Government agencies across Europe, at all levels of government, are facing significant staffing and skills shortages. Workers are burned out after two years of the pandemic and associated disruption to work and home lives. Expectations have shifted, and many are reconsidering their priorities. The “Great Resignation” is unfolding in the public as well as private sectors, and many businesses are actively looking to recruit workers seeking a change. In this environment, retaining and engaging frontline workers has never been more important for government employers.

The role of belonging

Public sector HR departments and management teams should be concerned that recent research revealed one-third of frontline government workers feel they do not belong in their workplace. Unless public service employers can better persuade them that they belong, there’s a sizable risk of such employees further losing motivation, productivity or leaving their organization altogether.

Our research revealed that there is a significant upside for public sector agencies that foster a sense of belonging. We know from earlier Accenture research that 64% of employee potential is influenced by employers helping their workers feel “net better off” in six fundamental aspects: emotional & mental, relational, physical, financial, purposeful, and employable.

Our latest study shows that when public sector employers deliver equitable experiences at scale to employees, they increase workers’ sense of value and satisfaction across multiple dimensions including their sense of belonging to an organization. In a virtuous circle, that sense of belonging can pay dividends for the employer. For example, a 2019 study by BetterUp (a B2B and B2C online coaching platform) found that a strong sense of belonging was linked to a 56% increase in job performance, 50% lower staff turnover, and a 75% reduction in sick days. The researchers calculated that for a 10,000-person organization, this could result in annual savings of more than $52 million.

Fostering a sense of belonging

So, how can government employers give their people a greater sense of belonging in the workplace? According to our research, two types of experiences play an outsized role: moments that matter and everyday experiences.

As the name suggests, moments that matter are the big occasions in an individual’s career. They include events such as the worker’s onboarding experience, how an organization treats employees’ family milestones including births and marriages, compensation, and even what happens when a worker leaves the organization. We found that when it comes to these moments that matter, approximately 25% of government frontline workers don’t feel supported by their employers. More effective management of moments that matter can generate a huge increase in employee satisfaction.

Everyday moments are arguably even more important to employees. In our study, we identified ten everyday experiences that can build a greater sense of belonging. We found that employer characteristics relating to employees — regarding empowerment, communication, diversity and citizen-centricity in the organization’s mission —are the most important to improving a sense of belonging across the public sector. Importantly, we also found that great everyday experiences have the biggest positive impact on women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ employees, and workers without traditional education qualifications. And when these employees feel more valued by and satisfied with their employer, productivity benefits.

The three touchstones of belonging

Many government entities struggling with workforce shortage and productivity issues should be looking to provide exceptional experiences for their employees in moments that matter as well as day-to-day. According to our study, these experiences must be rooted in three core areas:

  1. Empowerment. Workers who feel empowered feel more connected to their organization. Empowerment can be achieved by giving people more autonomy over how they work, providing them with control over the outcomes of their work, and giving them opportunities to succeed.
  2. Diversity. Diversity starts with broadening talent pools to recruit people from a range of backgrounds. But it’s also about conducting parity studies to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to progress. For employees to thrive, public service organizations should tailor employee experiences to make them more inclusive, and celebrate diversity within the workforce.
  3. Skilling. Public service employers should enable people to upskill and reskill as demands change. Online courses and external credentials can help. But employers should also offer people on-the-job training in different parts of the organization where they’re keen to gather more experience.

The past two years have brought home just how much society relies on frontline public sector workers. As government agencies increasingly struggle to meet their workforce needs in terms of staffing, skilling and retention, improving the employee experience in day-to-day operations as well as in the big moments in an employee’s career is one of the most basic and crucial steps to keep public sector workforces thriving.

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