The COVID-19 Workplace: Employees Want to Be Heard

Posted on March 19, 2021

The COVID-19 Workplace: Employees want to be heard

This guest blog is by Robert J. Lavigna with CPS HR Consulting.

Bob Lavinga

The pandemic has changed how and where most of us work. With millions of employees now working remotely, including in government, organizations have struggled to communicate effectively with their employees. Even before the pandemic, communication was a major challenge to managing a remote workforce. Now this challenge has been multiplied many times over.

Many organizations were unprepared for the sudden transition to working remotely. The head of remote operations for GitLab, a company that bills itself as having the world’s largest permanently all-remote workforce (with employees in 65 countries), described the transition to working remotely as, “A process, not a binary switch to be flipped.”

But the pandemic forced government to flip this switch, often literally overnight.

While many may view the surge in remote working as a short-term response to a national crisis, we believe it is really a permanent evolution. Sure, some employees will gladly return to their offices, work sites and colleagues when it’s safe – especially when the kids go back to school or day care.

However, research clearly shows that many employees want to continue working from home permanently, at least part-time. Organizations that do not meet the employee demand for permanent workplace flexibility will struggle to attract and retain talent.

Communication is a two-way street

To adapt to this new world of work, government organizations have expanded and strengthened how they communicate with employees, especially those working remotely.

But communication should be a two-way street. Sure, employees want to hear from their employers during a crisis like the pandemic, but they also want to tell their employers how they are doing and feeling.

At our Institute, we experienced firsthand this employee demand to provide feedback when we administered our national Employee Connection Survey to find out how public-sector employees were handling the COVID-19 work environment. The survey generated almost 20,000 responses from government employees across the nation.

We were gratified and more than a little surprised by this response. These public servants clearly wanted their organizations to know how they were coping with the workplace conditions created by the coronavirus.

Our report, “Leading Through a Pandemic: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Public Sector Workforce,” summarized these almost 20,000 survey responses and included recommendations not just for the pandemic but also about how to succeed long term in our new work environment.

Despite the large number of employees who responded to our national poll, some organizations are still hesitant to survey their employees. One reason is budget – a reluctance to spend resources on surveying employees while revenues are down and some employees have been furloughed or even laid off. Other organizations don’t want to survey employees until “things get back to normal” or “when we all come back”– whenever that may be.

Our research and experience, however, tells a different story.

Employees want to be heard

In both our national survey and work with individual government organizations, we’ve learned that public servants want to provide feedback to their employers. This is especially true as employees working remotely continue to struggle to balance their work and personal lives. According to one government executive, “We’ve had to drastically change. People who have kids need to take an hour off to put someone down for a nap or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

It’s also important to hear from employees who must continue to report to their worksites, sometimes risking their health and safety. In our national survey, these employees reported that they were significantly less satisfied with their working conditions than their colleagues who are working remotely.

In this new world of work, organizations need data to understand how to support their employees. Guessing (“start a newsletter,” “have a virtual hangout,” “anyone for online karaoke”?) is not a substitute for data about what employees believe is working – and what isn’t.

The employee engagement surveys we’ve conducted with governments since the COVID-19 lockdown have generated high response rates – up to 100 percent. Employees want to be heard.

To survey or not?

Our advice to organizations wondering if they should survey their employees is to move forward despite – but maybe because of – the COVID-19 working environment. In addition to generating critical information about employees’ views, an employee survey sends the message that the organization cares about how employees are faring in the pandemic work environment.

Organizations that decide to survey employees can administer a short, focused survey, like our national Employee Connection Survey, asking specifically how employees and employers are handling the COVID-19 work environment.

Another option is a more comprehensive employee engagement survey. A survey like this can reveal how employees feel about the organization’s mission; its leaders and supervisors; communication; tools and resources; equity, inclusion and diversity; and their own well-being. Some organizations have added COVID-19 specific questions to their engagement surveys to cover both bases.

The bottom line is that public-sector organizations should ask their employees how they feel for the following reasons:

  • Decades of research have proven that a key to government effectiveness is a talented, committed – and engaged – workforce. This is true now more than ever, when many of the people government serves need even more support.
  • The pandemic has forced millions of employees to work remotely – and this expansion of remote work is most likely a permanent evolution.
  • Organizations need to understand how employees are faring in the new work environment, and how the organization can help them succeed, now and in the future.
  • The best way to understand this is by directly asking employees how they are feeling and doing.

Asking employees how they are feeling can take some courage because employee feedback can make leaders uncomfortable. Plus, leaders must be transparent about the results – and act on them.

But surveying employees is an investment that can yield big returns. Public servants want to be heard, and it’s the employer’s job to give them this opportunity.

For a copy of the report, “Leading Through a Pandemic” contact Bob Lavigna directly

Robert J. Lavigna is the Director, Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, CPS HR Consulting. Bob Lavigna is an award-winning public sector leader and innovator. He is currently the Director of the CPS HR Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement™. The Institute is dedicated to helping public sector and nonprofit organizations measure and improve employee engagement. His first book, Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance, was published by the American Management Association and is now in its second printing.

Before joining CPS HR, Bob was Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of HR for the University of Wisconsin, a university ranked among the world’s top 25 research institutions. Bob’s previous positions include Vice President-Research for the Partnership for Public Service, Senior Manager of Consulting for CPS HR Services, and Director of the Wisconsin civil service system. He began his career with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Bob is an elected Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, was selected as a “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine, and received the highest individual achievement awards from the International Public Management Association for HR (IPMA-HR) and the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE). He was also the first HR executive to be awarded a fellowship from the Council of State Governments. In addition, the organizations Bob has led have received innovation awards from the Ford Foundation, IPMA-HR, NASPE, Society for Human Resource Management and others.

Bob is a past national president of IPMA-HR and past national chair of the American Society for Public Administration Section on Personnel and Labor Relations. He has a B.A. in Public Affairs from George Washington University and an M.S. in HR from Cornell University.

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