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Agency Operations

Local governments pursue flexible work options to drive retention of high-performing talent

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

How can local government offer such cutting-edge benefits as flexible work and job sharing to hire and retain a new generation of workers?

Work-life balance, morale, and fair compensation are key factors for why people are quitting in local government, according to recent data from the National Employee Survey (NES), which measures the local government workplace based on employee opinions based on a nationwide database showing what matters most or job satisfaction for local government employees.

Right now, local governments have about 1 million fewer employees than they did in 2019, and they need to hire 928,000 people into current open positions, according to the Rockefeller Institute.

To address the preferences of current workers around flexibility, morale, and compensation, public sector employers must leg go of the current operating model of incentivizing longevity, which includes increased pay for time served and accruing benefits over time rather basing compensation adjustments and benefits on performance or relevant professional and educational experience. It is outdated because it is based on a mid-20th century economy where job stability and longer tenures were valued by members of the Baby Boomer and Silent generations.

Embracing flexibility in terms of when, how, and where work gets done is critical if public sector employers at the local level want to attract and keep high-performing workers. This means giving workers the autonomy to determine what hours work best for their schedule within a framework of core hours and required work days. It also includes allowing some flexibility as to where the work gets done.

“Once you throw out the idea that local government services are only available between 8 am and 4:30 pm inside City Hall, you can rethink everything,” says Allyson Brunette, a former local government employee who left the industry last year to start her own local government consulting firm with a focus on adapting culture and workforce models to attract top talent. “Are there hours when almost nobody comes into City Hall? Maybe you can rethink your core service hours. Do you maintain and operate a large building to house 100-plus onsite employees? Maybe you can downsize to a smaller facility that holds 20 employees that need to be onsite and invest in building a remote workforce.”

Addressing the need for change

Local governments may be resistant or fearful of changing their service delivery model for fear of upsetting taxpayers. “I often hear in working with local government clients from elected officials that their top priority is delivering great customer service to their constituents,” says Brunette. “This is a noble goal, but their definition of great customer service does not align with contemporary expectations for service delivery. Indeed, if the service delivery model requires people to come into City Hall either as employees or customers, it could be based on a 1980s-style service that is deficient to a growing percentage of your customers.”

There is no doubt that some roles can be done off-site full time, giving employers the added benefit of hiring from a larger pool of candidates outside of their geographic area for these jobs. However, public sector leaders must proceed with caution.

Implementing a remote work policy for an organization requires investment in a management model that is designed for remote work, not in spite of it, Brunette explains. You can’t just operate your organization the same way you always have, but insist that employees who work remotely fit in to that in-office culture.

Brunette advises government employers to reimagine their on-boarding, communications, meetings, and engagement from the ground up, building it around a remote workforce. “Organizations that skip this effort will likely see higher turnover and lower engagement from remote workers who feel that they are a secondary priority to in-office peers,” she adds.

One small step toward determining what functions could be done remotely or in a hybrid way are one-team experiments conducted within a defined period of time. For example, employers could select one or two objectives to test, such as making core hours between 9 am and 3 pm, local time. Then they could allow half of their team members to work these hours for a period of two weeks, with a rotating responsibility of one person being “on call” to address any critical issues that occur outside core hours. After the two-week time frame passes, employers should conduct a lessons-learned discussion to determine what, if any, important services or tasks failed to get done and see if there is a solution to ensure that this does not happen again.

Offering flexible benefits

Another element of flexibility that will attract high performance is adaptable benefits. Flex benefits offer people variable options based on their life stage — for example, parental leave won’t be of interest to empty nesters, but time off for elder care for aging parents might be. Or, subsidized pet insurance may be more attractive to people who are single and without children at the early stages of their careers when income levels tend to be lower.

Job sharing also can be an attractive flexible way of working for seasoned people who want to downshift their careers and work schedules, for working parents who seek part-time work while also being able to spend time in the early years of their child’s life, or for those who want to pursue side interests and have the benefit of a steady source of income to cover major expenses.

Contract work is another attractive alternative to full-time hours. Local government workers can participate in the gig economy for busy seasonal work or for work tasks that tend to be more inconsistent. Local governments have long used the request for proposal (RFP) process to hire contracted service providers for short-term project engagements. This could be extended to contracting hyper-specific functions within an organization, like graphic design work or social media content generation.

To address the morale issue, local public sector employers need to emphasize their strengths, and one of the key ones is the opportunity for meaningful work. Indeed, 84% of NES respondents feel positive about working for local governments, and 86% said their values align with their work.

Empowering and incentivizing leaders to consistently connect how each employee’s job is providing a valuable public service and helping to achieve the mission of the organization is vital to fixing the issue of low employee morale.

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