SHIFTing to a Next Generation Workplace

One potential road map for local governments looking to attract and retain young, quality talent.

Dec 13, 2016 | ARTICLE

By Michael Lawson

Let's all agree on something: Managers have all the facts about millennials. Millennials have all the facts about millennials. Chances are your organization has had its fill of jokes about millennials' dire need for constant feedback and affinity for sharing...well, everything.

Local governments have accepted what the next generation workforce looks like. They are now confronted with doing everything they can to create one.

Local governments face no shortage of challenges when attracting young, qualified job candidates. There is the management challenge that comes with accommodating the unique demands of younger generations seemingly at the expense of older ones.

There is also the financial challenge of competing with better paying, more prestigious private sector companies for the best-qualified candidates. The fear of placing additional strain on busy human resources teams also weighs on the minds of managers.

It is not much of a surprise, then, that attracting the next generation of workers was recently identified as the top management challenge by ICMA members. As reported in the July 15, 2016, edition of ICMA SmartBrief, 28.6 percent of survey respondents believed attracting young employees to their organizations was more pressing than building citizen trust, communicating with elected officials, or engaging department heads.1

Many local governments have started down the road of changing policies and processes while others are scrambling on where to start. Local governments have taken a wide range of approaches in tailoring policies to win the attention of young job candidates, ranging from making job applications more mobile device-friendly to marketing their government as a great place to work.2

In August 2015, Aurora, Colorado, launched its own wide-ranging approach for creating a next generation workplace. The intent of this article is to share the city's model as one potential road map for local governments looking to attract and retain young, quality talent.

Policy Reviews Are Not Enough

Aurora focused on attracting next generation workers after the city manager, George "Skip" Noe, read Next Generation Professionals: An Inside Look at What Matters to Them" in the August 2015 issue of Public Management (PM). He then sent a brief e-mail to three senior staff members. The task was to read the article and pull together a dozen or so young employees to begin reviewing and updating the city's personnel policies.

After a thorough review of the article, the three project sponsors concluded that changing policy documents alone would not be enough. A broader and deeper approach to reimagining policies, processes, and even culture was needed.

Sponsors asked department directors to nominate high-performing young employees to join the project team. Two dozen young employees were promised the unique opportunity to help shape the organization, while gaining valuable project management experience.

The new group's initial task was to change the way the city does business to better attract and retain high-quality young employees. The group called itself "Shift," as it wanted to encourage an organizationwide shift in its thinking, policies, and culture.

One Goal, Six Strategic Areas: A Model

Shift program sponsors broke the PM article's recommendations into five strategic areas the city would use as the foundation for small working groups: recruiting and hiring, benefits, marketing and communications, culture and philosophy, and employee development.

A sixth area, physical environment, was added to complement the others. A previous forward-thinking employee group had initiated an effort to create fun, offbeat spaces crammed with high-tech collaboration tools. That effort was well under way and had already gained traction. More on the focus of each strategy area can be found in Figure 2.

Policy updates catering to younger employees had to be supported not only by changing the way the organization interacted with employees, but also in the way employees interacted with each other. Aurora believed changing its culture was imperative to make policy changes sustainable.

Building the Teams

Employees nominated by directors were encouraged to invite others who might be interested in the project. The group quickly doubled in size from two dozen to almost 50. Nearly every department was represented.

Participants expressed excitement at the chance to have their ideas heard and to impact city policy. Broad interdepartmental representation and continual support from the manager demonstrated to directors that making their star employees available to work on the project was crucial for the city's future. The Shift project provided a way for directors to further develop their next generation leaders as well.

Shift members were given their choice of which team to join. They were told they were responsible for not just generating ideas for workplace change, but also for implementing them.

Project sponsors directed the teams to take a very broad approach on how to achieve their goal—all ideas would be considered. Subject matter experts were assigned to each team as facilitators to provide technical knowledge to team members. But facilitators were encouraged to let teams generate and champion their own ideas.

One unexpected development was the desire of employees from the boomer and X generations to be a part of the Shift team. Project sponsors were frequently reminded by those employees that they, too, preferred many of the same things their millennial colleagues preferred!

Laying the Foundation

Process. Project sponsors spent two months developing the initial team-based framework. The strategic teams were then given their tasks and four months to come up with their initial recommendations.

Steering committee. One or two employees assumed leadership roles within their respective teams. Team leaders and a project sponsor met together on a regular basis to serve as a steering committee for the entire project.

Performance metrics. The recruiting and hiring team provided baseline employment and cost-of-turnover metrics for the Shift group. This step was critical for tracking the success of the Shift program over time.

Employee survey. The steering committee surveyed all employees using an online questionnaire. Teams used the results as a starting point for their research (select survey results are shown in Figure 3).

"Making the Pitch" and Implementation

After five months of work, all six teams met together in an off-site symposium format and presented their ideas to one another. The intent of the symposium was to have the teams refine each other's recommendations in advance of making a pitch to city leadership two months later.

For the formal presentation to leadership, each team was encouraged to be creative in presenting its recommendations'taking unique approaches was emblematic of the innovative nature of the project. Teams used PowerPoint, Prezi, and even a well-rehearsed skit to make their pitches for more than 40 total recommendations.

Immediately following the formal presentation, the group's achievements were recognized and celebrated with a mixer at a brewpub after regular working hours. The event was important for not only showing appreciation to the employees, but also for encouraging them to stay engaged for the implementation process to come.

Following the mixer, Shift steering committee participants began meeting again to discuss implementation. The group polled city management and all members of the Shift project team for guidance on which recommendations to implement first.

Using feedback and voting among themselves, the committee settled on 10 quick-win implementations that could be carried out within a year and with minimal cost. The idea was to build momentum and legitimacy for the Shift group.

At the time this article was written, the Shift group was working on implementing its first round of recommendations.

Key Recommendations

Given millennials' reputation for thinking differently than previous generations, it came as some surprise to both city leadership and the Shift group itself that many recommendations were not new, out-of-left-field ideas. Most recommendations were ideas the organization considered in the past but never successfully implemented.

In fact, many local governments have already carried out many of the group's individual ideas. Some of the best-regarded recommendations for each of the six Shift teams include:

Benefits. Focus primarily on enhanced work-life integration with alternative work methods, including flex schedules and telecommuting (where appropriate in the organization); merit compensation bonuses for high-performing employees; and extra-time-off bonuses for high-performing employees (e.g., perhaps offering a three-week sabbatical after 10 years of excellent performance).

Culture and philosophy. Revise the annual employee evaluation to feature more custom, quantifiable performance dimensions, including encouraging supervisors to focus on employee overall well-being and showing employees their ideas are heard and appreciated. Do this by establishing a small employee innovation team to assist their peers in developing and presenting their innovations to management.

Employee development. Create a year-long, onboarding process for new hires to help them better understand their role in impacting the organization and community. The process includes activities to be completed each quarter, including a communitywide tour, peer-to-peer mentoring, and crafting an individual development plan.

Recruiting and hiring. Focus on recruitment with a mobile-friendly jobs website; reduce time-to-hire with an in-house, customizable, defined hiring plan tool that provides hiring supervisors with steps to carry out expedited 30-day, standard 60-day, and specialty 90-day hires.

Physical environment. Update conference rooms to promote creativity and collaboration among users. Create comfortable outdoor workspaces with reliable Wi-Fi and other productivity technologies.

Marketing and communications. Encourage use of social media by employees to promote the organization and the community. Employees will learn more about their community, become more invested, and will be likely to stay with the organization. Job candidates will have the community showcased in a fun and engaging way.

Lessons Learned

As with any major project, the city experienced a few surprises:

  • Older employees wanted to be given a voice along with their millennial colleagues. We heard a lot of, "Millennials are not the only ones who will benefit from this project--we like these things, too." Aurora abandoned the notion of Shift being a millennial-oriented project early in the process.
  • Communicating to job candidates and existing employees about the good one can do by working for a local government is critical. While Shift had a team dedicated to exploring this topic, we found that all teams found it important to infuse that message into their recommendations.
  • The city already provides a lot of the benefits younger employees are looking for. It was just a matter of doing a better job at communicating to employees all the benefits offered.
  • Employees need wide latitude to propose ideas. Project sponsors were initially concerned about receiving wild, non-starter ideas. They were surprised to see that recommendations were reasonable and worthy of being taken seriously.

Reasons to Be Encouraged

Having a workplace geared toward the needs and wants of the next generation can no longer be ignored or delayed. Many local governments are well down the road of making themselves more competitive in attracting and retaining high-performing young employees.

If your organization is looking for the best way to get started, there are a number of reasons to be encouraged:

  • Most recommendations from Aurora's Shift project team required zero or minimal funding and less than a year to implement.
  • An organization does not need a large group of millennials to make this model work. While having some young employees involved in the project is a must, Aurora relied on driven, creative employees from all generations and departments to make Shift a success.
  • Managers do not need to have all the answers beforehand. Chances are, your employees already have many of them in mind and are just waiting to be asked.
  • This process can be a chance to address the organization's talent gap while simultaneously investing in its young up-and-coming stars. A next generation workplace initiative builds up the very people you want to keep around. Those millennials involved will likely jump at the opportunity to add the project management experience to their resume as well.
  • Human resources needs to be involved but does not have to take on the task by itself.

The process can be empowering and fun for you and your staff all at the same time. After all, your millennials would not have it any other way.

Endnotes and Resources:

1 ICMA SmartBrief, July 15, 2016. www.smartbrief.com/servlet/ArchiveServlet?issueid=A1E242F7-FBA1-49A9-AAD....

2 Karen Thoreson and Nijah Fudge, "Attracting Talent: Research Recommends Steps to Take," Public Management (PM) magazine, March 2016.

Michael Lawson is manager of special projects, Aurora, Colorado (mlawson@auroragov.org).

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