The Staff Workshop: Striving for Success

Several clients requested my assistance in assessing the need for a staff workshop that would not address the day-to-day activities of the organization. In each case either the director or the supervisor felt the need for the opportunity to address issues that were outside their normal work purview.

Often the staff of nonprofit organizations feels competing pressures when needing to respond to requests for services and having to implement programs. At times the impact on the staff can be overwhelming. In light of this, the initial enthusiasm a social worker, community worker or teacher has for their job soon becomes lost in the pushes and pulls of a regular work day. When this happens one of the ways of counterbalancing this is to provide an opportunity for the staff to remove themselves from their everyday schedule and take a break to explore the reasons behind their feelings and the lessening of their enthusiasm for work. Providing an opportunity for the staff to get out of the office and to break from their regular schedule can not only be a welcome relief but it can also stimulate them to think in creative ways. This is especially true when they are not watching the clock and trying to complete their tasks for the day.

Once the chief executive officer (CEO) or the supervisor accepts the idea of a staff workshop then the next step is to involve the staff in planning the program. Planning the agenda for the workshop can be a balancing act between meeting the priorities of both the supervisor and the staff. The investment of staff is a crucial element in the success of the day. It does not mean that all of their ideas will be incorporated into the program, but it does mean that their views need to be heard and the program should reflect their thinking. If there is not a willingness to be open to staff input then it is quite possible that the workshop will not succeed in its mission to strengthen the team spirit among the workers.

The person responsible for day’s program should be aware that its success depends upon the planning process. The “how and who” of the planning process often set a tone for the entire experience. When people are truly involved in this phase then they will be committed to its success. The way to ensure the staff’s investment is by delegating responsibility to the staff for the various elements of the program.

It is not sufficient just to ask staff member to be on the planning committee; they must fulfill a real role in the decision-making process. The supervisor must clearly articulate to what extent their planning will be accepted. It is demoralizing and frustrating to solicit staff members’ input and then not use their ideas or suggestions.

Once the purpose, focus and goals of the staff workshop are clearly defined then decisions have to be made about the amount of time allotted for the workshop. The planning committee has to know whether it is a few hours, a day or multiple days. The program has to be appropriate for the amount of time that is planned.

The amount of time dedicated to the program has to reflect the seriousness and depth of the issues that are going to be discussed. A full day should not be reserved when the issues can be successfully resolved within a few hours. It is essential that the staff feel a sense of accomplishment when the day is finished and not a sense of frustration that they did not have the opportunity to deal with the most important issues on the agenda for the day. Sometimes “less is more” and so it is better to be more modest as to what can be completed during the day rather than the staff leaving with a strong sense of incompletion.

Once the framework for the day is clear then the next step is to include the staff in the implementation of the planned workshop. Staff should be invited to participate in either facilitating the discussions or making presentations on specific subjects during the actual workshop. The decision about including staff members and the most appropriate place for them to participate should involve the supervisor, as well as the staff members themselves.

The staff members’ participation in the various aspects of the planning and implementation empowers them. The process acknowledges their knowledge and skills, and strengthens their standing among their fellow staff members in the organization simultaneously. The value the staff has to offer is seen through the wide range of people who come to encourage others to participate and share their knowledge and experience. Collegial learning and teaching can increase the investment the staff makes in the nonprofit and in the improvement of the services that are offered to the community.

Whether an outside consultant is engaged to facilitate the meeting or whether the director or supervisor plays the role should be decided prior to the beginning of the planning process. Often a senior member of the staff who does not have direct responsibility for the staff that is participating in the seminar can be asked to play this role. Once the decision is made then the facilitator should work directly with the staff in planning the day.

When the day is facilitated by the CEO or a supervisor it presents an opportunity for the facilitator to be viewed as an educator, as well as an administrator. It can expand the staff understanding of who they are working with and the multiple skills the person has to offer those whom she supervises. Of course when an in-house person is the facilitator it is most important for the person to not exercise her authority when responding to the staff members’ comments and to demonstrate her ability to listen to the ideas and feelings expressed throughout the day.

Following the discussions that have focused on challenges that have been identified by both the CEO/supervisor and the staff, the workshop should end with what action will be taken moving forward. This does not necessarily mean that all the issues have been resolved, but it does mean there has been some commitment to deal with them either in future meetings or by extending the discussion to other people within the organization. It is important to clarify who will take responsibility for following-up the discussions, as well as when the person will report back to the group either in a coming meeting or in a memo.

Taking the staff out of their normal routine can have a very positive impact on the staff team in a number of ways. It sets the stage for bringing people together and allows them to share views on a variety of subjects concerning their work. The shared learning experience can strengthen the team feeling among the members of a work group. In this way, a foundation is built for developing approaches to responding to challenges faced by both individual staff members and the group as a whole. If done correctly, this exercise can have a lasting impact not only on the staff members’ performance but also on the way they relate to each other in their ongoing relationships.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.