Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from May-Jun 2017 issue

Employee Engagement on a Budget

By Casey Casella and Laura Kushner
Illustration of employee engagement with word Illustration of employee engagement with the words

Employee engagement is a term that is used to describe whether an organization’s employees are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. It’s important because research shows employee engagement is linked to all kinds of good things: productivity, retention, creativity, and customer communication, to mention just a few.

As a concept, it’s both easier and harder than it sounds. It’s easy because it really boils down to this: Are your employees coming to work every day ready and eager to do their best work for your city?

Sounds simple, right? But it can’t be if most organizations are getting it wrong—and they are. Gallup, the national research and performance-management consulting company, has documented that only about 32 percent of employees in the U.S. are engaged. So, chances are good this is an issue your city should be thinking about.

Time for a culture change
In a 2016 online article, Gallup states that employee engagement numbers really haven’t changed much in years and measuring it isn’t enough to change it. The article describes several strategies to improve employee engagement, and most of them center around organizational culture change.

For example, a city that wants engaged employees will have an organizational culture that gives employees the tools they need to do their jobs, promotes positive co-worker relationships, and allows each employee to do what they do best. Unfortunately, most cities have limited budgets and limited staff, which means limited flexibility in the approach to staffing, equipment, and employee social time.

So, where can your city have an impact on employee engagement even if you don’t have the resources of a Fortune 500 company? How can you make employee engagement part of your workplace culture without adding a lot of cost and effort?

Let’s look at a continuum of no- and low-cost to moderate-cost options for your city to consider. On the no- and low-cost front, consider what two Minnesota cities that are members of the Alliance for Innovation have accomplished. The Alliance for Innovation is an association that partners with ICMA and Arizona State University to encourage innovation and change the way local government performs. The Alliance has inspired both cities to examine how they conduct business and develop ways to improve employee engagement.

Mankato initiatives
The City of Mankato formed a group called “Pulse.” The Pulse group mission is to enhance the relationship between the organization and its employees through employee engagement and building cross-departmental teams to address organizational problems.

To date the Pulse group has been responsible for coordinating quarterly employee events, including a rotating summer recognition event hosted by a different department each year. Last year’s event included a mini-golf theme, where each department was challenged with creating its own hole, and employees were asked to volunteer and state why they loved working for the City of Mankato. City leaders were pleased to see that it wasn’t hard to get volunteers—many employees were happy to do it!

The Pulse also recently formed a cross-functional team to improve the application process for organizers that want to host activities, such as a 5K run/walk, in the city. Future teams will develop a volunteer recognition event and evaluate how to improve customer service requests.

Mankato's Infuse participants--a group of new city employees--went to the Mankato Regional Airport for a tour and learning session.The Mankato approach has the dual advantage of not only providing engagement ideas and events, but using the employee group itself to design those events, which increases awareness, buy-in, and attendance.

In addition to Pulse, Mankato also has a program called “Infuse” for new city employees. The program provides detailed training about the entire organization, so new employees understand the role of each city department and how staff work together to provide excellent customer service.

For example, the Infuse employees recently went to the Mankato Regional Airport for a learning session. As part of their visit, they toured the airport and learned about the partnership with Minnesota State University Mankato’s flight training program.

Richfield programs
Another great example comes from the City of Richfield. The city has adopted a program called “Hub and Spokes,” which is the descriptor for their innovation structure. Their Ambassador Team is the hub and supports various sub-teams (the spokes), which they form to address identified needs such as technology, customer service, and employee recognition and engagement.

For example, the Technology Team is responsible for guiding the introduction of credit card machines at the front counters, as well as introducing the concept of an interdepartmental technology loan program (e.g., the Public Works Department lends its iPads to the City Clerk’s Office for use during elections).

Richfield’s most recently formed Employee Recognition and Engagement Team made changes to the city’s years-of-service recognition program and also planned several successful employee events, including a family picnic and a holiday cookie and dessert bar.

Assistant City Manager Pam Dmytrenko is a firm believer in Richfield employees and their families enjoyed a picnic last summer sponsored by the Employee Recognition and Engagement Team, made up of city staff members. the employee engagement aspect of the program. “We believe that participation on our teams enhances our employees’ work experience and promotes engagement within our organization,” she says.

Both Richfield and Mankato have put some of the Gallup advice into practice. Gallup suggests incorporating engagement into “how the work gets done.” One way to do this is to put together teams of employees from different departments to work on projects together. It helps them get to know each other and provides fresh eyes to solve old problems.

Think about this: If the staff in the Inspections Department is tired of dealing with the same old inspection-scheduling problems, consider asking a team of folks from Police, Fire, and Parks & Recreation to work with them on creative new ideas. You might get some interesting and fresh approaches.

The StrengthsFinder tool
Moving on to more moderate-cost options, the Gallup StrengthsFinder may be a great option to help your city advance employee engagement. Their research suggests that playing to the strengths of your employees can be a powerful tool.

What are your natural strengths in the workplace? Often this can be a hard question to answer for an employee. The StrengthsFinder is an online personality assessment that identifies a person’s top strengths. There are 34 Clifton strengths such as “Learner,” “Relator,” and “Achiever.” The assessment has many benefits for increasing employee engagement.

Illustration of employee engagement with the word Illustration of employee engagement with the word Immediately after taking the StrengthsFinder test, employees have a new vocabulary to describe what they excel at. Raising positive self-awareness is one of the best ways to grow and develop an individual employee. This boost in confidence can inspire clarity and motivation for all areas of work.

Gallup reports that employees who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job. Using the StrengthsFinder, each employee receives information on how to maximize their talents in the workplace.

Don’t worry, though; most of the action items are low cost. If an employee has a top strength of competition, one of the action items would be to develop a measurement system of her achievements. By turning ordinary tasks into competitions, the employee activates her competitive edge, becoming more engaged and invested in the work.

When employees are self-aware, engagement in teamwork also becomes easier. The StrengthsFinder assessment uses the top strengths to show employees how to work with people of different talents. If you’re looking for a way to improve team engagement in your work culture, StrengthsFinder has a lot to offer. Your city can even host a workshop day where employees take time to learn each other’s strengths and how to work effectively together.

Using the Gallup StrengthsFinder to increase engagement is a growing trend in many organizations. By providing employees with tools to enhance their natural talent, the employer fosters a positive environment and increases employee engagement.

Aligning engagement with priorities
Of course, employee engagement must be aligned with other organizational priorities. When those change, the organization needs to reset expectations, provide new resources, and ensure employees have a chance to do their best work. Most experts agree the more engaged an organization’s employees are, the more likely this alignment will happen seamlessly.

For example, during the economic downturn around 2009, many organizations changed their focus from growth to survival. Organizations with engaged employees understood the need to change quickly and shifted their own work focus to what needed to be done to keep the organization afloat.

Final advice from Gallup and other employee engagement experts: Recognize that an organization needs to understand where it is today and where it wants to be in the future before it can engage employees in that vision.

And that brings us back to a simple formula for employee engagement. According to Gallup, employees need to know what’s expected, understand how they are contributing to the overall mission, and be given the opportunity to do what they do best. That pretty much sums it up.

Casey Casella is an administrative intern with the League of Minnesota Cities. She is a student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and will graduate in August 2017, earning a master’s degree in public policy. Laura Kushner is human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: lkushner@lmc.org or (651) 281-1203.

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