Creating a Vibrant Workplace

In a knowledge economy, it is all about attracting, retaining and growing talent. Talent management is a particularly important issue for local governments since we have a higher proportion of knowledge workers than the private sector. (1) Knowledge workers, especially “Next Generation” employees (Gen X and Y), not only want to be paid well and receive competitive benefits, they increasingly demand a vibrant and vital workplace. In a shrinking talent market, paying competitive wages and benefits is necessary but completely insufficient. The war for talent is won or lost on the battlefield of culture.

Feb 1, 2009 | ARTICLE

So how does a local government create a vibrant work culture for knowledge workers? I suggest three answers:

1. Creating awareness about values

2. Consciously developing a positive workplace aligned with certain values

3. Exerting leadership at all levels to support in concrete ways the workplace culture

Values

Next generation employees exhibit several key values that are critical to shaping a supportive workplace. John Izzo, in his book Values Shift (2), identified five values for the next gen:

Meaning. All employees, especially younger ones, crave meaning in their work. Meaning is the most powerful motivator of behavior. In fact, author Daniel Pink proclaims that “meaning is the new money.” (3)

Challenge. Younger employees want to be constantly challenged and stretched through new or evolving assignments and roles. If next gen employees do not feel challenged, they will leave.

Learning. The opportunity to continuously learn is a big value for Gen X and Y. Providing an array of training, education, and stretch assignments creates a “learning edge” for a local government organization. In fact, learning is the new “social glue” that attracts and retains employees. (4)

Partners in the enterprise. Next gen workers do not want to wait 20 years until they get a piece of the decision-making action. They want to be partners in the enterprise now. Typically, not always, baby-boomer managers and professionals who have worked their way up organizational ladders are committed to hierarchy. However, creating partners in the enterprise requires reaching out at all levels and promoting a certain amount of organizational fluidity. Leaders need to respect organizational structure but also go beyond it in engaging everyone.

Balance. Baby boomers have always been committed to career. Gen X and Y knowledge workers are also committed to career but are not willing to sacrifice family and personal lives at the altar of work. They want balance.

Nurturing Culture

These five values form the bedrock of a vibrant workplace and supportive culture. To translate values into actual workplace practices and culture, organizational leadership at all levels must:

• Hold conversations on an ongoing basis about the work of employees and its importance to the organization and the community.

• Provide new learning and stretch assignments as well as training and professional development opportunities.

• Engage all employees in discussions about the challenges facing the organization, their aspirations, and the decisions that must be made if the organization is to move forward.

• Implement flexible scheduling, telecommuting, child and eldercare education and support programs, and other measures to help employees have a life in addition to a career.

Seven Leadership Roles

Creating a vibrant workplace cannot be created by fiat. It requires conscious leadership work at all levels. Leaders need to take on different roles, including:

Convener and Conversation Starter. Leaders must convene and engage employees so that they take an active role in conversations about the present and future of their organization. These venues could include small intimate opportunities, such as “coffee with the chief executive” on designated mornings in the cafeteria, as well as more formal group meetings.

Translator. Leaders need to translate the challenges, difficulties, opportunities and the nature of the work so employees perceive meaning. By helping employees sense they are making a difference in the lives of others, building community and saving the planet, leaders become “meaning translators.”

Dream Maker. Individuals and organizations both require dreams and the hard work to achieve those aspirations if they are to do great things as well as become fulfilled. Therefore, leaders must engage employees in discussing their own dreams and those they hold for the organization. Of course, then leaders must work with all to translate those dreams into plans and actions.

Journey Leader. A great workplace is characterized by employees who commit to the general enterprise, key initiatives, and each other. Employees cannot be ordered to commit. Managerial authority is impotent. As Charles Lauer has stated, “leaders cannot force people to follow—they invite them on a journey.” Therefore, leaders must articulate the nature of the journey, excite people about the opportunity and challenge, and then invite people to join them.

Follower. Great leaders are great followers. If leaders engage employees in the big issues of the day, they must be open to following the values, ideas and needs articulated by organizational members. To be a great follower, leaders must demonstrate a certain humility and vulnerability in addition to any traditional toughness and forcefulness.

Party Host. We in local government do not know how to have fun in the workplace. In our party host role, we can organize coffee and bagel breaks, tail-gate pizza parties, or ice cream socials in order to recognize people, show our appreciation, and especially celebrate our successes. I call it “purposeful partying.” Partying with a purpose helps create a more vital environment and a more committed work group.

A Focus on Workplace

To help focus on this key issue of creating a vibrant and supportive workplace, leaders can take several specific steps:

1. Talk on a regular basis about organizational values and the workplace culture, as well as the agency’s problems, goals and plans.

2. Incorporate into the agency’s strategic plan a specific goal of creating a vital workplace.

3. Assess organizational climate and culture through a periodic employee survey and focus groups.

4. Fix what needs to be fixed, based on employee survey research and feedback.

5. Identify roles for everyone in the organization to enhance the workplace. Everyone is responsible for a vital workplace.

6. Include “culture promotion” as a key role of all managers.

7. Hold managers accountable through their performance evaluations for helping promote a vital workplace.

A vital workplace can only be created through collective leadership. In turn, a supportive workplace culture nurtures a “leader-full” organization.

Soft Culture/Hard Results

While individual performance certainly matters, work happens in a social context. Any important work crosses individual, group or department boundaries. Consequently, workplace culture either undercuts or supercharges individual performance.

The centrality of culture is underscored by research conducted by the Gallup Organization. Gallup has documented that most employees (in fact, 72 percent) in both the public and private sectors are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” (5) The negative impacts include lower productivity, increased absences, higher levels of customer dissatisfaction, greater numbers of worker comp claims, and higher turnover. Conversely, a high-engagement culture creates higher levels of employee performance, lower costs, and increased customer satisfaction. Culture turns out to be a bottom-line issue. While the notion of creating a vital workplace may seem “squishy,” the soft stuff creates hard results.

Thriving, Not Just Surviving

In summary, leaders must be shapers of the workplace. A positive workplace culture is certainly tied to higher levels of organizational performance. Most importantly, however, it is only through a vibrant workplace that a local government can attract, retain and grow talent and thereby thrive, not just survive. In a knowledge economy, human capital is the only one real competitive edge.

Dr. Frank Benest, ICMA Credentialed Manager, is the former City Manager of Palo Alto, CA, and currently serves as ICMA Senior Advisor for Next Generation Initiatives.

Notes

1. Stuart Greenfield, Public Sector Employment: The Current Situation (Center for State and Local Government Excellence, 2007).

2. John B. Izzo and Pam Withers, Values Shift: The New Work Ethic and What It Means for Business (Fairwinds Press, 2002).

3. Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind—Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverbank Books, 2006).

4. Frank Benest, “Retaining and Growing Talent: Strategies to Create Organizational Stickiness,” Public Management, October, 2008.

5. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Great Managers Do (Simon and Schuster, 1999).

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