notepads for office support

Molly Foster, Elaine Kaple, and Amy Spence have a decade of combined knowledge and experience. In that time, they’ve accumulated a great deal of information and expertise which they use daily in their work at University of Illinois Extension in the Henry, Mercer, Rock Island, and Stark counties. They’ve also become aware of some of the obstacles that make their jobs, and the jobs of the more than 100 office support employees working across the state in Extension’s unit offices, more difficult and less efficient.

When Associate Dean and Director of Extension Shelly Nickols-Richardson announced a call for proposals for the Office Support Innovation Grant, a program that supports creative solutions to problems or challenges in Extension business processes, this group saw an opportunity to make a positive change for all county support staff.

Foster, Kaple, and Spence identified several areas they each felt were obstacles in their own work and were likely to affect other office support staff as well. They noted that information and resources were often spread across multiple websites, apps, and programs and were rarely sorted by program area making it difficult and time-consuming for staff to find what they needed. They also recognized that a wealth of collective knowledge and expertise already existed in the community of office support staff, but they needed a way to bring this group, that is spread across the entire state, together.

“We wanted to create a community for unit office support staff that would allow them to share knowledge and support one another in their roles,” says Foster. This became the focus of their proposal, which was selected for an Office Support Innovation Grant in 2020.

With the support of Extension leadership, they focused in earnest on a creative solution with the broadest possible reach. Throughout the process, they received positive feedback and encouragement from other office support staff who were excited about their idea. Using Microsoft Teams, the project group built and launched the unit office support team, a statewide communication hub connecting office support staff in all Extension units.

The unit office support team puts essential links and resources in a central location, organized by Extension program area, that is easy for support staff to learn and access. It also has a chat area where users can post questions and have them answered by their peers, share tips and solutions, and interact with staff in different geographic locations whom they might never have an opportunity to meet in person.

In the fall, after a successful pilot run, the unit office support team rolled out to all Extension unit offices. The project group partnered with Extension IT to conduct user training, which was attended by nearly 70% of all unit office support staff. They very deliberately sought feedback and buy-in from their colleagues across the organization at every stage of the project, and Kaple says the reactions have been remarkably positive.

“We’ve received really encouraging comments with staff saying things like, ‘this is going to be a wonderful resource,’ and even calling it ‘a dream come true,’” she says.

Post-rollout, the team continues to monitor progress and usage and have seen encouragingly high participation so far. At the end of 2020, they saw that 82% were actively using the unit office support team, and those active users were highly engaged. The posting feature has been used repeatedly and successfully with staff asking questions that are then answered by one or more users in other units.

“It has been encouraging to see these helpful interactions,” says Kaple. “The strength of the program rests in its members, their comfort in utilizing the program, and how useful the information is to them.”

Just as Foster, Kaple, and Spence envisioned, they are creating a community that shares knowledge, expertise, and resources that will improve the work of current and future office support staff.

“It helps us see common problems, patterns of things that need to be attended to, and how to source solutions to these problems,” explains Kaple. Users are troubleshooting issues in real time and those solutions then become part of an archive for other staff who may encounter the same problem in the future. The team continues to add information as users explore the platform and submit requests for additions or changes.  

Foster, Kaple, and Spence say they’re grateful to Extension leadership for providing this opportunity for office support staff to be innovative problem-solvers. It’s certainly satisfying to make a positive contribution to the work of the county office support community, but they view this solution even more broadly than that.

“The work of office support staff directly impacts the work of all other Extension employees, and every regional and campus office throughout the state,” says Kaple. “Improving and expediting that work on a daily basis inevitably benefits Extension as a whole and every community that our organization serves.”

WRITER: Nicole Stewart
ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.