Stefan Schnyder and Gabriele Siegert

Employee Survey

This summer, UZH carried out its first-ever university-wide employee survey. The results of the survey show that the university offers a good working environment. However, there are some areas where UZH can still improve. Deputy President Gabriele Siegert and Stefan Schnyder, Director of Finances and Human Resources, give their opinion on the results in the following interview.

Interview: David Werner

Gabriele Siegert, Stefan Schnyder, why did UZH conduct an employee survey?

Gabriele Siegert: The survey helps us to find out whether we’ve set the right priorities when it comes to developing our university, or whether there are things that need to be adjusted. It also enables the faculties, departments and offices of UZH to review whether they’re on the right path. And it’s an opportunity for employees to think about their working environment with their colleagues and line managers.

Stefan Schnyder: To be a good leader, you need to be a good listener. Thanks to the numerous conversations we as members of the Executive Board of the University have every day with many employees, we get a fairly accurate picture of what the pressing issues are at UZH. The employee survey completes this picture and for me represents a special form of listening.

This was the first-ever survey among all of the employees at UZH. What was the reason for conducting such a survey now?

Siegert: The members of the Executive Board of the University this year defined our priority topics for the duration of the current term of office until 2022. The employee survey, which had already been in the works for some time, was a good opportunity for us to critically review our priorities.

Now that the results are known, how do you interpret the overall picture?

Siegert: On the whole, the results are very positive. There are certain areas where we still need to improve, and we’ll look at these more closely. But the overall picture shows us that our staff are happy with their working environment. In particular, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that UZH employees have embraced a culture of respect, trust and consideration. Such an atmosphere is an essential part of any constructive cooperation.

Schnyder: The overall picture is positive, I agree.
UZH employees are motivated, enjoy what they do, and see their work as meaningful. That’s not that surprising for an institution of learning and research. What’s remarkable, however, is that not only the actual work but also the working environment is rated positively: Staff are generally happy in their workplace. Happy, motivated employees are the cornerstone of success for any organization, and UZH has an excellent foundation here.

Stefan Schnyder, which of the results made you most happy?

Schnyder: For me it was the staff’s great dedication to UZH. The survey’s results in this area are exceptionally good, also when compared to other higher education institutions. Most UZH members are proud to be working at UZH, they’re prepared to perform to a higher-than-average level, and would choose UZH as their employer if given the choice again.

Siegert: The very high survey response rate alone is proof of the staff’s great dedication to their university.  We received 4,157 questionnaires, in other words around 40 percent of all employees took the time to give us feedback. The high rate of participation is also so welcome because it increases the benefits of the survey.

How are the survey’s benefits connected with the response rate?

Schnyder: To protect the anonymity of the participants, we decided to only analyze the results of organizational units where at least five people responded. Thanks to the high participation, we can not only analyze the results at the level of faculties and larger departments, but also at the level of smaller organizational units. The picture we’ve received as a result is therefore very detailed.

Gabriele Siegert, which result most surprised you?

Siegert: A particularly welcome surprise were the outstanding results in the area of equal opportunities and diversity. Our employees rarely come across discrimination as a result of age, gender, religion or background at UZH.

Does that mean that equal opportunities and diversity no longer need to be promoted at UZH?

Schnyder: No, ensuring equal opportunities and diversity requires constant efforts. There are still many goals that we want to achieve, for example equal representation of genders at the top academic levels. The positive survey results shouldn’t hide the fact that inequality does occur, and wherever it does, we must act promptly.

Were there negative surprises as well?

Siegert: I wasn’t expecting the childcare services for UZH members to be rated so critically. It’s all the more remarkable since this score stands in sharp contrast to the positive results achieved in the area of work-life balance. We have to find out why the score was so low here. It could be that it’s to do with the locations, or that the awareness for the services is too low, for example.

Schnyder: Over the past few years, we’ve constantly improved UZH’s childcare offering. We currently open up some of our childcare places to the outside, because they aren’t used by UZH employees. When it comes to childcare, everybody has their very own specific needs. Of course, it’s unclear whether it will ever be possible to meet all of these needs within reason.

The survey shows that not all employees are satisfied with the facilities. What can be done here?

Schnyder: UZH is bursting at the seams, as we all know. Major changes have been set in motion with the renewal of City Campus and Irchel Campus, which will improve the situation in the medium term. Until then, we need to patient and try to do the best with the very limited space we have.

The survey results also indicate that there are shortcomings in the areas of leadership and management, academic career development, information and sustainability. What’s your interpretation of this?

Siegert: Our employees have reached the same conclusions here as we have in the Executive Board of the University. All four of these topics figure prominently on our agenda. The results of the survey have strengthened our resolve to implement the measures we’ve decided on and which are already planned in these areas.

For example?

Siegert: Last February, we approved our Sustainability Policy, for which we are currently also working on two implementation strategies. We still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to sustainability.

What’s happening in the area of leadership culture?

Schnyder: Last year, UZH approved its Leadership and Management Principles, and we’ve expanded our continuing education provision for leaders and managers on the basis of these principles. We’ve also introduced an onboarding day for newly appointed professors, which takes place twice a year and, among other things, informs them about their leadership and management tasks. Gabriele Siegert can be credited with this renewed focus on improving the quality of leadership and management.

Gabriele Siegert, why is leadership such an important topic for you?

Siegert: I think good leadership is the key ingredient to further improve the quality of cooperation at UZH. By strengthening leadership and managerial skills, we’ll be able to significantly improve the supervision of junior researchers, for example. Leadership is a topic that has long been neglected by all higher education institutions, not only by UZH.

Why is that?

Siegert: Because we generally see ourselves as professors, and not necessarily as leaders and managers. If you follow the classic academic career path, you have to prove your research and teaching skills, while leadership skills are rarely taken into account. Researchers who then get appointed to a professorial chair are often not that well prepared when it comes to assuming a leadership role.

What defines good leadership and management?

Siegert: The hallmark of good leadership is that you’re aware of your duty to lead, and can thus deliberately embrace your leadership role. Vitally, this includes expressing your expectations in a clear manner, and giving precise feedback as to whether or not these expectations have been met. You have to talk with your employees about what their duties are and any areas where there is greater scope for action.

Schnyder: In my experience, there’s a greater need to explicitly communicate one’s expectations.

Why is that?

Schnyder: That has to do with how society is changing in general. Broadly speaking, leaders and managers used to be quite far removed from their employees, whereas today they’re often viewed as part of the team. The doors to their offices are open, it’s easier to speak to them. For people in leadership roles, this means that they have to answer to their employees and can’t simply rely on their authority.

Siegert: Another reason is that staff at higher education institutions have become far more diverse and international. You can no longer rely on codes and expected behaviors, which to you may be obvious based on your own upbringing, to automatically be shared by those around you. You have to reflect on your own expectations, and then put them into words.

So leadership is mainly a matter of communication?

Siegert: Yes, absolutely.

Speaking of communication, the survey results show that employees generally have good access to information that concerns their daily work. But they feel less informed about the strategic development plans of UZH and their organizational unit. How can this point be improved?

Siegert: It’s the same here too: As leaders and managers at UZH, we need to do our best to be clear about what we’re doing and why. When it comes to the members of the Executive Board in particular, we want to strengthen our leadership communication and inform staff about strategic topics even more systematically in the future.

Schnyder: That’s not always easy, especially when it comes to strategic topics. At the level of the Executive Board of the University, strategies primarily relate to optimizing conditions for research and teaching. The measures we take can’t always be communicated consistently and concretely. But we try to do so nevertheless. Only well-informed employees can take part in developing and shaping our university.

You’ve outlined the conclusions the Executive Board of the University has drawn from the survey results. Have you instructed the relevant people in the faculties, departments and offices as to how they should handle the results?

Schnyder: We’ve asked them to discuss the results with their teams and draw conclusions from these talks. Depending on the faculty, department or office, people will focus on different topics. In units currently undergoing reorganization, for example, the situation will be completely different from units where structures are fixed. It’s thus not advisable to make comparisons between individual departments and offices. That’s also why each organizational unit only has access to their own results and not those of other units. If you want to compare, you can use the average scores of UZH as a whole and of the faculties.

Siegert:  In any event, the scores are only a means of getting the conversation started among colleagues. The greatest benefit of the survey is that it presents an opportunity to join others and think about the conditions in our workplace.

How should employees behave during these talks? What do you recommend? 

Schnyder: I think it’s important that we’re honest – and that we’re open to the views of other employees. When it comes to interpreting the results, I think it make sense for all of us to trust our own experience and include our own observations. We shouldn’t sugarcoat things, but we’re definitely also allowed to mention the positives. Expressing your appreciation is never wrong.

Siegert: It’s never easy to openly address shortcomings in your own workplace. This can be a delicate matter, especially when it comes to hierarchies. For example, doctoral candidates, understandably so, are often hesitant to criticize their superiors. The employee survey can be helpful here, since it provides a neutral opportunity to engage in discussion. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Will there be a follow-up survey?

Schnyder: We want to carry out a survey every two to three years from now on. These surveys will be even more meaningful than the current one, since we’ll be able to compare scores over time and, for example, check whether the measures we’ve taken are working.

Siegert: The next survey is planned for spring 2022, just before the current term of office of the Executive Board of the University ends. The future members of the Executive Board of the University will then have a good basis to set their own priorities and plan their own measures.

President Michael Hengartner on the employee survey

Last summer, we had a great celebration together at the employee party. For me and for many other UZH employees, it was a welcome opportunity to mix with colleagues outside of the usual environment, to talk about things other than daily business, and to get to know another side of one another. We need opportunities such as these, which give us the chance to pause for breath and take a step back from the general routine, to get fresh perspectives on our work and activities.

The employee survey is another such opportunity. It allows us to pause, step back and ask ourselves what works well at our university and what perhaps works less well, what successes we can build on and what we should change.

The results of the survey are now available. On the whole, they are extremely positive, which of course I am very happy about. The results also show, however, the areas in which work still needs to be done.

The Executive Board of the University has already drawn conclusions from the survey and introduced initial measures at a university-wide level. It is now up to the faculties, institutes, departments and offices of UZH to do the same. The individual organizational units have been asked to involve their employees in discussions about the results. I believe employee engagement in the process is essential. Numbers become useful only when they are interpreted and talked about.The ensuing discussions can then be used as a basis for deciding what measures need to be taken to further improve the working environment and culture within UZH.

Our university is in good shape already. It is now up to us to make it even better.

Christian Schwarzenegger, Vice President Faculty Affairs and Scientific Information, on the employee survey

The results of the employee survey are gratifying. It is particularly positive that members of the UZH community at all levels are so committed to the university. The results confirm my subjective impression that our organization has a robust foundation of motivated, cooperative, committed and loyal employees.

As Vice President of Faculty Affairs and Scientific Information, I was particularly interested to see the feedback of the professors. The evaluation of the survey results shows a similar picture among professors as among other employees. The professors say there is largely a culture of trust, respect and solution-oriented collaboration between them and their colleagues.

Complete harmony is not to be expected, of course – nor is it desirable. Differences of opinion, friction, criticism and discussion contribute to progress and development. And we all want to make waves. Academia is future-oriented, it pushes new boundaries. There are challenges aplenty, but it is the duty and task of UZH to contribute to solving the problems of today and to shaping the world of tomorrow.

To fulfill this duty, UZH cannot rest on its laurels, but must continue to evolve and develop. This concerns, for example, our research infrastructure, our academic program, our communication methods, our funding strategies, our organizational structures, and much more.

The direction of the journey, the speed and the route must be negotiated together in continual dialogue – at all levels of the university, and in small and large forums. Such negotiation and dialogue may well be demanding and tiring work, but the results of our employee survey give us reason to approach the work with optimism: Our foundation is strong enough that we will be able to conduct this dialogue in a positive, constructive way.