Eliot House Dining Hall Manager Eddie Salerno wasn't sure all of his staff would make it across the balance beam set up in their dining hall.
During team-building exercises over spring break, the staff in the Eliot and Kirkland dining halls strove to send each of its 30 members--of all shapes, ages and sizes--across a thin walkway with the help of their colleagues. "We just decided that we were all going to do it and we made it in only eight minutes," Salerno says.
Much has changed in six months, staff say.
Trust-building play and fresh lines of communication are a far cry from the stress and frustration that Eliot and Kirkland staff members say plagued them earlier in the year.
A $3 million renovation of the kitchen and servery space--meant to improve food quality, efficiency and aesthetics--had resulted in staffing shortages, equipment problems and loads of staff stress.
"Obviously when we started, it was a different job because it was new," says Tina F. Nerahoo, a 31-year general service staff member in Kirkland.
But sensitive about its image, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) has diligently ushered in a host of changes to help ease that stress and improve the workplace--led by a team of consultants who specialize in issues of teamwork and trust.
And HUDS management says it hopes the lessons it learned in Eliot and Kirkland will smooth the transition with similar renovations in Winthrop and Lowell Houses slated for this summer.
"Everybody's attitudes are better now. They are listening to us," says chef George Hegarty.
A Dash of Communication
Although HUDS maintains it has always put a focus on its employees, the 600-member organization has stepped up efforts to make staff members more active problem solvers.
In Eliot and Kirkland, says HUDS Associate Director of Undergraduate Dining Rosemary McGahey, HUDS has initiated additional regular meetings with a focus on interpersonal relations.
"We gathered the group together in a quiet space. What's working really well? What's not? What do we need to improve upon?" she says.
The biggest change, chefs say, is that Salerno has rescheduled some of the current staff and added a fifth chef to the Eliot-Kirkland lineup to ease the workload and prepare for upcoming meals.
"Now that we have a fifth cook, that makes things a lot easier. People were running everywhere before, so it is nice now," says chef Paul M. Devlin.
As one example of creative group problem solving, McGahey notes that directors listened to one chef's idea to convert a freezer into refrigeration space, thus providing enough room for food pre-prepared by HUDS's Culinary Support Group.
Chef for Residential Dining Michael Kann, who assists chefs in all undergraduate halls, says that he also worked with chefs to re-arrange menus to eliminate excess handwork--like that involved in sandwich-making--for a limited crew.
"We modified the menu so that we wouldn't lose an item, but rearrange the workload," he says. "You won't see the healthy grinder and the Rueben sandwich together."
Kann also says an increased number of stir-fry dishes reflects the new equipment available to chefs in the renovated kitchens.
And for the serving staff who complained that new dishware weighed as much as three times more than older plates, cups and bowls, HUDS has provided ergonomic training and proposed teamwork.
"They know the appropriate way to hold their bodies," McGahey says. "We partnered people who are physically strong [with] those who are not."
Richard J. Kennedy, a kitchen receiver, says that he often assists his coworkers with weighty loads. "If the ladies are having a hard time, we're always helping them out with the heavy things," Kennedy says. "They say team, I say family."
And Salerno emphasizes that an additional four months using the new equipment and systems has helped to ease tension too.
"Now it is more day-to-day operational issues rather than changes," he says.
A Helping Hand
HUDS admits that it needed some help to get the ball rolling.
"We've brought in a consultant to bring it above personal issues, set up ground rules--a framework for people to speak without retribution," says Director Ted A. Mayer.
That consultant, Stowe, Vt.-based Dennis S. Reina, specializes in issues of office communication, authoring Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace.
"At the beginning, where you are on a steep learning curve, sometimes it is a little rough getting started. I suspect that there was too much emphasis placed on learning the new technology," Reina says.
"They were in the spotlight, under a lot of pressure, and a lot of eyes were on them," he adds. "There was not enough emphasis placed on the human elements."
Having worked with HUDS strategic planning for the past three years, Reina began to focus attention on the staff in Eliot-Kirkland in November.
"One of the things that we shared with them was the Reina Trust Model, which gave them an objective framework to look at issues in a non-blaming way," Reina says.
Initially, workers participated in confidential discussions Reina facilitated.
"They would share the gist of what's going on--never who said what," Mayer says.
Armed with his firm's new Team Trust Scale, Reina claims he can quantify the staff's improvement.
"Both the Eliot-Kirkland team and the CSG team participated in our Team Trust Scale in February, and it really indicates that we have some statistically sound improvement," he says. "The cooks are a lot more cohesive and they talk through issues. They feel they've got the skills and confidence to talk through issues and that they will be listened to."
Neither Reina nor HUDS officials would specify how much Reina and his firm charged for their services, but Alixandra E. McNitt, HUDS assistant director for marketing and communications, says it was within the budget for staff training.
Still, some staff members say the attention HUDS has paid to their difficulties--much of which came after The Crimson's November series on labor problems at HUDS--was almost overwhelming.
"For the first couple of months after the [Crimson] articles, there were meetings practically every day. Now they are every week," kitchen receiver Kennedy says. "At first there were too many of them--we weren't getting production done."
"We're always on the same page now. It's good because everyone has an idea of what's going on, what the problems are, and what makes things better," Devlin says.
Part of the problem, Reina acknowledges, is that staff members wanted more face time from top management.
Some staff members raised concerns that Mayer and other high-ranking HUDS officials were touring Europe's culinary innovations during much of their difficult transition period in November--symbolizing, they say, a lack of concern for the staff.
"I think that it is a challenge for any leadership to have presence and access to the front line," Reina says. "It's the old saying come true: people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
But he says since then, HUDS officials have become somewhat more sensitive.
"I think that HUDS top management has consciously made a tremendous effort to make sure that they are out there and about," Reina says.
The Second Batch
With renovations planned for Lowell and Winthrop House halls this summer, Mayer and his directors say HUDS has learned from its missteps at Eliot and Kirkland.
"Now we have the model and we've made it work," McGahey says. "We're not trying to build something we don't know. [The staff will] have those skills and they'll be much more comfortable because they've had this exposure."
Winthrop House Dining Hall Manager Angelo Dalla Santa emphasizes the importance of rotating all of the Winthrop and Lowell staffers through Eliot or Kirkland.
"We're going to have the same salad bar, the same hot line," he says.
The hands-on experience of working with the equipment will give the Winthrop and Lowell chefs an advantage the Eliot and Kirkland crew never had.
"Giving them a manual doesn't work. They have to taste it, feel it, touch it," Mayer says.
They may receive a similar redesign, but Winthrop and Lowell are hoping to make the transition with fewer glitches.
"The problems they had, mistakes they made, all of this has been brought to us and we've made the changes in our drawings," Dalla Santa adds.
The problem of a slow water dispenser in Eliot, Lowell Manager Charles R. Lambert says, will be rectified in Winthrop and Lowell.
And by monitoring the experiences at the other dining halls, certain faulty technologies--like an overheated grill in Kirkland--won't be part of the new renovations.
"We still have disappointment with some of the equipment--combi ovens that are falling apart--but they've been working with us to make it better," chef Hegarty says.
Dalla Santa and Lambert say that although they anticipate some of the same start-up problems, the Eliot and Kirkland experiences make them better prepared.
Both say they are extremely open with the staff about blueprints and plans.
"As soon as I open [the new plans] up, people ask all kinds of questions--and all they have to do is ask," Dalla Santa says. "By June, they will know exactly what to expect."
And the open communication about the changes has allowed for input from the staff.
"The bottom line is everyone needs to be involved," Lambert says. "As a team, we try to put it on paper and give them everything that they want."
The two dining halls will also have to work more closely together as they will be sharing a dishroom and some staff. Reina says he has already started working with those units.
At last week's joint staff meeting, workers from both Houses played a game called Windows, in which they met other staffers who shared common personal interests that they displayed on their chests.
"They started to interact more. It was a lot of fun," Dalla Santa says.