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Are We Losing Staff Community in Schools and What Can We Do About it?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 21st April 2024

Over the past four years I have worked with hundreds of leaders and thousands of teaching and support staff helping them to maximise workplace wellbeing and culture in their schools. I have partnered with some of the wealthiest schools in the world across four continents and also worked with many schools serving disadvantaged communities. Regardless of a school’s context, when I conduct surveys and focus groups, the same main theme emerges - staff want closer connections with colleagues and leadership. While many have positive relationships with their team and feel a strong sense of belonging, recognition and appreciation and psychological safety with their closest colleagues, they feel that the wider school lacks community and that there is a disconnect between staff and leadership. Does this matter?

Well yes it does, because this lack of community and connection is undermining trust, a key factor in the success of any organisation. Research shows that in high-trust environments employees have double the amount of energy and 50% higher productivity. High-trust organisations also have 40% less employee burnout. With increasing numbers of staff taking long-term mental health leave, the connection between trust and burnout is something schools cannot afford to ignore.

So why does lack of community and connection impact how school employees trust each other? Workplace trust is an emotional state reflecting our willingness to be vulnerable, based on confidence that our colleagues and leaders are benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open. When trust is low, we go into stress response, which prevents us from performing at our best and impacts our physical and mental wellbeing. Time spent with colleagues and leaders strengthens social bonds and helps build trust but when we have no time to be physically together, we default to mistrust, which can be highly damaging to the workplace culture and to the effectiveness of the school.

So why don’t school employees have more time together to connect and build trusting relationships? When I work with staff communities in schools, they often describe how things used to be better. How there used to be more time provided in staff meetings and on professional development days for colleagues to connect. How busy the staffroom used to be at break times. How the school used to organise events at the start or end of term for the whole staff community. Many feel that in recent years these opportunities to build community have eroded as the pressures on time and budget have increased. Many describe going for weeks without talking to anyone beyond their own corridor. They describe passing colleagues in the hallways who are completely unknown to them. They also describe how every minute of the working day is accounted for and how little flexibility there is to provide opportunities for real connection with each other. They express a strong desire for that connection to return. This should not be a surprise as research shows that workplace connection increases not only job satisfaction but life satisfaction.

Staff also tell me that they want a closer connection to leadership, wishing to know them and be known by them. They describe how they rarely see their leaders, have little opportunity to get to know them on a human level and are suspicious of their intentions. When leaders make tough decisions, it is much easier for employees to presume good intent when they know their leaders and trust them. When there is a disconnect, however, staff presume that leaders do not have their best interests at heart. This affects employee motivation and can negatively impact their engagement.

I have witnessed how the slow erosion of collegial time in recent years is having a devastating impact on the quality of the workplace culture in our schools. This needs to be addressed, but what can schools do? The truth is that there is no replacement for face time. When we spend time interacting physically with others, endorphins and oxytocin are released, increasing empathy and understanding, reducing stress, and strengthening social bonds. Staff and leaders need more time to meet in a relaxed environment, to get to know each other, to share their experiences and perspectives and to collaborate around professional practice.

So, what does this look like? When trying to build staff community, it is common for leaders to think that they know what staff want and to take control of the process. This is a mistake as successfully building connection involves mobilising the whole community in an approach where everyone feels included. Drawing ideas from the whole staff creates a sense of ownership and provides an opportunity to consider multiple perspectives. It also replaces scepticism with goodwill. Short community building workshops are an effective way to facilitate effective collaboration and begin to rebuild connection. In these sessions, staff are asked to consider three things – What is the school already doing that works and should be retained or built upon? What is not working and needs to be let go? What else could the school be doing? From this the school can begin to create a calendar of large and small-scale events and opportunities for people to interact both professionally and personally.

It is important to remember that deepening collegial connection is not only about organising community events, but is also about providing agency for staff around the use of professional development days, whole staff meetings and team meeting time. Allowing some flexibility in the schedule for employee input creates valuable opportunities for connection, empowers staff and enhances trust between staff and leadership.

The final area to address is increasing leadership visibility. As a school principal, I was very aware of how much teachers wanted me to be in their classrooms to witness the great learning and share their daily experience. Time was rarely on my side and too many days were spent office bound, but I do recall how the years when I regularly had boots on the ground were by far my most enjoyable. They were also my easiest from a people leadership perspective. The bond created with staff worked a magic that was impossible to replicate without face-to-face interaction. A rapport developed that manifested itself in genuine friendliness, caring and compassion. When times were tough, I felt there were 100 people supporting me and when unpopular decisions were made, I was often given the benefit of the doubt. The precious time I spent with staff created a connection that allowed them to trust me and feel that I trusted them.

I acknowledge that it is challenging for most schools to find time for human connection, but too many view it as time wasted or a luxury that they cannot afford. The truth is that well designed shared experiences are an investment in the workplace culture, which will ultimately improve school effectiveness and student outcomes. This valuable time is never wasted.