Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | With millions of public sector employees moving to full-time remote work amid the coronavirus pandemic, government employers will need to find innovative ways to keep their employees engaged.
Since the emergence of Covid-19, millions of employees, including in government, are suddenly working from home all of the time. While this creates some operational challenges, it also creates a need for employers to emphasize employees’ psychological well-being, performance and productivity.
According to one private sector executive, the transition to remote work is "a process, not a binary switch to be flipped.”
While the surge in telework may seem like a short-term response to a national emergency, I think it’s much more than that. When this crisis subsides, some employees will gladly return to their offices, work sites and colleagues. But many employees, and possibly some employers, will want to continue some type of work from home, at least part-time.
One challenge in managing a remote workforce is how to keep employees engaged when they’re not physically at their offices. This is critical not just because more employees are working from home, but also because the level of engagement across the U.S. workforce is already low, including in government.
Engagement matters but is low
The most recent annual national poll conducted by the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, which I lead, found that only 33% of federal, state and local government employees are fully engaged. That parallels research conducted by other organizations, including Gallup.
This low engagement is alarming. A separate Gallup study found that disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy up to $550 billion annually in lost revenue.
Research has shown that high levels of engagement in government are linked to outcomes that matter. These include achieving strategic goals, attracting and retaining talent, developing innovative solutions, fostering teamwork and ensuring on-the-job safety.
The Institute’s research has also revealed that highly engaged government employees are three times more likely than disengaged employees to believe that their organizations are achieving their missions and that they can also influence quality, cost and customer service.
Bottom line: engagement matters. Government should strive to improve it, especially now when employees are not physically together.
Engaging a remote workforce
The factors that influence engagement vary across and within organizations. That’s why it is important to survey employees—even in the current environment—to understand what influences their engagement, focus on those specific drivers and adapt them for remote employees.
However, many government organizations haven’t done this kind of outreach with their employees and, therefore, don’t have data on what drives engagement in their workforces. The risk is that these organizations may act without really knowing if they are doing the right things. It’s vital to understand the problem before prescribing a solution.
According to our Institute’s annual national survey, key drivers of public-sector employee engagement include: leadership, training and development, organizational mission and employee recognition.
It’s critical for leaders to remain visible to employees who are working remotely. Employees need to see that their leaders care about them and are actively managing. This is truly a case where it’s impossible to overcommunicate. In fact, leaders should use all means of communication to reach their employees. While emailing and messaging may be convenient, they can’t always substitute for face-to-face interactions, especially for sensitive or nuanced topics. Leaders should embrace audio and video communication methods to talk to their employees.
Communication shouldn’t be ad hoc. Develop a communication strategy and plan that specifies the targeted audience, the objective of the message, the method/media, who will deliver the message, and when.
Leaders also need to set expectations and accountabilities. It’s no longer possible to know if employees are working merely by seeing them at their desks or work sites. Instead of focusing on presence, leaders should focus on employees’ goals and results. That’s a good idea even when things get back to “normal.”
Leadership also means making sure remote employees have the tools they need. If an employee’s Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough, get them a mobile hot spot or a better data plan.
Lastly, leaders should project confidence that the organization will get through this, but also show empathy and acknowledge that employees are experiencing stress and anxiety.
Training and development
It would be easy to ignore employee development in the current environment, but this would be a mistake. Supervisors and employees should continue to focus on development, using options that don’t require in-person interaction. Employers should take advantage of the vast amount of online training programs. While most in-person conferences have been postponed or canceled, some are conducting online, virtual events. Organizations can also deliver their internal training virtually.
Another proven strategy is mentoring, which doesn’t require face-to-face contact but can still be highly effective and cost-efficient.
Research has shown that, in general, government employees have a higher level of commitment to organizational mission than their private-sector counterparts. Many public servants were initially attracted to government by the mission of their respective agencies.
Senior leaders, managers and supervisors need to take extra steps to define, communicate and emphasize mission. One way to do this is to create opportunities for employees to remotely interact with customers and stakeholders. This will help employees understand their organization's mission better, see clearly how their work supports the mission, feel they are making a difference and believe their organization is achieving its mission.
Our Institute’s research has consistently found that a key cultural driver in government is ensuring that employees feel valued. This can be tough without physical proximity. It’s no longer possible to walk down the hall to thank or praise an employee.
Nevertheless, it’s important to reach out to remote employees to recognize their contributions, and emphasize appreciation for their continued commitment during difficult circumstances.
For example, I was recently on a teleconference where a manager praised the work of one of the folks on the call. I could “hear” the smile in her voice when she said thanks.
Agencies should create, publicize and use online tools that allow employees to nominate each other for recognition. They also can use offline approaches such as thank-you cards, handwritten notes and even birthday and anniversary cards.
It’s a cliché that the flip side of challenge is opportunity. But if we view today’s working conditions as a unique opportunity to show public-sector employees we care about them, we can maintain and even boost engagement. This will be a win for government organizations, public servants and, most importantly, the people government serves.
Bob Lavigna, author of the book Engaging Government Employees, is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a division of CPS HR Services, an independent government agency.