7 Ways to Motivate Your Team to Overcome Adversity: Life After FAFSA® Simplification

Melissa Maichle .

They say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb — a reference to the weather, of course. For financial aid professionals this is an apt description of what we hope March will bring in terms of workload and angry phone calls from students awaiting financial aid decisions. It has certainly been a challenging year. Not only are we facing the biggest overhaul of the federal financial aid application since the FAFSA was authorized in 1992, but also a total change in the way eligibility is calculated including the acronym. How long will it take you to stop calling the SAI an EFC? Well, that’s the least of our worries because after months of waiting, we will finally receive the results of the simplified FAFSA and get to start doing what we do best —helping students attend college.

We know it’s been struggle for the last several months. If you were very lucky, your admissions colleagues agreed to extend the commitment date or maybe you use Profile® so you could at least produce a reasonable estimate of students’ federal aid eligibility. But many of us had to play the ‘wait and hurry up’ game, so now we must somehow get done in a few weeks what usually takes a few months. And if you are a manager, you’re probably dreading the looks you will get from your team members when you need to enforce overtime to get all the work done. We know that not all our options below will be possible on your campus or motivate all your staff members, but all have proven to be successful ways of leading teams through adversity.

  • Make sure your front-line staff has been given strategies for dealing with difficult customers. When a staff member cannot handle an irate or panicked student, inevitably the student will ask for a manager. If the managers are the ones doing the awarding, having to take a lot of calls or run to the front desk means less time to review files and inevitably more overtime to meet deadlines. If you don’t have time for training, share our blog with tips for handling difficult conversations.
  • If your front-line staff cycle between the front desk and telephone banks all day, they may be feeling burned out before the first award gets out the door. Is there a way to schedule time off the front-line for at least a couple of hours each day to do something else like respond to email or prep files for the staff doing awarding? Anything to get them out of the line of fire for more than just their lunch breaks each day.
  • Many financial aid offices are already using a hybrid model where staff members can work remotely one or two days each week. If you don’t have that available in your office, consider making a temporary accommodation for your team that is responsible for file review and awarding. And on those work at home days, treat your staff like they are on vacation. Let them plow through as many applications as they can with little or no interruption.
  • Give your team members a reason to get to work early and/or work through lunch by providing their meals. After all, it’s hard to concentrate when you’re hungry. For relatively little expense, you can bring baked goods, coffee, sandwiches, etc. We don’t think this will eliminate resentment for being asked to work extra hours, but it does show you recognize that what you’ve asked causes some hardship for team members.
  • For some, money is a better motivator than food. Can you offer a bonus to any staff member who works more than a certain number of hours each week either via the normal payroll route or using gift cards?

  • Plan a fun activity or excursion for your team after the processing is finalized. Let them know about it now so they have something to look forward to in late spring or early summer.
  • Finally, here is a management strategy that anyone should be able to use…let your team know as often as you can how much you appreciate their hard work, that you have confidence in each of them and the team as a whole to be able to overcome this difficult situation, that you recognize you and your institution have asked a lot of them, and that they can come to you when feeling burned out, frazzled, or in need of additional resources.

The focus here is on leading your team through a challenging situation, but don’t forget to take care of yourself as well. If you’re reading files or filling in at the front desk, you’ll need the same uninterrupted times and/or sanity breaks as the rest of the team. Self-care is as important as team-care.

Getting through the month of March with all your positions filled will be hard enough, but trying to do so without a full staff presents an even larger challenge. Check out the Higher Education Assistance Group’s Interim Staffing Services or email us at info@heag.us for more information about how we can help you navigate these stormy times.