Although there is debate about which corporate leader actually said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” it is still one of my favorite quotes about business. Even the best and brightest employees in the most steady of American industries cannot perform well if their office culture sucks!
To meet the demands of a growingly “needier” workforce, companies have changed policies to allow staff pets to come to work, offered paid vacation time to volunteer, and turned break areas into botanical game rooms as a means of having a more positive workplace culture. The public sector, dedicated to putting tax payer dollars to its very best use, cannot justify even a small percentage of these luxury office items, nor do they have to.
So, how do you engage employees for free?
- Employee Recognition Awards: Never underestimate the power of a public pat on the back! Take a list of your departments goals, or areas for community improvement, and come up with 5-10 award categories (depending on the size of your team) that would fit the good work of an employee that gets the department one step closer to that goal by the end of the fiscal year, or quarter. Such as “Outstanding Merit for a More Sustainable Workplace” or “Township Award for Public Servant Leadership” or “Public Achievement Award for Office Innovation.” Then use a small piece of your time or space at a Township meeting or in a community-wide publication to recognize those employees. It’s great to take home a crystal engraved trophy, but public credit in front of their colleagues and neighbors costs less and is a prize that keeps on giving. EXTRA CREDIT: It’s great to think these employees will always be on your team, but if not, an official award is something they can speak to on their resume in the future and truly helps their professional development.
- Appoint staff as Service Liaisons for an outside group they care about: Government employees are no strangers to red-tape, lengthy forms and deep stacks of paperwork. When the stakes are high within your own department, it can be hard to see how your work contributes to the greater good. Scientific research shows that understanding the greater good is key to personal well-being and a more passionate society. If you work in purchasing, and your administrator loves hiking, allow he or she to be the official Liaison to the Parks and Recreation Department. Once a quarter, he or she is responsible for getting in touch with leadership or another admin in Parks & Rec and reporting back on 2-3 accomplishments at your next team meeting (that’s right, commit to this and make the updates a formal agenda item!). It can be anything from, the fountains at the park are back in order, to a reminder that Ranger Jim is retiring and if you see him say congrats. Your purchaser might even hear how his or her work directly affected the life of a child, students, or dog-walking group! This costs you nothing, except the time of a short quarterly conversation between two colleagues. It gives the employees an outlet to something they enjoy, and paints a more detailed picture of the greater good we should all be working toward.
- Plan ahead. Employee retention, department culture and personnel concerns should be addressed each year with the same level of detail as budgets. It almost always costs more to hire a new employee than it does to retain a good one. Annual goals for the department, or an individual leader, should always have one item that reflects the internal people behind the public work. Real culture change has to come from the top.
It’s not all fun and games! If it’s not in your nature to be involved with coworkers beyond a certain friendly-yet-professional level, that is fine. There is very likely someone on your team who already knows everyone’s birthday in the office and has a Pinterest board for every government recognized holiday. Make that person in charge of distributing a birthday list to the rest of the team! Most public workers did not enter the field for office ping-pong and a beer fridge. Which is great because you can’t provide those amenities, but you can provide community-wide support and attention. Some extra time and recognition from leaders and members of their own community can go a long way for a happier public workforce.