Brian Dickens, PhD, SPHR, SCP, CEC, joined the University of Tennessee System as the Chief Human Resources Officer in December 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world and changed the workplace possibly forever.
Almost overnight, organizations, including those in the UT System, went from in-person to remote, or a hybrid of the two. A year and a half later, it is anybody’s guess how organizations will eventually emerge. However, one thing is for certain, Human Resources Departments will continue to manage the workplace, map its future, and keep everyone and everything operational as that evolves.
Dr. Dickens and the nine Human Resources Officers from each campus and institute in the UT System met recently in Memphis on the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s campus for a retreat that was the first under his tenure. The purpose was to connect, reenergize each other, assess the past, and look to the future.
“We have really been operating as crisis managers,” Dickens said of this pandemic period. “We have been driving so fast over the past two years, that we have not taken the time as HR leaders across the system to simply pause and recharge, read and develop ourselves, and get aligned as to the future of work, including alternative work arrangement schedules, post-pandemic employment strategies, all of those kinds of things that are upon us in HR roles to help our respective campuses and institutes navigate.”
“In many ways, we can never go back to the way we were pre-pandemic,” UT System President Randy Boyd said. “Instead, we are moving ahead in a profoundly better way. How our team has responded and overcome is inspiring, and how our team continues to rise to the challenge will be how we will be defined forever. Because of this, not in spite of it, is why this will still be the greatest decade in the history of the University of Tennessee.”
Chandra Alston, EdD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, associate vice chancellor for Human Resources at UTHSC, said while the HR Office continually prepares for and responds to changes in the work environment, “no challenge has been greater than the workplace disruptions brought on by COVID-19 in 2020. HR led the efforts with policy and practice adjustments, tracking outbreaks, managing leave, and supporting remote work strategies.” Dr. Alston had volunteered to host a retreat in Memphis at UTHSC in 2020, but that had to be postponed because of COVID-19.
“HR offices often work behind the scenes as the backbone of an organization,” she said. “The responsibilities are often essential for a university or institute to operate effectively, and they’re at the front lines of some core operational functions—from staffing and recruiting to ensuring that the needs of existing employees are capably met, and more.”
In light of the changing workplace, Dr. Dickens said the HR leaders discussed a framework that provides flexibility, retention strategies, and recruitment opportunities for the UT System, as the options of choice for how people work have expanded. “What we really talked about in general was how do we become an employer of choice and add that level of employer/employee flexibility that really balances the needs of both the organization and the employee during these really tumultuous times. This is a changing, dynamic workforce that’s evolving every day as we speak, but what we do know is that the old model doesn’t work.”
These discussions support Boyd’s objective to make UT the workplace of choice for Tennesseans, Dr. Dickens said. “How do we make this the greatest decade in the history of UT right across our system, and then, how do we really support, and engage and reimagine HR service delivery, so that it is viewed as value-added, as opposed to just traditional notions of transactional function.”
Dr. Dickens continued, “In order for us to be perceived as a great place to work, as an employer of choice, we’ve got to care about our people, and doing that means taking the time to be abreast of current trends, to stay relevant, and to stay responsive. And so, I think, that’s what these retreats offer us the opportunity to do, and to really share and determine best practice with shared visions and ways forward.”
The group focused on Boyd’s “Be One UT” initiative.
“Values help center us as an organization, and establishing a clear set of values will help us build our culture, and in turn, that culture will help us build the greatest decade in UT history—together,” Boyd said.
“A lot of work is being done to create and sustain a “Be One UT” culture, where everyone can make a contribution, where every voice can be heard, and everyone feels like they belong,” Dr. Alston said.
“This retreat is representative of what it means to be a system in the state of Tennessee,” Dr. Dickens said. “It’s not just that we have a flagship, but it is our way of also celebrating and engaging that uniqueness, the niche characteristics of each of our campuses, the uniqueness of the populations that we all serve differently, as well as our outreach and the institutional impact that we have across the state.”
He said the retreat also examined how HR can partner with campus diversity officers across the system to advance discussions and reimagine the approach to diversity and inclusion and engagement. “So, we know that it permeates everything we do from onboarding, to recruiting, to job advertisement, performance management, compensation, it is so layered, it’s got to be embedded into the very the fabric of what we do that gives all employees a sense of belonging, makes room for various diverse thought leadership, and we want to make sure that we emphasize that diversity goes well beyond, race and ethnicity. HR is responsible for really pushing that message forward throughout the system.”
In addition to Drs. Dickens and Alston, HR Officers attending were: Patricia Burks-Jelks, UT Space Institute; Doug Bohner, UT Institute of Agriculture; Carol Houser, UT Foundation; Jamie Hlubb, UT Southern; Laure Pou, UT Chattanooga; Tomi Rogers, UT Institute for Public Service; Dr. Mary Lucal, UT Knoxville; Michael Washington, UT Martin.
“As HROs, we set the tone for collaboration, integration, and inclusion,” Dr. Alston said. “Our responsibility is to demonstrate being ‘One UT’. We take that seriously and are starting with our own statewide team to strengthen trust, increase collaboration, decrease competition, and demonstrate inclusion. At the UT Health Science Center, we want to continue to support the campus mission, while overlapping the ‘Be One UT’ values to enhance our outcomes.”