Mind-bending method to boost employee satisfaction

Author: Gwen O'Brien

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Looking for a way to break out of the cubicle and get to know your neighbors? A good old-fashioned field day may be in order.


That’s how College of Science administrators responded to staff feedback from the 2016 ND Voice, the employee engagement survey administered every two years.


Lotta Barnes plays horseshoes.

“Our staff was looking for in-person, back-and-forth touch points with people from other departments who are in leadership positions, but also across labs. We’ve got people who are fairly isolated, siloed in different buildings,” explained Bill O’Hayer, senior director of finance and administration in the College of Science.


So, instead of the typical format for the annual staff meeting, in February the College of Science hosted the Brain-Body Field Day.

Staff from administrative offices and research labs were randomly assigned to teams — identifiable by colored bandanas — and took part in in games that tested participants’ coordination, non-dominant hand skills and ability to memorize and play rhythms on hand drums.


In addition to team building, it was an experiential science learning opportunity.


“They learned about neuroplasticity, a mechanism of learning and memory,” said Nancy Michael, director of undergraduate studies for the neuroscience and behavior major, the newest and one of the college’s most popular majors.


The professor and 20 of her students facilitated field day as a version of brain awareness fairs they present in the South Bend community. She says neuroplasticity activities are good for adults.


“Once we get to a certain point in our career, we just do the same thing over and over again. With any job, there’s initially a really steep learning curve and then it’s pretty stable. So, the same set of synapses are used over and over again, while lots of other ones don’t get used much,” she said. “Engaging in things like yoga, ballroom dancing or flipping a cup with your right and left hands introduces synapses outside of the normally used neural network. It gives you neural flexibility.”


O’Hayer and Kassie Spencer, program director of finance and administration, pored over the survey results and came up with the concept of a field day. Kim Patton, the college’s human resources consultant, was impressed with the proactive and positive approach to the ND Voice results.


“They really delved into their ND Voice results and utilized the information to help the college move forward. Some supervisors might read the results and be really discouraged. But in this case, they took the results and made it a positive.”



O’Hayer practices neuroplasticity and even taught himself to play two-handed ping-pong.


“I’m a self-learner. A collector of useful tools, if you will. When I see a really useful tool, I learn it and kind of put it in my tool bag and keep it there until it’s time to use it,” he said.


When the survey results came out, O’Hayer dug into his figurative bag and pulled out neuroplasticity and the “never leave the playground” philosophy of Stephen Jepson. 


Field Day

Jepson, 74, is a retired University of Florida ceramics professor who is famous for mind and body fitness. He built a playground for himself in his backyard. He regularly rides a unicycle, juggles while balancing on a bongo board, throws knives, plays jacks with both hands, and walks the tightrope. Jepson calls these activities “age-proofing the brain and the body.” He is onto something.

“There is a terrible myth that your brain is largely done developing by the time you are 5,” said Michael. “Neuroplasticity lasts throughout a lifetime, and it really is just small changes in the neural networks that allow for new learning to occur. The idea is that if you are working on your balance now, in 10 years, that skill could protect you from falls and injuries and things like that.”



Spencer and O’Hayer watched Jepson’s videos to come up with the field day activities.


“One of our emphases in the College of Science is continuous improvement, and this was a unique way to give people some tools to explore that further,” said Spencer.


Patton couldn’t resist participating in Brain-Body Field Day herself. “Today was also about wellness, which is a big part of HR. It’s important for employees to focus on every aspect of their wellness.”

Originally published by Gwen O’Brien at news.nd.edu on March 23, 2018.