This paper by Jonathan Hill, Madhuri Mohan and Sara Ellis-Sanborn from the University of North Carolina MPA program was completed as part of their Applied Research Project.
This paper provides an overview of promising practices and strategies of local governments for public sector employees in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic for our client, Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL).
Specifically, this paper researches the question: through a brief analysis of existing literature, what are some of the most promising practices and strategies of local governments for public sector employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The analysis was conducted through a brief literature review of scholarly articles and non-scholarly sources such as the Human Resources society and organization websites. Results from the articles, spanning a global perspective, indicate that turnover is caused, in part, due to burnout, disconnection, inflexibility, and safety needs, both before and during the pandemic. Additionally, research suggests that employees choose to remain in organizations which appreciate and value them. We acknowledge that there are several limitations to our research, including a short timeline; that our research is purely academic; available data; and the fact that “one size does not fit all”. Our key recommendations to local government organizations include offering flexibility, understanding the importance of work-life balance, and providing empowerment. Moreover, we suggest that ELGL expand on our research through a survey and interviews to gain deeper knowledge and insight.
Introduction and Background
Employee retention is ultimately based on the employee’s motivation to work with one employer over another. Thus, it is important to distinguish some of the key ideas around motivation theory in the human resources field. Perhaps the most common misconception regarding employee motivation is that it is inherently tied to financial incentives (Allen, Bryant, and Vardaman 2010). The traditional view of employees has been one of maximizing utility: how can an organization produce the most or provide the most service for the lowest costs?
ELGL is a membership-based organization with close to 4,800 international members. Its primary goal is to provide local governments crucial information and useful content in various forms (such as blogs, podcasts, and webinars) and meaningful connections (ELGL 2022). According to ELGL leadership, employee turnover is a cause of concern for ELGL members, and members are particularly curious about how to retain public sector employees. Prior UNC student research for ELGL delved into the reasons employees were leaving public sector organizations (Webster, Giles, and Merritt 2021). For this study, ELGL tasked our group with finding out more about promising practices for public sector retention, with a particular focus on COVID-19.
Our primary research topic, thus, is to understand employee retention strategies, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic – an unprecedented period of time which has caused anxiety and stress. Our specific question is – through a brief analysis of existing literature, what are some of the most promising practices and strategies of local governments for public sector employees during the COVID-19 pandemic? Our main audience is our client, ELGL, but our research is also applicable, in various degrees, to local government organizations within the United States. Our research will provide recommendations in two ways: conclusions drawn from our brief literature review and articles that were examined for this paper, and in the form of a survey and interview questions to administer to ELGL members to gain a more holistic perspective through empirical data to supplement the academic foundation provided by this study.
The sections that follow provide an overview of the methodology, data and analysis (through the literature review), findings and recommendations, limitations, and conclusion of our research. Specifically, Section II provides narrative on the previous research and a description of our research strategy and approach. Section III provides a brief literature review, including discerning patterns and major trends from the review, and concludes by noting some gaps in the literature. Section IV provides findings and recommendations that can be broadly applied to local governments and suggestions for enriching our research through qualitative means (survey and interview questions) to ELGL. Section V acknowledges the limitations of this study. Section VI concludes the paper. Finally, the appendices provide an example survey and interview questions.
The team’s research process began with an overview of what prior UNC teams provided ELGL. The Fall 2021 cohort produced an in-depth overview of turnover and survey results from ELGL members that provided the basis for our review of retention literature. Following a run-through of prior efforts, our research involved an in-depth review of online resources related to employee retention. Initially, we searched easily-accessible online journal databases, particularly the UNC library system and Google Scholar, for peer-reviewed studies and articles. We implemented keyword searches, such as ‘retention’, ‘COVID’, and ‘incentive motivators’, to narrow down sources. Our team then selected articles that aligned the most with the study requests of ELGL. From this list, we compiled an annotated bibliography of various peer reviewed articles related to employee retention, particularly during COVID-19. Our team compiled a list of existing literature reviews on the subject after studying available journal articles. We added additional articles from these literature reviews to our list. Finally, we scoured Human Resources society and organization websites for blog posts and non-peer reviewed articles to supplement the understanding gained from peer-reviewed research.
Data & Analysis (Brief Literature Review)
One can infer from a review of recent literature that employees, having recognized the irreplaceable value of their contributions to organizational achievements, are no longer willing to remain with organizations that do not appreciate or value them. Studies show that burnout, disconnection, inflexibility, and safety needs have contributed significantly to employee turnover in recent years, both before and during the pandemic (Webster, Giles, and Merritt 2021; Kumar et al. 2021; and Finegold, Mohrman, and Spreitzer 2002). Organizations desiring to retain their workforce must prioritize addressing these employee concerns. Current research echoes the motivation theory arguments of researchers in the 1950s. Particularly, recent studies recognize that personnel must no longer be viewed as merely cogs in a machine, but rather as whole human beings with personal and professional needs that must be appreciated (Webster, Giles, and Merritt 2021).
As noted by Webster, Giles, and Merritt (2021), Kumar et al. (2021), and Finegold, Mohrman, and Spreitzer (2002), burnout plays a significant role in worker turnover. Webster, Giles, and Merritt (2021), in particular, found that a work-life imbalance, which impacts one’s physical and psychological well-being, can reduce retention. Kumar et al. (2021) focused on the effects of the pandemic on employee satisfaction, finding that COVID-19 factors – such as being overworked, losing childcare, and being concerned over COVID-19 exposure in the workplace – resulted in or exacerbated job dissatisfaction for many. Finegold, Mohrman, and Spreitzer (2002) found that older employees were more susceptible to experiencing burnout, possibly due to a shift in priorities associated with aging and generational differences.
It can be inferred from Webster, Giles, and Merritt (2021) that organizations lacking in transformational leadership may experience a disconnect between the employees, management, and the organization itself; Kim (2012) noted that strong relationships with supervisors can benefit subordinates. Ativetin (2021) similarly found that a positive work climate can benefit the organization by growing trust in the relationship between employees and their employers; Lavigna (2022) also noted a correlation between positive interactions in the workplace and concern for employees and retention. Jayathilake (2021) went into greater depth, focusing on Generation Z’s desire for improved professional development, which can strengthen connections across the organization, leading to reduced turnover and benefiting the organization. Finegold, Mohrman, and Spreitzer (2002) also noted that younger workers benefit from skill development. Lavigna (2022) also found that employee engagement leads to reduced turnover by focusing on positive leadership and employee recognition; recognition was also noted as a retention strategy by Stajkovic and Luthans (2001). Jayathilake (2021) noted the benefits of involving employees in organizational decision-making as well.
Webster, Giles, and Merritt (2021), Wolor, Sustina, and Martono (2020), and Ojo, Fawehinmi, and Yusliza (2021) found that remote work and flexible work schedules increased retention among employees during the pandemic. Ojo, Fawehinmi, and Yusliza (2021) in particular reflected on workers’ need to devote time during what would normally be “work hours” to care for loved ones during the pandemic, which requires flexible work hours or telework. Lavigna (2022) noted that virtual public sector “assets” are less costly than having to start fresh with a new hire. Similarly, Lavigna (2021) discussed the frustration government employees feel with their organizations’ expectations for unchanging, in-person work routines.
While retention studies highlight several of the higher-tier motivation factors, the pandemic brought the basic safety needs of employees at the forefront. Webster, Giles, and Merritt (2021) shined a light on employee’s infection concerns during the pandemic and their expectations that organizations implement appropriate precautions to mitigate the risk. Wolor, Susitna, and Martono (2020) also found employee concerns over COVID-19 exposure, which impacted retention. Kumar et al. (2021) noted that stressors associated with COVID-19 can impact job performance. Considering that as of February 12, 2022, over 77.5 million cases of coronavirus have been reported and nearly 918,000 have died in the United States since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 infection concerns are well-founded (Coronavirus in the U.S. 2021).
Findings & Recommendations
From our extensive literature review, we have understood that turnover, in part, is caused because of burnout, disconnection, inflexibility, and safety needs. We propose the following recommendations that local governments can implement to retain employees: offering flexibility, understanding the importance of work-life balance, and providing empowerment.
Flexibility is “an essential working skill of the future,” ranging from information systems to flexible working hours (Ativetin 2021, 21). Flexibility can thus be provided in many ways, including offering work from home, remote work, or work in shift opportunities; through extending deadlines; by simply acknowledging that limitations exist for certain employees (for example, those with young or elderly dependents); and by having a flexible and open mindset within public sector leaders.
Where practical, work from home or remote options should be provided (Wolor, Susitna, Martono 2020, 81-82). Local governments can determine the amount of “remote” time they give employees, especially if there are any concerns, such as with productivity. Employers can determine the range of remote options – complete flexibility to work from home for an undetermined period of time; provide partial options of alternating work from home and office hours; or provide the option only when necessary, such as in cases of emergencies (for example, during daycare or school closures). It is important to acknowledge that limitations may exist for certain organizations with inadequate IT support or advanced technologies.
As an example, relying on the internet may be problematic for rural communities. Another limitation of flexibility is its varied applicability to different professions within the public sector: flexibility may only be used by “office” employees and cannot be used by those “in the field,” such as firefighters or public works employees (Lavigna 2021). Local governments can also grant flexibility through extending deadlines for certain projects. If a local government has a typical “turnaround” time for certain requests (inspections to be performed within 24-hours or plan reviews to be completed within two weeks, for example), these time periods may be extended to accommodate periods of time when employees are unavailable due to spikes in the virus. Next, flexibility can be provided by recognizing that employees are in various stages of life, and some may have dependents such as young children or elderly parents. For example, childcare provisions can be accommodated through providing additional time, without penalty, to employees when their child’s school or daycare closes.
Human Resource Departments can also consider changes to vacation time during the pandemic, though these provisions might be more appropriate for the federal government to enact (such as changes to FMLA or other emergency COVID responses). Finally, public sector leaders and managers should develop a more open and flexible mindset. It is critical to understand and acknowledge that individuals have different perspectives (views, ideologies, political and scientific understandings, fears, attitudes, beliefs, and so on) about the pandemic. Furthermore, it is crucial to consider the psychological well-being and safety of individuals (Wolor, Susitna, and Martono 2020, 81, 83; Webster, Giles, and Merritt 2021).
Implementing a healthy work-life balance, an equilibrium between “one’s work and one’s social life”, is a general strategy which provides job satisfaction and a reduction in turnover (Kumar et al., 2021, 6310). Work-life balance is more valued by younger employees than older employees (who tend to favor job security, instead) – nevertheless, it is still critical to provide such a balance to all employees (Finegold, Mohrman, and Spreitzer 2002, 655). Indeed, research states that burnout is typical and there is a certain “role overload” (the “perception of having too many work-role tasks and not having enough time to do them”) that employees have felt, especially during the pandemic (Kumar et al., 2021, 6311). Work-life balance can be provided through giving time, support, and resources to handle stressful events; providing opportunities to detach; and considering working only during designated work hours.
Local governments should provide time, support, and resources to their employees to handle stressful events during the pandemic. This could mean, for example, reduced work hours (if practical for the organization). Setting realistic goals during the workday or the work week is also crucial by assessing situations during the given time period (such as days or weeks of limited staff). Local government employees should also be given adequate opportunities to detach (Webster, Giles, and Merritt 2021).
This may mean formal or informal breaks, such as by offering workout classes, walking as a group, team lunches (including brown bags lunches on non-work related topics), happy hours, or team building. Detaching can also mean making lunch hour or time-off mandatory to promote psychological well-being. Finally, employers can also consider encouraging employees to work only during “designated work hours”, where emails, for example, are only sent from 8 am to 5 pm, so as to not overwhelm the employee throughout the day. It is acknowledged, however, that this solution may contradict with offering flexibility where individuals prefer to choose their own schedules; however, both work-life balance and flexibility can be complimentary.
Providing empowerment, defined as the extent to which employees feel autonomous, is also an important element of employee retention (Webster, Giles, and Merritt 2021). Research shows that empowerment, synonymous, to a certain extent, with self-efficacy, reduces turnover intentions and promotes organizational loyalty, and is an effective strategy for retaining employees (Ojo, Fawehinmi, and Yusliza 2021, 6). Offering self-help groups at work, empowering younger workers, and allowing for training opportunities and promotions can help in retaining talent.
First, creating self-help groups at work are vital for individuals who are struggling, be it financially, psychologically, due to stress, or a number of other reasons. Women are shown to be struggling more since the burden of the pandemic weighs more heavily on this gender. In fact, women are “more likely to experience distress due to stressful life events” (Kumar et al. 2021, 6323). Counseling at work can be provided, or enhanced within an employee’s benefit package. Second, employees (particularly those who are younger) can be empowered through the following three techniques: democratizing learning (enabling employees to teach/learn skills), reverse mentoring (giving younger employees the opportunity to help older employees), and “intrapreneurship” (innovativeness within an existing organization) (Jayathilake 2021).
Finally, employers can provide empowerment through continuing training and promotions. During the pandemic, career development, networking, and training opportunities may have stopped completely or been limited (for example, training is only online, and not in-person). This can hinder effective training, development, and, ultimately, growth, which can negatively alter an employee’s image of themselves. We recommend providing opportunities for travel and in-person events when feasible, or to capitalize upon virtual or online training where possible, to continue growth and promotion opportunities.
Next Steps: Surveys and Interviews
If ELGL is to provide further recommendations into promising practices in the field of employee retention, we recommend the organization conduct a survey and interviews to gain a broader perspective and add to this research. Surveys would need to be reliable, meaning they would need to be replicable over a period of time. Instead of asking open-ended questions directly related to COVID-19 experiences, ELGL should focus on criteria-based questions centered around retention in general.
A sample survey can be found in Appendix A. Of note in this sample survey are questions related to the retention findings of this study: ELGL should focus on learning more about how its membership addresses flexible working options, work-life balance, and career development. Also of note is the multiple-choice response style of the survey included. In order to increase the study’s reliability (and given the potentially large data set one could develop from sending such a survey to every local government ELGL member), any survey questions should avoid offering free-response questions. If ELGL does wish to learn more about the specific retention strategies of some of its members, we recommend follow-up interviews for members who provide interesting or notable responses. Sample interview questions can be found in Appendix B.
We acknowledge that our paper has several limitations, including a short timeline, a purely academic perspective through a literature review, the literature itself through the available data, and the fact that “one size does not fit all.” Our first limitation is a lack of time. The Human Resource Management course is only 13 weeks; out of that time period, only eight weeks are dedicated to complete this research project. This is insufficient time for a detailed study. The lack of time ties in with the second limitation: that the focus of our paper is purely academic, through a literature review of scholarly and some non-scholarly articles. Our research is limited to a qualitative analysis of scholarly articles; we have no quantitative data to add additional breadth to our research.
Additionally, the focus of the paper remains scholarly as we have no empirical, first-hand data which could have been gained through surveys, interviews, or focus groups. We would have ideally preferred to supplement our literature review with an empirical analysis to make the paper more practical. Instead, we have provided a survey and interview questions that ELGL can administer to its members in an effort to continue our research.
Our third limitation is within the literature Itself through available data. Much of the literature we found is neither focused on local governments nor public organizations; therefore, several generalizations are being made in the recommendations. Further, COVID-19 is a “novel” phenomenon, and there are limited articles on its effect with various subjects. The pandemic began in early 2020, and only a small number of articles have explored the pandemic and its implications. Finally, the research includes articles which are international in nature. Although we believe that this type of international research is relevant as the pandemic is global in nature and as ELGL is composed of international clients, limitations exist if the applicability of our research is meant for local governments within the United States.
Our fourth limitation is an acknowledgement that “one size does not fit all.” We recognize that public organizations vary in size and resources and that the recommendations provided in this research may not apply depending on the specific situation of the organization. Rural, urban, suburban characteristics; population size and growth of the city; technology; and employee demographics can all vary from one location to the next – these are just a few characteristics that distinguish municipalities. Generalizations cannot be made when even various regions of the country are vastly different (and affected through the severity of the pandemic in certain areas, political inclination, and the cultural or mindset of the population).
This study was conducted to answer the research question: through a brief analysis of existing literature, what are some of the most promising practices and strategies of local governments for public sector employees during the COVID-19 pandemic? The primary reason the study was conducted is to aid our client, ELGL, with this information. The literature review conducted broadly discusses that turnover is, in part, caused due to burnout, disconnection, inflexibility, and safety needs, and that employees choose to be in organizations that value them. While we acknowledge several limitations in our research, including a short timeline, that our research is purely academic, available data, and the fact that “one size does not fit all”, our recommendations to retention are primarily to implement the following strategies: offering flexibility, understanding the importance of a healthy work-life balance, and providing empowerment for local government employees. Further, we suggest that ELGL add to our academic foundation through more empirical data by conducting a survey and interviews.
- Allen, David G., Phillip C. Bryant, and James M. Vardaman. “Retaining Talent: Replacing Misconceptions with Evidence-Based Strategies.” Academy of Management Perspectives 24, no. 2 (2010): 48–64.
- Ativetin, Tanapoom. “The Impact Of The Learning Organization On The Essential Behaviors
- Regarding Employee Retention During The Covid-19 Pandemic.” ABAC Journal 4, no. 3 (2021): 20-45.
- Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count. Accessed 12 February 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases.html.
- ELGL. “About Us.” Accessed January 2022. https://elgl.org/about/.
- Finegold, David, Susan Mohrman, and Gretchen M. Spreitzer. “Age Effects on the Predictors of Technical
- Workers’ Commitment and Willingness to Turnover.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 23, no. 5 (2002): 655-674. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.159.
- Jayathilake, Hasaranga Dilshan. “Employee development and retention of Generation-Z employees in the post-COVID-19 workplace: a conceptual framework.” Benchmarking: an international journal 28, no. 7 (2021): 2343-2364. https://doi.org/10.1108/BIJ-06-2020-0311.
- Kim, Soonhee. “The Impact of Human Resource Management on State Government IT Employee Turnover Intentions.” Public Personnel Management 41, no. 2 (2012): 257-279.
- Kumar, P., N. Kumar, P. Aggarwal, et al. “Working in lockdown: the relationship between COVID-19 induced work stressors, job performance, distress, and life satisfaction.” Curr Psychol 40 (2021): 6308–6323.
- Lavigna, Bob. “Government Needs to Rehabilitate its Image to Attract and Retain Workers.” ELGL. Posted January 27, 2022. https://elgl.org/government-needs-to-rehabilitate-its-image-to- attract-and-retain-workers/.
- Lavigna, Bob. “Replacing a Government Employee Can Cost 150% of Worker’s Salary.” RouteFifty. July 22, 2021. https://www.route-fifty.com/finance/2021/07/replacing-government-employee-can- cost-150-workers-salary/183989/.
- Ojo, Adedapo Oluwaseyi, Olawole Fawehinmi, and Mohd Yusoff Yusliza. “Examining the predictors of resilience and work engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Sustainability, 13, no. 5
- (2021): 2902.
- Stajkovic, Alexander D. and Fred Luthans. “Differential Effects on Incentive Motivators on Work Performance.” Academy of Management Journal 44, no. 3 (2001): 580-590. https://doi.org/10.5465/3069372
- Webster, Katie, Jessica Giles, and Wesley Merritt. “Local Government Turnover During Covid-19.” Posted November 15, 2021. https://elgl.org/local-government-turnover-during-covid-19/.
- Wolor, C.W., D. Susitna, and S. Martono. “How to Maintain Employee Motivation amid the COVID-19
- Virus Pandemic.” International Journal of Economics & Business Administration (IJEBA), 8, no. 4 (2021): 78-86.
Appendix A: Sample Survey Template
Employee Retention During COVID: A Brief Survey
Disclaimer: Thank you for participating in this survey as part of our Public Administration 723 course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Participation in this survey is voluntary, and you may exit the survey at any time. We plan to analyze data taken from this survey to provide feedback to ELGL regarding the promising practices its members employ in terms of employee retention with a particular focus on the impacts of COVID-19 on employee retention. There is minimal risk associated with this survey. Input can be provided anonymously, and you will only be contacted if you choose to provide your contact information and we have follow up questions regarding your data. Should you have any questions, please contact the research team via [insert contact email here].
Question 1: What is the population size of your municipality?
- 10,000 or fewer
- 10,000 to 50,000
- 50,000 to 100,000
- 100,000 to 500,000
- 500,000 or more
Question 2: In which of the below geographic areas is your city located?
- Northeast (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania)
- South (Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas
- Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota)
- West (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington)
- Other (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands)
Question 3: Has your city removed or put a hold on any benefits or pay increases since January 2020 in response to the pandemic?
Question 4: Has your city adopted or expanded any benefits or pay increases since January 2020 in response to the pandemic?
Question 5: To what extent would you agree that your workplace’s benefits and policies supported you during the pandemic?
- Strongly Agree
- Neither Agree or Disagree
- Strongly Disagree
Question 6: Did your office provide remote working opportunities before and/or during the pandemic?
Question 7: To what extent do you agree that your office offers opportunities to maintain a work-life balance?
- Strongly Agree
- Neither Agree or Disagree
- Strongly Disagree
Question 8: Did your office provide self-help groups or counseling before and/or during the pandemic?
Question 9: Does your office provide reimbursement or financial assistance for work-related trainings?
Question 10: Thank you for providing valuable feedback as part of this survey. If you are interested and willing to have our research team contact you for any follow-up questions regarding your survey response, please include your email below.
Appendix B: Sample Interview Questions
- If your city was to remove or do away with any existing benefits, which do you think would have the most negative impact on employee turnover, and why?
- Of the benefits or compensations your city offers, what would you say has had the largest positive effect on employee morale since the start of the pandemic in January 2020?’
- Are there any additional benefits you think your city should provide in response to the pandemic? If so, what are they?
- In terms of employee retention, what is one thing other cities have done in response to the pandemic that you think your city should consider?