Television and film have been satirizing the workplace culture for years, but few capture the essence of employee malaise better than “Office Space.” The 1999 movie is about disgruntled IT workers in the midst of a downsizing initiative, but the frustration echoed by main character Peter Gibbons could just as well apply to unhappy government workers. “The thing is,” Peter quips, “it’s not that I’m lazy. It’s that I just don’t care.”
Why do employees stop caring? In Peter’s case, it’s because of bloated management. Peter tells a consultant tasked with downsizing the company that he has a whopping eight bosses: “So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”
Government has a reputation for rarely firing people but instead lumbering along with uninterested employees who are only doing enough to get by. As the debt ceiling clock ticks down, it’s clear that these sorts of management practices are quickly becoming untenable. Paul Light, NYU Professor of Public Administration, recently estimated that the federal government could save an extra $1 trillion by cutting management and increasing productivity. While Light’s suggestions are far easier said than done, there is something to be said about the productivity cost savings potentially reaped by hiring and retaining engaged employees.
Government workers will tell you that 100-percent engagement is a myth; no one is going to love their job 100 percent of the time. But even someone who likes their job 75 percent of the time is probably doing vastly better than average. Here are a four ways we can keep public sector employees — and, really, anyone in the workforce — interested, happy and productive.
1) Ensure that employee and manager expectations match.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to motivation is ensuring that managers and employees are on the same page. As Mark Hammer, an analyst at the Public Service Commission of Canada, explains, “When there is a disjunction between what the employee thought their role was, what kinds of effort they thought would be valued and what does and doesn’t get either acknowledged, recognized, rewarded [or] appreciated,” employees feel like their efforts were for naught.
Dennis Snyder, a program analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration, suggests using performance reviews as an opportunity to clarify expectations:
One tool I use to test engagement (used widely in U.S. government) is to have employees write their own performance appraisals. The supervisor then correlates the appraisal with the job standards to see if the employee is doing what they are paid for. Most are spot on and they are as fully engaged as possible, understanding we all have occasional off days or need to disengage from a project to view it differently to achieve results from a fresh approach. Unfortunately, there are those whose appraisal differs from the performance standard, and the self-appraisal works wonders to show someone specifically where they got off-track.
2) Make work meaningful.
Employees need to feel like their work matters, otherwise why bother expending the effort? Lavon Hopkins, an IT specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, points out that an abundance of fluff work is a motivation killer: “It’s tough to stay engaged when you have managers that focus on ‘busy work.’ As an IT Security Professional, being engaged means finding ways to improve the security posture at my Agency, it doesn’t mean providing the CIO with ‘fluff’ powerpoints.”
3) Foster productivity and innovation through unstructured time.
Employees need space to think; that’s when creative ideas are born. Angela Newell, an information policy researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, points to a Harvard study on the link between innovation and unstructured time: “There’s also a lot to be said for unstructured productivity. At the end of the day, it’s our curiosity and willingness to play that lead to some of the best work products, outcomes, and innovations. That’s not to say we should spend all of our time wandering through the garden of ideas, but some time.”
4) Embrace constructive criticism.
If every employee were happy, there would be no impetus to improve. T. Jay Johnson, an assistant project engineer at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, argues that everyone benefits when workers can voice their complaints:
Everyone has a case of the “Mondays” sometimes. It doesn’t mean they will set the building on fire. Being “too happy” with work would be naive and breeds complacency, and that could kill real improvement. It’s better to have a workplace where people feel free to speak up, especially if something sucks!