5 ways Harvard University is working to engage dining employees

harvard intro

If a savvy entrepreneur could bottle an elixir that makes employees want to go to work, the internet would be devoid of Monday memes and foodservice directors would likely sleep a bit more soundly. For the last six months, Harvard University Dining Services in Cambridge, Mass., has been working on perfecting an employee engagement recipe of its own. “We don’t want hourly employees to roll over and say, ‘I don’t want to come to work today,’” says David Davidson, the department's managing director.

As such, the operation has rolled out several initiatives aimed to improve teamwork and reduce staff hopping from one location to another. Read on to check out HUDS’ formula to encourage staff creativity and teamwork.

1. Don't rely on surveys alone


Each year, the university sends out an employee engagement survey to all staff. When the dining program gets its results, Davidson charges each unit manager with reviewing the answers and coming up with three areas of improvement they want to work on. But the operation doesn’t just rely on survey responses. One manager from each unit sits down with residential dining’s 500-plus employees to ask more in-depth questions. The supervisors ask students whether they have the tools they need to do their job and if they have ideas on how to do things better. 

2. Delegate goals

harvard goals

To boost staff morale, Davidson asked each dining services manager to form an initiative around employee engagement for the year. But he also required the leadership team to commit to a goal for self-development. For instance, some team members committed to being more responsive to emails or on time for meetings—behaviors aimed at earning staff trust. 

3. Tap a different kind of consultant

harvard consultants

HUDS brought in ImprovBoston and The Academy of Physical and Social Development—a group that helps children gain social skills and self-esteem—to teach employees communication skills and how to have each other’s backs. The outside consultants did not wear suits or quote Dale Carnegie, but instead asked team members to write and act out a TV show ad for their team and pass along a hula hoop without using their hands. “We didn’t want a speaker to come in and just talk to us—our staff is so physical,” Davidson says.

4. Regularly crowdsource recipes

harvard recipes

Instead of HUDS’ executive chef writing the menus alone, the department now brings in the rest of the culinary team to create four new recipes a season. To narrow down the recipes they'll use, the culinary team comes together for a tasting to determine whether the menu items fit the operation’s needs and goals. Once implemented, the chef de cuisine leads a weekly meeting with the cooks for input on how the new menu additions are working logistically and how they could improve.

5. Chart out conversation starters

map pins

In each unit, a world map hangs in the back of house, pinpointing where each employee calls home. At each monthly meeting, new employees are asked to add their hometown to the map, helping to share their cultural and culinary influences. “It’s a great icebreaker to get people talking,” Davidson says. “It became a common conversation piece.”

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