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Staff retention challenge: keeping longer-term employees happy and engaged

Trying to attract the best and brightest to the public service is all well and good. But what about the talent that’s already there? How important is it that you keep your existing staff not just happy to hang around – but engaged in their work and committed to what you’re trying to achieve?

With almost 40% of public sector employees considering quitting their jobs in 2022, according to research by experience management consultant Qualtrics, and unemployment at its lowest rate since the 1970s, leaders need to think long and hard about staff retention as well as recruitment.

“It’s a very important area for government agencies to be focusing on: how do we keep that talent, particularly our critical talent, our high-performing talent?” asks Crissa Sumner, head of employee experience solution strategy, Australia and New Zealand, with Qualtrics. “It’s absolutely critical from a stability perspective.”

Dr Samantha Johnson, a lecturer in the School of Business at the University of NSW Canberra, says that established staff offer experience and know-how and provide cultural context that can facilitate change.

“You need people who champion the organisation, people who fill in the blanks, who can explain the culture and tell the stories of the organisation, so that your new top talent actually understand what they’re walking into,” she says.

“New people can be a bit dismissive of the past. They say, ‘I don’t care. I’m just moving into the future and I’m going to make changes around here.’ If your top talent is making some changes, which they should, you need to have the right platform for that.

“There’s got to be respect for the work that other people have done, and the contribution that other people have made. And those stories help develop that respect. The balance of new and old is very important.”

Under threat

It’s common for established staff to feel threatened when new people arrive with new ideas, Johnson says. Especially if they think they’ve missed out on a promotion in the process.

“Things have to be rattled a bit for organisations to thrive,” she says. “But there’s got to be transparency from senior leaders and managers about why it’s important to have a balance of new and old. Why do we need these new perspectives? Why do they matter? Because a lot of people don’t really get that.

“You’ve got to have a healthy culture, where people don’t feel threatened, but they embrace the new perspectives. And the new perspectives coming in [need to] respect the old perspectives.”

Sumner says a lack of growth, development and career opportunities is one of the most common factors causing employees to quit their jobs.

“It’s important that organisations really focus on growth and development opportunities,” she says.

She believes that a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it. “I’m a real advocate of personal and professional development being individualised and aligned with an individual’s preferences and career goals,” she says.

“We’re seeing organisations and some of the large federal agencies who work with us very effectively use 360-degree feedback, for example, to help people understand their unique profile of strengths and development areas, and then to work with them to create individually tailored development plans that are going to work for them.

“I think the more organisations invest in those types of areas, they’ll have a much better outcome in terms of retention of their existing workforce.”

Sumner says that a sense of belonging has also proved to be an important factor in staff wanting to stay put. Fortunately, the public sector is increasingly emphasising this.

“We’re seeing government agencies placing increased importance on really measuring inclusion and their culture of inclusion, and asking if things aren’t working, why not?”

The right commitment

Johnson says it can be helpful to look at staff retention through the lens of commitment. There are three types of commitment when it comes to employees and their workplaces, she says:

• affective commitment (“I work here because I want to; I believe in the value of the work”);
• normative commitment (“I work here because I don’t want to let the boss or the team down”);
• continuance commitment (“I can’t afford to leave because I’d lose too much”).

Continuance is the most common form of commitment in public services worldwide, Johnson says. When it’s the only reason people are sticking around, it can lead to weaker performance. Ideally, you’d prefer staff to have a combination of commitment types.

“That’s what we call a devoted profile, where you will get both retention and performance,” Johnson says.

One thing the public service could do to improve employee engagement, Johnson says, is slow down. “With the current pace of work in the public service that we’ve been seeing now, for 10 or 15 years, where everything is just so fast-paced, there is a risk that we’re losing normative commitment, particularly with people working remotely.”

Affective commitment can be increased by continually stressing the value of the contribution people are making, she says.

“When people are at work long term, Monday to Friday, and they’re slipping into a bit of complacency, it’s important to keep that conversation around, ‘OK, what is it we’re doing here? What are we trying to achieve? Why does this work matter?’ And to remind people that their contribution, that little bit they do that goes into some big project, is a significant contribution.”

Sumner sees a range of approaches in the public service. Some agencies are progressive, offering flexible working arrangements, individualised career plans and regularly listening to their employees’ needs. Others are stuck in the past.

“The main thing is to recognise that the world has changed significantly,” she says. “I’ve seen more change in the past two years than in the past 18 years … this notion of a psychological contract that employees have with their employer has changed a lot and government agencies need to remember that.

“They need to make sure they’re adapting to these new employee expectations and delivering against a modern employee experience. And the best way to do that is to listen to your people and use data-driven insights. Ask your people what matters to them.”

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