Elise

Grace Cosachov Protos is the Executive Director of Work Life. Leading a team of subject matter experts, she establishes the strategic vision of the office whose primary mission is to improve the organizational health of the university and its faculty and administrators.


Q: Can you describe your role as the Executive Director of Work Life and the Office’s mission?

A: As Executive Director, I direct the office’s short and long-term vision and mission. I manage a very talented and caring team that inspires me every day to help NYU be a great place to work. I stay tapped into trending workplace issues within NYU by talking to a large variety of people and by listening to the office’s team members, who are subject matter experts in their respective areas of work. I sit on the board of two higher education professional organizations so that I can stay tapped into issues at other higher education institutions and I inform myself of larger issues in the private sector and U.S. workplace at large. I use all of this information, along with research and my many years of addressing workplace improvements to decide on a forward thinking strategic direction for the office. This information helps support the Work Life mission which is to deliver a supportive and progressive workplace for the NYU community including providing direct service to faculty, administrators and full-time researchers to help them address their work-life challenges and to be the voice of institutional interventions to improve our workplace.

Q: What strategies have you and your team implemented to enhance the university's workplace culture and climate?

A: One of the ways we’ve enhanced university workplace culture is by applying research-informed interventions to our work. Our main strategy includes applying a social work framework which essentially means that we use a systemic lens when thinking of solutions and look at interventions that are focused on individuals and NYU as an employer. For example, knowing that people have been feeling disconnected from colleagues and suffering from loneliness and isolation, our interventions include providing individualized consultations, creating support groups for people in areas of caregiving, providing manager and department chair support so that they can be better at managing with a work-life lens, creating a toolkit with actionable and simple manager-led practices, and offering programs and events that are aimed at educating our community on various work-life topics.

We have used our global messaging platform to talk about the importance of creating a caring community, the duty to care for one another and the importance of supporting mental health and well-being. We’ve also highlighted leadership champions at NYU that live these values and we've even encouraged leadership communication to include key messages to support the well-being of their audiences. We highlight healthy practices such as curtailing after-hours emails, encouraging individuals to take their vacation days and the importance of empathy in workplace relationships. 

Our Work Life Caring Culture Grant is the most recent example of how we are working to impact workplace culture and climate through sustainable behavior change at the grassroots level. The grants asked units to identify areas of workplace improvements and to generate long-term, sustainable, solutions. We’ll be collecting data and evaluating the grants so we can continue to inform our community about interventions that work. We are also providing consultation services to those applicants that didn’t receive a grant but that are interested in furthering their ideas.

Q: Drawing from your time as Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, could you discuss a particularly impactful policy, research, or advocacy project you oversaw?

A: I was at the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor during the Obama administration. These years were incredibly exciting as the administration charged the Women’s Bureau to lead four major campaigns: paid leave, equal pay, workplace flexibility and earned sick time. At the time I was in charge of 5 regional offices spanning 25 states and territories where I got to focus on these campaigns. Paid leave was the most impactful campaign for working individuals that I worked on, and one of the most professionally rewarding. The goal was to pass paid leave at the state or city level since it was not going to be possible to pass it at the federal level. Though the goal was to pass a policy, I was able to lead advocacy and coalition-building efforts to create a ground-swell of support across the states I oversaw. At the end of the administration’s term, there were an additional three states that passed paid leave laws and several cities and counties. One of the most progressive policies passed at the time was the New York paid leave policy. Knowing that working individuals could access paid leave in order to take care of themselves or their loved ones was a huge win!

Q: How has your experience working in government shaped the way you approach your current role at NYU?

A: Overseeing a large swath of the country helped me appreciate and understand the importance of listening to different populations who could contribute to my knowledge of working women’s issues and needs. I quickly learned that the needs of working women were different depending on a variety of factors including challenges they faced in our social systems. I bring this lens to my work at NYU. We have a variety of different populations whose needs vary. It is important to listen to them but in order to do so we need to create the right environment. I work to make sure that the Work Life office is seen as a trusted, neutral and confidential space where individuals in our community can share their needs. Listening to these voices and lived experiences helps me understand systemic issues that contribute to work-life challenges and to think more broadly about workplace interventions we can champion. I also learned the importance of supporting my team. I take my managerial position very seriously and know that part of my job is helping my team members thrive. 

Q: How did you first become interested in addressing workforce issues and organizational health?

A: I worked in the corporate sector for a mergers and acquisitions firm for several years. I was keenly aware of the lack of women in senior leadership positions and noticed the unconscious and conscious bias that took place that prevented women from succeeding. I also became the unofficial workplace advocate and helped champion workplace flexibility and mentorship at the firm. It was there that I realized I was excited by advocating for workplace improvements. That led me to pursue a masters in social work with both a clinical and world-of-work focus. I then landed a job at the Women’s Bureau where I advocated for workforce improvements for working women across the country. It’s been clear to me that the working world has not caught up to the needs of today’s workforce and that there are voices missing to help address these needs.

Q: What led you to become an adjunct professor at Columbia University School of Social Work and what key principles did you emphasize in your teaching?

A: A former professor turned mentor of mine who was a leading academic in labor force and workplace issues asked me to teach two courses because of my experience leading teams and my nonprofit board experience. I loved teaching! Knowing that I was having an impact on future generations of social workers inspired me to always teach using both research and real life experiences - something I still believe is critically important for learning.

Q: How do you integrate social work principles into your leadership approach and organizational strategy?

A: I prioritize seeing people first and foremost, using a human centered approach and clinical skills to understand needs. We then need to use these tenets, skills and institutional knowledge to think of systemic improvements. In other words, we have to first identify the problems from individuals directly and then we need to look at all the possible improvements that can be made at the individual level such as direct service assessment, connection to resources and consultations on caregiving options. Equally important, we also look at institutional level interventions such as improving workplace practices, university systems, informing policy improvements and raising awareness of these issues.

Q: What does work-life balance mean to you? What strategies do you use to practice work-life balance in your own life?

We prefer to use the terms work-life integration, fulfillment or fluidity to speak about work-life challenges. Work-life balance really only signals that there are two things in our lives that we are trying to navigate and that’s not really representative of the breadth of challenges we face in life. I personally like to use the term work-life fulfillment, a term first coined by a work-life team member! The things I hold close to me that help me navigate healthy work-life fulfillment include regular exercise - I run several times a week - focusing on meaningful connection whether at work or in my personal life and making sure that I feed the things I value the most - my family, relationships that I love, my work and my life-long learning. I also try to practice slowing down so that I’m actually appreciating moments. Other things that feed my soul are music, dancing and eating new and delicious foods. 

Q: Congratulations on pursuing a Doctorate at NYU Silver School of Social Work! Could you describe the focus of your doctorate program? 

My doctoral work is on creating healthy and thriving workplaces for the future. I have been focusing on and giving voice to the value that social work plays in helping to identify, collaboratively advocate and address workplace needs. The Work Life office is a perfect example of this. Using a social work framework and skill set, we provide a critical voice to workplace improvements. And, research shows that a supportive workplace has a positive impact on both workers and the employer. I’m grateful for the incredible support I have received at NYU to not only create this office but to advance my work through my continued education in a doctoral program at Silver.