How to Successfully Engage Your Technicians with the Audit Process: a Case Study from the University of York

By 22nd January 2020 Blog

Authors: Lucy Hudson BSc (HONS)  MRSB MIScT, Departmental Operations Manager for the Department of Biology, & Dr. Simon Breeden BSc (Hons) PhD CChem MRSC, Departmental Operations Manager for the Department of Chemistry at the University of York.

What Do We Mean By Engagement?

Engagement for us is two-way communication, effective internal co-operation, our technicians having a voice and one absolutely crucial element, trust. Without trust, people will not buy into your vision, commit to the cause, accept decisions or contribute to make change happen. Engagement is about culture. Get the culture right and the engagement will follow; it is about technicians knowing that their individual contribution is valued and respected. 

An example is the story about a cleaner and the president of the USA, uring a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”. “Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

When we set out on our journey, as a founding signatory of the Technician Commitment and NTDC Partner Affiliate, we knew the key to successful delivery of our action plan, including inviting technicians to participate in a skills survey, was to take our technicians along with us on the journey to achieving our vision of Developing Career Pathways for Technicians at York.

Routes to Greater Technician Engagement at York

Our first action was to identify our technicians to ensure we were communicating to all. Compiling a group email of 200+ technicians with more than 100 different job titles was not an easy task. We started with a list from our HR database but getting this right involved many conversations with colleagues 

around the institution until we were comfortable that we had iterated to a point we knew our audience.

Listening to the Technician Voice was central to this initiative and so we had departmental technical forums focusing on: visibility, role descriptors, recognition, career pathways and professional registration, to gain insight into the status quo on the ground. We also ensured there was technician representation on the project steering group.

Empowerment is crucial to giving a group of staff the confidence to engage with management and to further develop. To encourage this, and to show that there was strong mutual trust, we handed over the management of TechYork, our technicians network, to a group of volunteer technicians in 2017. TechYork has been active (run by technical managers) since 2006 as a trusted platform, hosting an annual conference for technicians at York. Our volunteers have been much more active, running events, conferences, branching out into organising cross-departmental training, and designing the TechYork webpages. TechYork manages our social media, regularly tweeting York events and retweeting national technician relevant events and articles. TechYork also runs a blog series where technicians write about their personal career journey.

To better understand the skills and abilities of our technicians and also to reflect to senior management just what technicians do, we decided to run the NTDC’s Technician Skills, Roles and Responsibilities Audit, which also fed into our Technician Commitment action plan. For the skills survey to be a success we needed the engagement of as many technicians as possible. We needed our technicians to understand the benefits, both individually and institutionally, of participating in the skills survey. They needed to understand what the driver for this piece of work was, and perhaps more importantly, what it was not.

We began this piece of work in late 2018 with the ambitious completion date of Easter 2019. In February 2019, we took a cold hard look at where we were with our engagement strategy and plan: our judgement at that time was that we were not quite where we needed to be. In some departments we felt confident there was good engagement. In others, less so. We therefore took the strategic decision to delay running the survey. To go live without technician engagement across the institution was unwise as it would ultimately lead to skewed and incomplete data, substantially devaluing the output of the survey and further disengaging technicians. We therefore had to redouble our efforts in widening engagement.

We went about raising the engagement of our technical colleagues across the institution in a number of ways:

Pre-Skills Survey

  • Roadshows where Technician Champions who had piloted the skills survey met with technical teams, both in their own departments and in other departments, to present the skills survey and answer any questions
  • We announced that there would be a raffle draw among those technicians who completed the survey – with Amazon vouchers on offer to those randomly selected
  • We hosted drop-in sessions where technicians could come along and ask questions about the survey
  • We set up an online FAQs page, uploading all questions and answers that had been raised at the roadshows and drop in sessions
  • We built trust by letting our technicians know where their information would be stored, who would have access and levels of anonymisation
  • A newsletter sent out to all technicians with an update on our Technician Commitment journey

All of this takes time and work. Establishing a team of volunteer technicians to be the voice of the survey was undoubtedly the best decision. Without their enthusiasm, positivity, and excellent communication skills, as well as the respect and trust those technicians had with fellow technicians across the institution, we would not have achieved that level of engagement. We were lucky to have such a superb team.

When the Skills Survey was live

  • Information about the skills survey was disseminated initially by our TechYork colleagues
  • The skills survey was advertised via the University-wide Staff Digest, Departmental Bulletins, TechYork Twitter, posters in departments and the TechYork website
  • Invitations to complete the skills survey were sent from the NTDC. In the two weeks pre invite, communications from the Dean of the Science Faculty, Heads of Departments and Technical Managers, were sent to our technicians to let them know what to expect, the FAQs and who they could speak to if they had concerns
  • Departments booked PC rooms for technicians to come along and complete their survey, with technician champions on hand to help with any questions, and of course, coffee and cakes or bacon butties if it was an early morning session

With frequent updates from the NTDC on completion rates, we could update departments on participation from research groups and individuals, who had either not started the survey, or had part-completed it. This was when the hard work came in, with technical managers taking the lead to engage in areas of lower completion, using various techniques:

  • Arranging one to one conversations
  • Sending our emails to technicians with the subject heading: “I don’t know what you do?” And the first line of the email “If I don’t know, how can I and the Technician Commitment Team educate and influence middle and senior management?”
  • Joining groups for coffee time chats in common rooms

Post-Skills Survey

  • Within one week of the skills survey closing we presented the percentage participation from each department and a couple of common trends at our annual TechYork event. This information was then circulated to all via email.

Our Skills Survey closed on the 28th June, the survey was sent to 215 technicians and we had an amazing 89% completion rate.

The take-home message from York is that there is unfortunately no one quick simple way to get engagement with the Audit process. Our experience is that electronic communication (emails, websites, tweets, newsletters etc.) is great for sharing information and generating a buzz. However, if you want true engagement, and for people to understand and buy-into the vision of what you are trying to deliver, then in-person conversations with technicians are crucial. This could include one-to-one and team meetings or indeed the dreaded networking. 

Increasing engagement takes time and work, so your own important or urgent prioritisation decisions will be tested (we all have a day job), but it is very, very much worth the effort. Your team will feel valued and empowered and you will gain so much knowledge and understanding of just What Technicians Do.

Engagement is a two-way communication, here are some of the comments from our technicians about technician engagement at York.

“I have met so many more colleagues from across the faculty. I have felt a much greater sense of community across the institute and I know from conversations with others, that I am not alone in that.”

“I have found that the Technician Commitment, and the TechYork conferences that have been organised as a result, have definitely improved ‘visibility’ and given me greater awareness of my own place in the University. I think technicians sometimes fall into the trap of seeing themselves as behind-the-scenes, when in fact, we are crucial to the successful running of our units. We’re just not very good at blowing our own trumpets!”

TechYork 2019 feedback, 92% rated the event as Good or Excellent

“Brilliant day, really enjoyed the speakers, they were very inspiring.”

“The event was very good and the lectures were both interesting and set at a good level for the diverse range of technicians.”