Exploring the role of social interaction in higher education employee engagement
Barlow, Justin Robert
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Using Hobfoll’s (1989) Conservation of Resources Theory, this phenomenological study examined the lived experience and outcomes of employees spending time in other offices within a division of student affairs and enrollment management. While a great deal of literature focuses on interventions to increase engagement in business, little attention has been paid to higher education, and in particular, non-academic employee engagement. Within this study, twelve employees completed a conversational learning experience by spending four-hours in an office other than their own. Then, utilizing the results from Soane et al.’s (2012) Intellectual, Social, and Affective (ISA) Engagement Scale before the experience and after the experience, as well as graphic elicitation, a semi-structured interview was completed. This study provided evidence that when employees spend time with employees outside their immediate work environment they are likely to experience increased employee engagement and a willingness to collaborate across departmental lines. Three themes emerged when analyzing the data that answer this research question: What are the lived experiences and outcomes of non-academic staff members completing a conversational learning experience? These three themes were departmental comparison, career exploration, and the impact of others. Employees who compared their department with other departments couched their comments within the context of student success. Participants both celebrated and judged their fellow employees based on the department’s efforts to support students. Overall, participants felt their understanding of the depth and breadth of divisional programming was expanded, and they also noted that they felt less alone. Nine of the twelve participants took part in the study with the hopes of possibly working in that field one day. Finally, all twelve participants mentioned the impact of others during their interview. Employees most noted the impact that faculty and senior administrators had on their own work. As future interventions, this study suggests that managers develop opportunities for employees to explore facets outside their daily lives. This includes designing work processes that allow for employees to work directly with students rather than operating within a shared-services model. In addition, managers are encouraged to take intentional action towards increasing interaction between entry-level employees and senior-level leaders.