Engaging Local Government Employees

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Leisha DeHart-Davis

Leisha DeHart-Davis is an Albert and Gladys Coates Distinguished Associate Professor of Public Administration in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. She studies workplace dynamics, including employee voice and empowerment, organizational structure, diversity and gender in public organizations. Her book, Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations, is forthcoming from Georgetown University Press in 2017. She holds a PhD in public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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parks-and-rec-engagement-gifEmployee engagement is a popular concept with a wide variety of meanings. One definition we use in academic research focuses on the energy, focus and dedication that employees bring to a job. Researchers have found employees who say they are engaged are less likely to say they are planning to leave the organization and more likely to say they are committed to the organization. 

Engagement is no small deal given increasing public service expectations combined with dwindling resources for attracting, retaining and rewarding employees. Think of engagement as non-monetary compensation, where you are creating the very best workplace possible.

In the Local Government Workplaces Project, we have started to measure employee engagement using a series of survey items designed by Dutch researchers to get at engagement as the opposite of burnout.

And when we correlate employee engagement with workplace characteristics, three influences stand out: the meaningfulness of work, trust, and openness to new ideas.

Meaningful work has to do with the connections people make to a larger purpose in their jobs. Local government offers meaningful work in spades, from the manager’s office to the utility billing specialist to the building inspector. Emphasizing work meaning to employees is a low-cost, easy thing to do. It’s as simple as talking constantly about organizational mission, in Mission Minutes at meetings, in supervisory training, in mission and values posters plaster all over your local government campus.

Trust in the workplace takes many forms: employee trust in supervisors, employee trust in upper management, management trust in employees, employee trust in peers. Generally employees trust their supervisors more than they trust upper management, which makes sense given that employees see and hear from their supervisors on a regular basis. More trust correlates with higher engagement scores, and is built by discouraging micromanagement, communicating regularly, and consistently applying policies and messages,

Openness to new ideas. Nothing sucks the lifeblood out of morale like resistance to change. From Millenials to Boomers, employees generally like workplaces where things are happening: improvements are continual, learning is constant, and growth is the norm rather than the exception. Open your workplace to new ideas by ALWAYS seeking employee input for big changes, rewarding employee brainstorms (food is a great motivator), and never saying “No” right off the bat to new ideas.

I put these results to the test with a group of HR directors meeting at the Annual Meeting of OMPO, the Organization of Municipal Personnel Officers, asking them how they might increase trust, meaningfulness, and engagement in the workplace. Some ideas that they have used for engaging employees:

**   Managers walking around and visiting employees informally;

**   Monthly employee dialogues about workplace issues;

**   Breakfast or lunch with the manager during employee birthday months;

**   Role-playing where employee and management roles are switched and each gets a chance to walk in the other’s shoes;

**   Real time employee surveys to identify workplace issues, followed by monthly employee gatherings to address the top 10 issues.

These are just a few examples of how NC local governments are addressing engagement. None of these ideas are particularly costly, but they do require intention and focus. What is your local government doing to engage employees?

 

 

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