Text size: A A A

Improving employee experience starts with effective listening

Every manager, whether they realise it or not, has an “unspoken contract” with every one of their direct reports. The moment a professional begins with an organisation, they begin to form expectations (aka a “psychological contract”) about how they will be treated at work and what opportunities should fairly come their way.

Importantly, over the past 18-24 months, the pandemic has significantly changed the public sector employee experience. This will have long-lasting impacts on the psychological contracts between public sector employees and their employers.

Understanding the new public sector employee experience and re-defined psychological contract is critical because it has significant consequences that can work both for and against public sector employers. For organisations that effectively manage employee expectations and keep their promises, fulfilling this contract provides an important opportunity to raise morale, boost discretionary effort and bring out hidden potential.

But for managers who create expectations among their team members – often without realising – and then fail to live up to them, the consequences can be not only negative but costly. Lower levels of engagement and intention to stay have both been shown to be the consequences.

Flexible working is no longer seen as a differentiating perk, so organisations that attempt to turn it off and force everyone back into the office full-time will likely see retention decline and have challenges attracting future talent. But this should be viewed as a change for the better. Our research – The new rules of engagement: A better way to work in Australia – found 88% of employees saying it has made them more productive. Most employees (71%) want to continue working from home for part of the week.

The office is not becoming irrelevant, but the physical workspace has been in constant flux for more than 50 years and continues to change. From cubicles to open plan, from large conference rooms to small huddle spaces, creating the ideal office environment is an ongoing challenge for facility managers and real estate planners.

The pandemic has accelerated these physical space changes. A network of smaller offices may soon replace large centralised offices, while rotating onsite work days reduces the amount of space required. We’re also likely to see the look and feel of the office impacted by spacing and partitions.

But one constant is that employees will still seek opportunities to connect with their colleagues. The key to finding the right balance lies in gleaning insights from employee-listening and acting on them.

Engagement drivers have changed

Data shows that since the pandemic, employee expectations and key drivers of employee engagement are changing and evolving more than we have seen before. In our annual study conducted just before the pandemic, the top five drivers of employee engagement were confidence in senior leadership, recognition, opportunities for learning, career development and manager effectiveness. These have been key employee-engagement drivers for many years.

The drivers changed almost completely when we did the survey 12 months later and people had very different employee experiences, whether that involved working onsite with new health and safety protocols or working remotely for the first time. A sense of belonging was now the top priority. Second spot was how effectively career goals were met, while pride in the company’s efforts to have a positive impact in the world took third place.

In the wake of the pandemic, calls for racial justice and unprecedented change, more people want space to be their authentic selves and feel they are part of something that creates a positive impact. It makes sense that these ideals are becoming integral to the employee experience.

They also demand work processes that allow employees to be as productive as possible (taking fourth place). In a period during which people have been required to adapt to various new processes, it shows the importance of job enablement in our new and emerging world of work.

While employees appear to have shifted focus from learning and development (L&D) to opportunities to achieve their career goals in the context of the pandemic, we expect re-focusing on L&D to be key to talent attraction and retention into the future. Recent Qualtrics research has found that lack of growth opportunities is cited as the No.1 reason both managers and individual contributors are seeking new jobs in the next 12 months. As employers look to navigate the anticipated ‘great resignation’ and retain talent, learning and development will play a key role.

How the public sector can stay ahead

Employers need to frequently listen to their workforce and use the insights from feedback loops to make data-driven decisions in a more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment than ever before. In the public sector, this means going beyond the annual whole-of-government census or engagement surveys and complementing these strategic diagnostic tools with other more frequent listening tools (such as pulse surveys), which can provide more targeted, real-time feedback and lead (vs lag) indicators.

The public sector must focus on collecting employee feedback more frequently and ensuring this feedback is used to drive action and change. Our research shows 94% of employees believe it’s important an organisation listens to feedback but just 19% say their organisation acts on it very well – we refer to this as ‘the feedback-action gap’.

Increased employee listening and a strong focus on using insights to drive change and continually improve the employee experience will be key, enabling the public sector to better compete with the private sector when attracting and retaining talent. There is also an inextricable connection between employee experience and the public sector’s ability to deliver on its purpose and strategic priorities. Employees represent the face of government to a citizen and influence every important outcome in the public sector, including perceptions of public trust, organisational performance and quality of service delivery.

Although government agencies may struggle to match private sector salary and benefits packages, a purpose and mission-driven workforce is a powerful advantage over other sectors. All public sector workers, from analysts compiling reports to technicians processing permits, have good reason to believe in the impact of their work.

These factors are particularly important among younger employees. Millennials, the largest segment of today’s workforce, are a socially conscious generation. They want employers to take a firm position on issues that matter. Our research found 75% would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company and 76% consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work, compared to 58% across age groups.

In terms of attracting and competing with the private sector for talent with the future skills required to drive change and transformation, it’s also important that the public sector deliver a positive recruitment experience. Public sector regulations and requirements, however, can often make government recruitment processes feel impersonal and disengaging. This results in missed opportunities to recruit the best talent into government. As all unsuccessful candidates are also citizens who consume government services, it can also harm public perception and trust in government as well as the ability to attract talent.

Confidence in senior leadership to make the right decisions is the one ‘traditional’ driver of employee engagement that has remained prominent in the new world of work. Beyond this, employees expect increased flexibility, a greater focus on leadership support and communication and more emphasis on wellbeing and inclusion.

The key to success is listening to your workforce and using these insights to make data-driven decisions in the new and emerging world of work.

The past 18 months have presented an unexpected opportunity to reimagine employee experience. Getting it right will have a positive impact on talent attraction and retention, service delivery, citizen experience and trust in government.

How technology and the pandemic have changed the workplace for good

How cloud-based technologies are helping the public service function more efficiently and safely

Using cloud-based services means government institutions are 'future-proofed; advanced technology also makes the public sector more appealing to recruits.
collaboration-lobby

Beyond the water cooler: how we need to collaborate in a digital world

While working from home might be good for focus, how does it affect collaboration, brainstorming, networking and day-to-day mentoring?…
Firms and government departments will need to make offices more interesting places to occupy if they expect younger workers to give up working from home.

The changing role of city offices as more employees seek to work from home

Firms and government departments will need to make offices more interesting places to occupy if they expect younger workers to give up working from home.
check-phone-night

Radical workplace changes needed to improve work-life balance

Public-sector unions are seeking to enshrine in agreements 'the right to disconnect', particularly for employees in high-stress environments.
business people-parental leave

Welcome to the new ways of working: flexibility, trust and empowerment

The pandemic has given people a taste of a more flexible working life. Most people want to spend some time in the office and some…
Two years ago, for a Sydney worker, a meeting in Melbourne meant two flights and a long day. Now it’s far more likely to be a Zoom call.

Hybrid power: where future employees will choose to work

No one is surprised to learn that the percentage of people working from home in Australia has leapt from 8% to 40% over the past…
Sustainable economic development requires a skilled and educated workforce made up of people who are adaptable to changing technologies.

The keys to developing a skilled and educated workforce

Sustainable economic development requires a skilled and educated workforce made up of people who are adaptable to changing technologies.
Generational shifts within the labour market and fluctuating levels of digital literacy require close attention when it comes to upskilling.

How we need to prepare workers for jobs of the future

Generational shifts within the labour market and fluctuating levels of digital literacy require close attention when it comes to training and upskilling.

Improving employee experience starts with effective listening

Every manager, whether they realise it or not, has an unspoken contract with every one of their direct reports that starts the moment a professional…
Employers need a clear focus on building and growing capabilities

Successful digital transformation is about combining talent and technology

Employers need a clear focus on building and growing capabilities to succeed amid strong competition for specialist talent and expertise.