EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT, February 2022

Work: The Future Is Now

Former NFL coach George Allen once replied to a question about his team’s future by saying, “The future is now.” He then put his words into action by trading away most of his team’s draft choices for current players.

Without regard to whether his strategy was successful, Allen’s comment rings a bell as I hear and read predictions about the future of work.

Want to understand the future of work? Just look around. The future is already here, characterized by a sellers’ market for talent in which job candidates and employees have options and bargaining power. The results are unprecedented challenges in attracting and retaining talent, including in the public sector.

Employers need to adapt to job seekers and employees instead of expecting them to adapt to our processes. This is particularly true now that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how and where many people work and also caused many to rethink what they want out of work and life. Add in dramatic demographic changes in the U.S. population, and the result is far more workplace complexity—and more jobs than people. The evidence is clear.

  • Record numbers of employees are quitting. More than 4.5 million Americans left their jobs in November 2021, marking a new record in a monthslong trend of high rates of voluntary separations.
  • Also in November of last year, there were 800,000 vacancies in state and local government, a 37 percent increase over the same month of 2020.
  • Surveys show up to 50 percent of employees nationwide are thinking about changing jobs.
  • COVID-19 has driven a wave of retirements, including in government.
  • State and local governments lag behind the private sector in recovering jobs lost during the pandemic.
  • U.S. birth rates have steadily declined, and the country experienced its lowest population growth rate ever during 2021—barely 0.1 percent.

How Should Government Organizations Respond?

What do all those statistics mean for attracting and retaining talented government employees in our new world of work? First, public sector organizations need to dramatically up their hiring game. Unfortunately, improving government hiring is a target-rich environment.

A Randstad survey revealed 86 percent of employees “would not apply for or continue to work for a company that has a bad reputation with former employees or the general public.” One takeaway from this is that government needs a branding makeover to change the (mis)perception that it and government work are boring and bureaucratic.

Job announcements that use dull and dense language straight from position descriptions only perpetuate the unflattering stereotypes. For example, one ad for a government position posted to a popular online job site advised candidates, “The employee is required to talk, stand, sit, walk, stoop, lift, bend, push and reach with hands and arms. The position requires long periods of sitting.”

Sounds pretty exciting. How can I apply?

Government must do better. Ditch the PD language and instead describe the ways the person who lands the job will be able to make a difference in the lives of the people government serves.

Hiring must also be streamlined. I once heard someone describe a government agency’s process as hiring the best of the desperate—only those hardy souls willing to fight their way through a long and convoluted process because they see few other options.

Some government organizations get it and are aggressively rebranding while also changing how they recruit and making the hiring process more user-friendly. Some now even hire on the spot for select positions.

CPS HR Consulting recently worked with a department of corrections to rebrand its image and recruit more aggressively, particularly through Facebook, Instagram and other social media. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of applications for correctional officer positions, which are traditionally among the toughest jobs to fill.

Reforming hiring involves being more flexible about job requirements and focusing more on skills than on traditional basic qualifications such as years of experience. After all, how can we know if an applicant touting five years of experience hasn’t just had one year of meaningful experience five times over?

Focusing on skills can make jobs more accessible, expand candidate pools and help diversify the workforce. As an official with the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce advised during a workforce panel discussion in late December 2021, “Tear down your preconceived barriers about what you can and cannot do, especially around job requirements. The concept that this job wants five years experience and you need to have this degree and this background, those are oftentimes self-limiting beliefs.”

Creating a Positive Employee Experience

The future of government work isn’t just about improving recruiting and hiring, of course. It also has to be about engaging and retaining current employees. Replacing a disaffected employee who votes with their feet costs valuable expertise and experience—as well as up to 150 percent of the employee’s salary.

Many organizations, including those in government, are responding to the Great Resignation by increasing pay. An explosion of compensation studies has swept the nation as organizations struggle to compete for talent based on pay. And, certainly, if the salary and benefits for a position are not competitive, both need to be improved.

But pay is also not the whole answer. Attracting and retaining talent requires creating the best possible employee experience (EX), or what is sometimes described as “moments that matter.” EX covers the entire employee lifecycle from hire to retire. It includes hiring, onboarding, supervision, training and development, workplace flexibility, recognition, performance management, pay and benefits, resources and employee well-being.

According to Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.” As proof of this, an analysis conducted by Josh Bersin showed that organizations that create a positive employee experience are almost two and one-half times more likely to “delight” customers, more than four times more likely to be innovative and five times more likely to retain employees.

 

The graphic above lists some key EX activities and shows how a positive employee experience results in a stable, engaged and high-performing workforce, which then drives organizational performance and customer satisfaction.

Assessing the Employee Experience

The axiom “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” applies to EX, and there are multiple data points to use. These include turnover and retention rates, insights from exit and stay interviews, attendance data, employee performance metrics and customer satisfaction scores. Remember, a positive EX drives a positive customer experience.

At the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, we believe surveying employees is the best way to understand and measure EX. Asking every employee to provide feedback on their work experience enables the employer to assess the level of engagement and identify barriers to a high-performing and high-engagement workforce.

Our national surveys and work with multiple public sector organizations often uncover employee frustration with EX factors such as recognition, change management, training and development, communication, work-life balance, flexibility, equity and inclusion, and pay.

No one-size-fits-all solution exists. Each organization must base its actions to improve the EX on how its employees feel about the work environment. Guessing or relying mostly on social events—“Virtual bingo, anyone?”—no longer cuts it in an era of intense competition for talent.

I once heard a speaker say, “In government, they ask us to do more with less, and then even more with even less and then—ultimately—they want us to do everything with nothing.”

This assessment may be harsh and, at least with the last part, exaggerated. But it contains more than a grain of truth. The public continues to demand high levels of service from all levels of government. In fact, the public demands more now than ever before. To meet expectations, public sector organizations must ensure they have systems in place to attract, develop, engage and retain talented employees. Creating a positive employee experience is key.

Because the future of work is now.

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