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Motivation and Retention Factors in Research Administration | Part 3: Retention Strategies

By SRAI News posted 03-13-2024 08:54 AM


Motivation and Retention Factors in Research Administration | Part 3: Retention Strategies

The Spotlight is exploring prevailing employee motivation and retention factors in research administration. In January, historical trends in literature, as well as the methods for obtaining data, were highlighted. February’s focus turned to mutual factors that influence research administrators to remain with or leave their positions and/or institutions. This month the series concludes with a final analysis and recommendations for practical strategies organizations can offer to retain talent.

Colleges and universities are among the many organizations currently facing challenges with employee satisfaction. In research administration, a growing discipline composed of skilled professionals supporting educational, scientific, and clinical research programs, decisive factors have emerged through recent studies of the field. Significant trends in motivation and retention for research administrators (RAs) were reinforced through the 2023 Redcap Survey as results proved consistent with previously published findings. The data show that the COVID-19 pandemic did not have as large of an impact on employee motivation as may have been assumed. Support from supervisors and upper management remains the highest factor in (RA) retention. This is reflected in recent literature that named psychological well-being as a key factor in motivating employees. Lack of support from management makes employees feel undervalued and unimportant. Conversely, high-level management support creates a team atmosphere, which buoys employee happiness. Interestingly, the two other highest-rated inducements to remain – remote work ability and adequate compensation and benefits – were consistent with the most likely motivations to leave, i.e., lack of remote work and inadequate compensation and benefits. Additionally, the lowest- ranked factors for leaving – disinterest in the work and lack of professional development opportunities – showed consensus that RA work is generally intellectually stimulating and interesting and that advancement opportunities are routinely offered for employees.  

Comments from survey respondents support the data; many stated that they feel “well respected and supported,” “challenged” by the work, and have “potential for growth.” Other commenters replied that they would leave their current place of employment because of “poor administrative processes,” instances of “favoritism and “racism,” “poor workplace culture,” and “lack of respect and integrity.” One conclusion is that while some RAs feel professionally supported and interested in an ever-changing field, others lack individual, personalized support from their managers and may experience a toxic workplace culture at their institutions. 

There has been a notable change in preferred retention strategies, likely brought about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and institutions’ pivot to work from home (WFH)/remote work options. The ability for permanent remote work or increased WFH support jumped to the number one retention strategy when compared to previous studies. This is, again, consistent with previous research that named psychological well-being as a key factor in keeping employees. The lack of a daily commute as well as the improved work-life balance associated with WFH opportunities tend to support psychological well-being. Therefore, it is not surprising that WFH options emerged as the most highly-preferred retention strategy. Predictably, increased compensation and benefits perseveres as the second highest preferred strategy, which is consistent with previous research on the topic. Retention strategies related to in-person work, such as onsite childcare, free parking, and wellness offerings, were the least desirable options. 

Key incentives for RA retention and growth are competitive compensation and benefits packages along with the ability to work from home or a remote work environment. Several survey commenters indicated that pay scales and equity were inconsistent across institutions and even across departments; ideally, organizations would conduct pay equity analyses annually, offer raises or bonuses for RAs as they do with researchers, or provide personalized benefits (such as fully remote options or commute cost reimbursement) to retain personnel when compensation cannot be increased. Indeed, as many RA professionals have shifted to WFH/remote work, organizations should focus on retention offerings that support that lifestyle. The data show that many RAs are approaching retirement; onsite childcare and tuition remission or reimbursement are likely less of a draw than support for professional development and mentorship opportunities. RAs want their voices heard; many commenters stated that experienced RAs should be involved in decision-making or policy development when it relates to their work. This is especially true as administrative burden and sponsor compliance requirements increase.

Statistics consistently reinforced a focus on work-life balance, allowing personnel more time to concentrate on non-work activities, and appropriate compensation for their efforts. Many respondents noted that the work itself is varied and interesting, and many institutions offer career and professional development opportunities and support. Therefore, if institutions wish to retain experienced RAs, they should offer or continue to offer fully remote and WFH opportunities as well as competitive compensation and benefit packages. Institutions should think outside the box to retain employees when these two options are not available. RAs do not want to be viewed as disposable; organizations and management should offer individualized retention plans, such as mentorship programs, the ability to participate in decision-making activities, or personalized benefits tailored to what is important to that particular individual. Research administration is not a one-size fits all; indeed, the motto for the field is “It depends.” Institutions should take note of that when they seek to retain RA talent.

Authored by Meaghan Ventura, MS, CRA, Senior Sponsored Projects Officer
Abigail Wexner Research Institute, Nationwide Children’s Hospital