and design work and how to engage people to ensure improved performance. An effective team will seek a clear purpose, investigate how their performance affects users, will challenge thinking, ask questions and engage in  improvement.


Herzberg, F. (1968) “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, Harvard Business Review, vol. 46, iss. 1, pp. 53–62

BBC (2013) 10 bizarre objects found in ‘cool’ offices. BBC News Magazine.

Wakefield, J. (2008) Google your way to a wacky office. BBC News website.

What makes us ‘professional’ university administrators?

Professionalism is something you see, hear and experience and is comprised of a set of behaviours.  A professional always aims to give the best they can.

As university administrators, we seek to maintain high professional standards.  We could do an “acceptable” job – but we always try to do an “exceptional” job.

But have we ever stopped to consider what makes us professional?  We asked this question to our colleagues in the Professional Administration Centre in the School of Engineering and Digital Arts and came up with several ideas as follows:  Our approach to service – we put our customers and users first (students & academic colleagues).  We are qualified (graduates or with graduate level professional qualifications).  We have numerous competences and skills and are good at what we do.  We strive for greater performance and for continued professional development and we belong to the professional organisation for University administrators (AUA), who provide us with a toolkit and resources to help improve our professional behaviours and deal with the ever changing complexities of Higher Education.

Students use our services, as administration staff,  as their first port of call. The blurring of lines between professional services staff and teaching staff has meant that in recent years, we have taken on more of the traditional duties of the “academic” and there is a constant need for us to provide a greater level of service outside of traditional teaching and research functions.

Twenty first  century university  administration staff sees administrators adding enormous value to, and impact on, the whole student experience, to the extent that front-line teaching, research,  enterprise and all external and commercial activities are greatly enhanced by the kind of day to day roles that we  provide.  We respond to customers’ needs, pursue complex tasks, deliver innovative solutions, drive the student experience, facilitate learning and development, effect outcomes and respond to change.  As professional university administrators, we provide high quality professional services, we have developed an appreciation of academic culture, are sensitive to the needs of a variety of diverse clients, accept responsibility for our actions and share expertise and good practice.  As such, the crucial role we play is integral to the strategic success of the University of Kent

In the light of the University of Kent’s 50th anniversary, it seems like a timely opportunity to showcase how the administrative function has changed in the last 50 years.  We should be celebrating the professional value we bring to the organisation and indeed, our own professional identity.

Just an administrator?

If you work as an administrator (particularly Grade 7 and below), within university administration, how do you define yourself, when asked by others “What do you do for a living?”

To a large extent, we define ourselves by our job, and so how would you answer the question just posed?  Many of us have a standard answer to the effect of “I work at the University of Kent”, but more often than not, this is usually met with the reply “Oh, are you an academic?” to which we meekly reply “No, I’m just an administrator”.

Sometimes, (deliberately or not), the emphasis of our intonation falls on the word “just” almost as if we are apologising for our profession and slightly embarrassed by it.

Labels at work are important.  Take for example, the term “non-academic”.  Should we be defined by what we are not?  The term, “the admin team” can sometimes convey a sense of dumbing down and even the term “support staff” has an upstairs/downstairs flavour about it.  Anyway, are we not all partners in this together, and don’t we all support students in the customer focussed environment in which we work nowadays?

Shouldn’t we be proud of being a university administrator? After all, the Nolan Committee  referenced in the University of Kent’s Annual Review 2013 defines that university administrators/managers should aspire to the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.  These are qualities that we uphold everyday in our working lives and are all elements of being a true professional and of displaying professionalism.

What do we contribute that is so important as university administrators and why do we think it’s essential to be viewed as professionals? Well, a key function of our roles is to serve the public interest and to properly manage public funds.  We serve the needs of a variety of stakeholders including:  students, their parents, students’ eventual employers, our colleagues who also work in Higher Education, commercial clients and suppliers, and the government.  This is a broad remit of responsibility and certainly not something to be ashamed of.  Students see administration staff as their first port of call and we often “fill in the gaps”, supporting the students when academics are unavailable and being asked the questions that students are often afraid to ask academics.  You could say we do the “glue” work that goes on behind the scenes – and that it is done best when not noticed.

However, not being noticed can sometimes lead to anonymity,  invisibility and a feeling of being undervalued (remember how we introduce ourselves to others!)  But by playing down our function, we are in fact contributing to old stereotypes and falling foul to professional snobbery.  In fact, this message can apply to all positions across the university. We all have a very important and relevant role to play and to actively celebrate and promote our unique contributions can only be a good thing

Time for lift off: Change Academy Networks

The original University of Kent Change Academy project focused on the Faculty of Social Sciences and involved a cross-functional Academic & Professional Services team. The team developed informal networks and influenced existing approaches to work through the Faculty Learning & Teaching Forum, Student Reps meetings and other initiatives.

Butterfly etakes flight 3

The project became a change ‘test-bed’, with the aim to:

  1. Transform the attitudes and values of all staff towards a student-focus;
  2. Transform organisational culture so that the academic community embraces student learning as well as research;
  3. Ensure effective use of resources through a collaborative approach to the delivery of a quality student experience.

Associated with this efforts, the University developed new approaches to Leadership, Mentoring  and Development. The project became a testbed for developing organisational change. We now have 100 articles and commentaries on this site which we encourage you to explore. The re-branded ‘Change Academy Networks‘ aims to open an informal dialogue between colleagues and with external contacts to stimulate ideas and developments across several themes (e.g. Leadership, Change Principles, Excellence, Communication, Learning & Teaching, Research) which address the major issues of current interest within the HE sector. We hope that you benefit from the insights and experiences we share over the coming months and years.

Read more:

About Us: Change Academy.