With public sector redundancies announced on a daily basis at present, it comes as no surprise that the latest Ipsos MORI research shows almost three in ten public sector workers (28%) are concerned about unemployment.
In another of our recent studies, conducted amongst HR professionals, it was revealed that more than half of public sector organisations plan to make redundancies in the first quarter of 2011, with the average redundancy programme amounting to cuts of almost 13% of the workforce. Overall, the average redundancy programme across the whole of the UK economy will mean cuts of almost one in ten workers (9%).
Public sector employees are clearly facing stressful and uncertain times, unprecedented in recent history. Against this backdrop, how can public sector organisations help steer their employees through such turbulent times whilst still trying to maximise engagement and motivation?
Strong, effective internal communication and consultation with employees has always been important and never more so than now. However, there is clear evidence that in the public sector there is room for improvement – our latest benchmarking data shows that over a third of public sector workers don’t feel informed on what’s happening within their organisation or feel communications are open and honest (38% and 34% respectively) and it’s quite telling that 45% of public sector workers don’t feel consulted on management decisions which affect them and their work.
Poor communication at times like this will only serve to raise more doubt and aggravate concerns. Management should probably bear in mind that the stress associated with uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ is often greater than the stress associated with dealing with difficult challenges. When official communication is seen to be lacking, informal sources tend to prevail and this can often lead to the rumour mill going into overdrive. This can be disruptive as it often fuels anxiety and can impact on staff motivation.
So how to best communicate with your employees? Previous Ipsos MORI research tells us that employees tend to want face-to-face direct contact with both senior and line managers. We also know that in general a mix of sources is preferable rather than just relying on one source and it is better to keep communication channels open – keep talking, even if you have got nothing ‘new’ to talk about. Ask your employees how they want to be communicated with during these times.
Line managers are clearly a powerful resource here – they are key agents of change and communication about change but often they are as much in the dark as those they manage. Equipping line managers with the right skills and tools needed for effective communication during periods of change will help smooth the way through the journey.
Ultimately, what works best will be different for each public sector organisation; it is about knowing your organisational culture, understanding your people and establishing a dialogue that works for both sides. Our research consistently finds that staff want to be consulted about the important decisions facing their organisation – if it is done in the right way.
Furthermore, our research indicates that there is interest from public sector workers in being involved in decisions about spending cuts – half (49%) would like to have more of a say or would like to be actively involved, which is more than the private sector equivalent (41%). This is only to be expected, given the context, but it does suggest there is potential to draw upon from within your ranks.
Mechanisms which will help demonstrate that you are listening to staff can only help the communication dialogue. A carefully planned staff survey will enable you to address the important issues head on and be clear about how the results will add value (rather than just being done ‘for the sake of it’). Addressing any negative feedback will be an important part of this – employees need to feel that something will be done about their concerns and that they won’t be judged for giving their feedback. In addition to the traditional staff survey, utilising other research techniques (for example focus groups, online forums and employee panels) can all provide cost efficient means to obtain this feedback.
Finally, underpinning any effective communication strategy is the need for strong leadership. The best leaders should have vision and an idea of where the organisation is going. In turbulent times, they need to reassure staff that they are capable of keeping the organisation on track, so reminding staff of the vision of the organisation, its mission statement and its key values is critical
So, in the months and years ahead the public sector organisations that rise to these challenges and continue to try and drive forward employee engagement, manage their talent effectively and communicate and consult with employees honestly, accurately and at the right time will be those that ride the current turbulence the best and stand apart from others. And the bottom line is that if you can achieve these things, not only will you have a more engaged workforce but productivity will be higher and your organisation will be stronger to overcome the tough times ahead.
Saralyn Chaloner is a researcher for Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute