Building a Learning Community for Faculty and Staff Engagement
A September 6, 2023, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof highlighted our global loneliness crisis. Kristof states, “Loneliness crushes the soul, but researchers are finding it does far more damage than that. It is linked to strokes, heart disease, dementia, inflammation and suicide; it breaks the heart literally as well as figuratively.” Kristof discusses the impact of loneliness across nations, organizations, and families. Drawing upon the solutions put forward by surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, Kristof highlights the critical importance of social connection and the cultivation of community. As we describe in this article, a learning community can be an effective means of heightening engagement and sense of belonging in the workplace.
Evolution of a faculty and staff learning community
Rutgers University Libraries span four chancellor-led units—including Camden, New Brunswick, Newark, and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Science—across three campuses. Of the nearly 200 faculty and staff who work across Rutgers Libraries, approximately 75 total faculty and staff work directly in New Brunswick Libraries (NBL).
The NBL 2020–2023 Strategic Plan was published in the summer of 2019 following a year of community feedback, outreach, and synthesis. To implement the plan, NBL leadership recognized that a more organized and intentional approach to personnel learning and growth would be needed. In support of this initiative and in collaboration with partners across NBL and the broader institution, the associate university librarian (AUL) for NBL announced the launch of a learning community during a fall 2019 meeting of all NBL faculty and staff. The AUL formed a seven-member advisory group to oversee and guide the work of the learning community, with a focus on enhancing faculty and staff engagement across the organization.
As the learning community launched, the libraries entered a challenging period as a result of ongoing organizational change and the widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the pandemic caused a complete realignment of work as well as a significant reduction in the workforce. The uncertain climate damaged morale and frayed an increasingly fragile workplace culture. The learning community, with its focus on personnel growth and workplace engagement, was uniquely poised to help staff and faculty adapt to fully remote and then hybrid work. The learning community became an internal mechanism to provide practical training on videoconferencing tools as well as learning opportunities to address such topics as supporting our remote students and self-care. A virtual learning day was offered in spring 2021 to build upon the initial interest in the work of the community. Learning streams associated with the community have continued to evolve as the organization and professional needs of faculty and staff evolved. Current learning streams associated with the learning community include a focus on wellness and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
Findings and implications for academic professional development
Building a sense of belonging in disruptive times is critical for leaders at all levels. A small study group formed to research the impact of the learning community on the perceptions of belonging, engagement, and morale.
A Qualtrics survey to assess the impact of the community was distributed to all NBL faculty and staff. Focus groups were conducted with interested members of the community. The survey received 27 responses, including approximately 20 percent of the NBL staff, 85 percent of the tenured or tenure-track faculty, and all the non-tenure-track faculty. The overall response rate was 42 percent. The focus groups, conducted in January 2023, consisted of five staff members in the first group and one staff member, one non-tenure-track faculty member, and two tenured librarians in the second group.
The results of the survey highlight a number of interesting findings for those seeking to engage in academic professional development.
- Overall, respondents indicated the primary value of the community in fostering personal development and building a sense of community across the organization. Roughly 48 percent of the respondents found the community to be very useful or extremely useful for personal development, compared to 37 percent who indicated its value for professional development. Respondents indicated a desire for greater connections and “scaffolding” across the professional development series.
- Approximately half of the respondents indicated that the learning community was very or extremely constructive in building a strong sense of community throughout NBL. Thirty-seven percent of respondents felt was very or extremely useful in improving morale, and 30 percent found it very or extremely useful in motivating workplace engagement.
- The results of the survey underscore some of the stresses and challenges faced by employees during this period, particularly during the pandemic lockdown and the first months after returning to campus. When asked to describe barriers to participating in the learning community, approximately 60 percent of those who responded referred to a lack of time. In response to an open-ended question, others highlighted the “crisis” facing the organization and a general sense of being overwhelmed.
The two focus groups provided somewhat different yet equally valuable perspectives on the perceived value of the learning community. The groups met as librarians and staff were adjusting to the return to in-person work, addressing the challenges of the “new normal” following the pandemic lockdown. The conversations presented an opportunity to more closely examine the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the program and to provide the advisory group with advice regarding future directions of the community. In the survey, some of the comments criticized those events that did not promote professional development. In both focus groups, there was a greater emphasis on individual development and how the learning community fosters personal connections between colleagues. Significantly, participants stressed that personal development and community building ultimately promote professional development and effective service to our patrons. For example, simply by participating in events offered online and in person, one has an opportunity to meet colleagues from across the organization, learn what they do, and better understand “who I can ask for help from on different things.” Additionally, the focus groups revealed the value of the community in helping to address some concerns about staff morale. One participant noted that it serves as “a bridge for staff who are often voiceless,” while another in the other group expressed gratitude that “we are heard.” Finally, the focus groups provided concrete suggestions for improving learning community events. These included, for example, soliciting ideas from librarians and staff on a regular basis and the need to “formalize, normalize” expectations regarding staff participation.
The survey and focus groups, together with a review of the literature conducted during the study, offer valuable data for future internal planning and may also be instructive for those seeking to develop similar initiatives at their institutions. The NBL learning community was first formed to provide a framework of learning and growth for personnel to successfully implement the goals of the strategic plan. The advisory group quickly understood that a strong sense of community and belonging, together with engagement, was fundamental to organizational and community growth. One question guided the effort: How can leaders understand the strengths of their own organizations and advance engagement and learning? Tools such as the CliftonStrengths assessment were used to help identify areas of individual and team strengths and to explore potential opportunities for increased partnership and collaboration. The use of group learning events, together with individual learning paths, provided opportunities for both skill development and the cultivation of community and understanding. An organization relies on trust to thrive, and trust is often the result of deep listening, mutual respect, and the ongoing support of individuals and teams throughout an organization. The hope is that future efforts put forward by the learning community advisory group will continue to build trust throughout the organization by focusing on the personal and professional development of members. In turn, by building trust and helping to develop members of the organization, such an effort can improve workplace engagement and satisfaction.
As colleges and universities across the country continue to wrestle with issues of community, engagement, and morale in a post-pandemic workplace, the learning community model may be one of interest for academic leaders. As indicated by the findings from this exploratory research study, learning communities have the potential to strengthen connections and promote interactions across a siloed workplace, create meaningful opportunities for learning acquisition and application that can benefit both the individual and the organization, and ultimately build deeper trust among members of the community.
Tom Glynn, MLIS, PhD, is the British and American history and the political science librarian for the Rutgers University–New Brunswick Libraries. His research focuses on print, reading, and public libraries in the 19th century.
Dee Magnoni, MLS, is associate university librarian, Rutgers University–New Brunswick, with 30+ years in academic and STEM librarianship. She has broad experience in strategic planning, research support, public services, and partnership development.
Sue Oldenburg, BA, is a GIS and senior research specialist for the Rutgers University–New Brunswick Libraries and the Office of Advanced Research Computing. She is a current member of the NBL Learning Community Advisory Group and was chair from September 2021 to June 2023.
Ralph A. Gigliotti, PhD, is assistant vice president for organizational leadership in the Office of the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at Rutgers University. In this role, he directs the Rutgers Office for Organizational Leadership and provides executive leadership for a portfolio of signature leadership programs, consultation services, and research initiatives.