Feel the churn: how to preserve employee loyalty amid the ‘great resignation’

The so-called great resignation is starting to sweep the public sector. What can local authorities and other hard-pressed public bodies do to hold on to valued workers?

In what’s become known as the great resignation, more and more people are leaving their jobs in search of a better lifestyle, with many having relished their lockdown-enforced experience of remote working and the extra time it’s given them with their families.

The trend is extending from the business world into the public sector. The Trades Union Congress has warned that a “toxic mix” of low pay, high workloads and a broader lack of recognition is pushing hard-pressed public servants to the brink. Its latest surveys indicate that 21% of key workers in the sector are “actively considering” a move into another profession.

This research is backed up by a survey from HR consultancy Randstad, which has found that 64% of employees in the public sector are feeling “confident to move to a new job in the next couple of months”, compared with 70% in the private sector. 

Randstad’s senior director of operations in the UK, Adrian Smith, notes that comparatively few public-sector workers changed jobs during the first 12 months of the Covid crisis. “That is leading to a deluge of resignations now. A number are suffering from burnout,” he says, noting that the pandemic has prompted many people to rethink life, work and what they want from both.

“Workers in both the public and private sectors want to change one of the key aspects of their life – their job – and the high number of vacancies means that they can,” Smith adds.

Job vacancies in the UK hit an all-time high in July, with the number of open posts exceeding 1 million for the first time, according to the Office for National Statistics. As more sectors of the economy reopen, demand for talent is fast outstripping supply. It’s now most definitely an employees’ market.

What can public-sector employers do to prevent valued staff from walking away? One effective measure could be to upgrade their technology, “especially if that enables people to improve their work/life balance through hybrid working”, says Dr Grace Lordan, associate professor in behavioural science at the London School of Economics.

“The pandemic has given many people a first taste of working at home and spending more time with their families for a better lifestyle,” she says. “So now they’re looking for jobs that can continue to give them such flexibility. The public sector will have to keep up in this respect. Otherwise, it will lose a lot of staff to the private sector.”

While technologies were transforming operations before Covid-19, the pandemic was an inflection point. The Covid crisis made clear the need to upgrade tech as government organisations and local authorities endeavoured to enable remote working.

Peter Fleming is the leader of Sevenoaks District Council in Kent and chair of the Local Government Association’s improvement and innovation board. He believes that local authorities nationwide have stood up well against the problems posed by the Covid crisis. Like other employers, they adapted their working methods quickly during the lockdowns, offering more flexibility to workers who were capable of doing their jobs remotely. 

“Councils have worked hard to ensure that their services continue to be as accessible as possible, moving more of these to digital platforms where appropriate. Their ongoing modernisation has helped us to engage more effectively with our communities and also given us opportunities to automate routine tasks, thereby enriching jobs and increasing the skills of our staff,” Fleming argues. 

Using a range of systems and devices in a secure cloud, councils can help their front-line staff, who may work in various remote locations and on different shift patterns, to collaborate in an effective and fulfilling way, he adds. IT upgrades may have been forced on local authorities by the pandemic, but the resulting benefits for staff could help to reduce the number of potential resignations.

In his October budget, the chancellor pledged £65m in funding for English local authorities to create a “new digital system” to “improve the planning regime”. This should not only provide a better service for those seeking planning permission; it should also make life easier for council staff dealing with applications. The potential automation of some of the more humdrum administrative tasks could free them up to do more rewarding work.

Given the wide array of technologies on the market, finding the system that best suits the organisation’s needs can be difficult. The key question to consider first is how much time is spent processing paperwork. If the answer is ‘a lot’, then tools that can automate workflows by sending documents electronically to the right people are likely to be a good option.

If the volume of work is likely to grow significantly, it will also be necessary to have a system that can easily be scaled up to keep pace with increasing workloads.

Most councils rely on enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, a suite of integrated applications for standard operational functions such as accounting and HR management. At their core is a database management system that centralises information from all departments. Integrating key processes, the technology streamlines workflows, empowers employees to collaborate and enables managers to access and analyse business-critical data as it’s being generated.

But, as the pace of change increases, traditional in-house, server-based ERP packages can’t always keep up. Forward-looking council leaders are therefore turning to the cloud.

Cloud computing, which has become ever more important since the pandemic started, has already transformed many businesses. Local authorities are now following suit – and their employees are benefiting as a result.

The cloud gives users remote access to the information they need for their work via their smartphones and other devices, ensuring that no one is left out of the loop. Staff who have busy schedules and/or work a long way from the office can easily keep abreast of proceedings elsewhere in the organisation. 

Such technology can engender a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Team members can view and share information easily and securely. Some cloud-based services even provide collaborative social spaces to connect employees across the organisation, thereby increasing interest and engagement. This level of collaboration may be possible without a cloud computing solution, but it’s unlikely to be as easy to achieve.

Adopting the latest in digital IT alone is not enough when it comes to retaining talent, of course. The introduction of any new technology will require councils to train staff in its use, but they also need to create a nurturing culture that encourages people to learn and develop themselves.

“The public sector is, unfortunately, rife with tight budgets,” notes Darren Hockley, managing director at e-learning specialist DeltaNet International. “This means that there are limited resources and a limited number of people to do the work. The last thing that local authorities want to worry about is losing good talent.” 

Traditional training methods can be tedious, unengaging and ineffective, he adds, but artificial intelligence (AI) technology has the potential to transform the learning process. 

“Instead of repeating the same old training each year, using AI can offer more tailored, personalised experiences that will keep employees more engaged,” Hockley argues. “Enabling employees to carry out this training online allows them to do any mandatory courses whenever and wherever they wish, working around their daily tasks and even from home if they are operating to a hybrid work model.” 

High-quality training, such as adaptive learning, doesn’t force employees to go back over material that they already know. Instead, it values their time, leaving them feeling more engaged with the content and with their organisation, he adds. Furthermore, adopting user-friendly collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Slack will “allow immediate communication between teams and significantly improve workflow processes”.

Ben Willmott is head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a professional body for HR practitioners. He believes that the competition among employers to hire skilled people in a wide range of roles will continue to intensify. 

“The increasing difficulty in recruiting externally highlights the need for employers to improve how they develop and retain their existing workers to counter labour shortages,” Willmott says. “They need to focus on factors beyond offering a competitive salary to improve retention. These include providing high-quality line management, different types of flexible working arrangements and opportunities for people to develop new skills and advance in their careers.”

An enlightened approach to management should help to stem the tide of talent that’s leaving the public sector. Leaders of local authorities and other public bodies need to design a new employee experience that’s fit for the Covid era. They should listen more closely to staff feedback to improve the working environment, including the IT tools provided, and turn insights into action. Any failure to act on a pledge will incur employee dissatisfaction and so defeat the object of any consultation exercise.

Retention is the new battle for public-sector employers and it’s being fought digitally. Employees are demanding high-quality IT tools so that they can produce their best work in a low-stress working environment.

Financial rewards are important, of course, but only to a point. The consensus among HR professionals is that people want to feel part of something bigger: an organisation with a culture of emotional connection, recognition and communication. If public-sector leaders aren’t deliberately working to create such an environment, they’re destined to fail.

Purpose-led enterprises will have a retention advantage over those that aren’t. If people are brought into the collective purpose of the organisation, they are much more likely to be happy in their work and loyal to their employer.