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Engagement in the Public Sector

By Adele Cook, Chief Learning Officer, Arizona Department of Economic Security

Adele Cook, Chief Learning Officer, Arizona Department of Economic Security

“You don't understand. He had the power to make us happy or unhappy, to make our work a pleasure or a burden. “

This line from Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol comes to mind every time I think of engagement. Organizations are increasingly concerned about engagement, for good reason. Engagement has been shown to correlate to solid business goals: low turnover, low churn, lower costs of replacement, more improvement due to continuity, and retention of institutional knowledge.

At the end of the day, employee engagement is about making work a pleasure or a burden. Work is still work, but it does not have to be drudgery. Engagement surveys and scores are indicators of where we are doing that well or not. Central to engagement is ensuring that the things that employees need in order to do good, meaningful work in an atmosphere that is positive exist and are regularly evaluated.

My organization uses a myriad of mechanisms for gathering needs and implementing improvements. The Department of Administration does an annual engagement survey to get a snapshot of employee needs, as indicated by scores on the survey. The survey narrows those needs into certain categories, each of which has a question that is scored on a Likert scale:tools and equipment to do the job, having the opportunity to do what we are best at every day, receiving support and care from supervisors, receiving recognition when deserved, receiving support for education and professional development, and the big one: my job is important to the mission of the agency. For the past two years, the results of that survey have been used as the basis of high performing culture strategies for the next year. Each Division of the organization implements its own strategies to meet its own needs revealed by the survey.

"We continue to include engagement in our strategic planning because our employees deserve it, and because we also want to work somewhere that work is a pleasure rather than a burden"

Within my unit, we take the results of the survey as a starting point to dive into specific needs. We utilize additional surveys with more granular questions, and focus groups help illuminate detail and importance. We also use mechanisms that are normal business: huddles, idea and problem solving sessions, 1:1s, and things called gemba walks. Gemba walks involve a leader going to the place where the work is done to see how the work is done, what the enablers and barriers are, what the concerns of the unit are. In my experience, the gemba walk is the single most valuable method for finding out employee needs. We do quarterly surveys on the lowest areas of engagement, and include an “optimism” question about the confidence staff have that leadership will make positive change. Employees are also able to write comments. Each week I hold an all-staff “CLO Chat” at which I share news and recognition: the week of the survey, I address all of the comments. We are constantly seeking and gathering information to make work a pleasure rather than burden.

In addition to things that will make positive change (for example, increasing professional development options, formalizing recognition, etc.), we tackle things that we should really be doing anyway where the lack is an anti-engager, as it were. For example, in a government agency, most don’t expect to have the latest technology; however, they have a right to expect that the technology they have works and is available when they need it to be. If someone’s computer, login, access, software isn’t available on day one, engagement will drop, even if the individual gets a better computer later. Why? Because the organization didn’t care enough to be ready for the new employee. That feeling doesn’t go away. We need to get that one right, right from the get go. If it’s not, we need a strategy to get it right.

Things that feed the soul put meaning into work. My organization is very lucky. Our mission of helping the citizens of Arizona be safe and economically secure is intrinsically important, and employees generally know that they are important to the mission. As leaders, we recognize the sense of service is a need for our teams, and keep the good work front and center, through articles on our intranet home page, to weekly emails from leadership, to the CLO Chats that I do every Friday to recognize what is positive and keep people informed of strategy and other important topics. We also try to eliminate unnecessary barriers or burdens. You can have all the recognition in the world, but if processes make the work unnecessarily difficult, you’re not going to move the engagement needle.

Professional development and education is a powerful way to feed the soul. Last year, we implemented a Massive Open Online Collection (MOOC) that has thousands of titles in it. Within my unit, we used our performance management system to encourage use and to grant credit for professionally developing. We also gave time on Fridays for people to take courses, or host workshops, or attend webinars. What they learned has been folded back into their work. The key here is that the employees are identifying their learning needs. All we did as an agency was make a tool available and encourage its use. And yet it drove an unprecedented improvement in engagement: 80% increase in positive responses relating to education and professional development, with the MOOC cited as the number one reason for the change.

We have many mechanisms for gathering and addressing employee needs and endeavor to make maximum use of them. Technology has been very useful in gathering big data and pointing us in the right direction. The MOOC implemented was invaluable in meeting a variety of organizational and personal needs. In person or personal follow up, as well as our regularly huddles and gemba walks, have been extremely helpful in gathering actionable detail…and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrating that our employees’ needs have been heard. We continue to include engagement in our strategic planning because our employees deserve it, and because we also want to work somewhere that work is a pleasure rather than a burden.

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