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Six ways the public sector can retain staff

19 May 2022

News and media


Image of happy staff having a meeting in a sunny office

Recruiting and retaining talented staff has always been an issue for the public sector, but the post-pandemic era will bring greater pressures to deliver innovative programs with limited resources, and increase the need for high-quality staff.

For whatever reasons, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, were spared the ‘Great Resignation’ that took place in the USA, but with things beginning to settle down after the pandemic many in the public sector are considering their options.

Some public sector staff may be feeling burnt out by the challenges of the pandemic, others may be reassessing what they want from their lives, and others may be tempted by offers from a private sector that is facing skills shortages.

In uncertain conditions and economic downturns, employees might focus more on the financial return of their work, but in times of low unemployment are more likely to focus on other issues.

How can public service agencies, and managers, work to retain staff and recognise that the public sector is a unique workplace with its own attractions for staff? Below are a few ideas from ANZSOG.

Think about your employees’ motivations

A global study of 5000 people by consultants McKinsey found that there is a disconnect between why employers think people leave jobs, and the real reasons. The study found that people were far more likely to prioritise relational factors, including having a sense of belonging to the organisation or being valued by their manager. Employers on the other hand believed that factors like inadequate pay or poor work-life balance were behind the exits.

ANZSOG’s The Bridge recently summarised academic research that found public services are overemphasising formal management tools and processes at the expense of using informal and relational management practices, and focusing on building a stronger organisational culture and understanding the range of motivations people have for working in the public sector.

Another study of 1,800 workers in Australia by PwC – The What Workers Want Report found almost 40 per cent of respondents planned to leave their job over the next 12 months. But, interestingly, it also found that 48 per cent of business leaders had no plans to redesign their ‘employee value proposition’.

Understanding what workers want and why they stay, is vital for public sector agencies. What data is your organisation keeping on why people value working there, or why they would consider leaving? Has your organisation thought through how best to keep people in a post-pandemic environment, and how to create a culture that people want to join?

Support your people to upskill

Professional development can be a challenge that re-motivates staff, and a sign that an organisation has faith in its employees. It’s a chance to refresh employees’ perspectives, avoid burn out and give them new ideas for upcoming challenges.

After two years where professional development was put aside, you may be underestimating the desire among your staff to build their skills. ANZSOG’s own surveys find that many public servants, particularly younger ones, or those who have shifted from the private sector are looking to professional development as a way to progress their careers. ANZSOG’s upcoming Future Public Sector Leaders masterclasses and other executive leadership workshops would be terrific options for you staff’s professional learning, but there are many other strong training options out there. You could also deliver your own masterclass to your team, where you teach them some of the skills or insights that have served you well during your career. ANZSOG also runs custom education programs designed with an agency to meet its specific needs.

Provide informal learning opportunities.

There are many other learning opportunities that only cost the time of your team member. The thrill of being brought into a meeting to hear the discussion of the policy paper they wrote, tagging along to a meeting with a senior stakeholder or coming to a brainstorming session will not impinge on your budget, but will be valued by your employees.

Maintain work/life balance

COVID-19 has changed working from home from a perk to a necessity and demonstrated what many employees always suspected – that they could be just as productive working from home. While the shift back to the office is well underway, many organisations have settled on a hybrid work model that allows employees some days of working from home.

While the Public Sector has always had a strong reputation of providing work-life balance in the past, employees now may be finding the that private sector is making a similar offer. Agencies need to ensure that staff have options that take into account their family and other responsibilities, while ensuring that staff who work from home are still provided with challenging work and opportunities for advancement.

Exactly how employers balance the new hybrid workplace in still in a state of flux. Make sure you are aware of your employees changing needs and expectations and keep an open mind about what kinds of flexibility are right for your organisation.

Provide challenges and the chance to collaborate

ANZSOG’s experience of working with public servants has taught us for most the ‘spirit of service’ and a commitment to the public good are more important than financial rewards.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult experience right across the public sector, many public servants reported that the work they were asked to do was some of the most rewarding of their working lives. Agencies reported better collaboration, more emphasis on creative and innovative solutions to problems, better engagement with communities and less focus on process – as they worked to implement solutions.

Public sector agencies need to think about how they can retain the best of their pandemic response for the long-term, and think about how they can give staff more opportunities to be creative in their work.

One way is to consciously focus on collaboration. ANZSOG does a lot of work bringing jurisdictions together to discuss common challenges, and we are always struck by how fruitful these collaborations are, and the energy that comes from them. There are like-minded peers ready to excitedly discuss shared obstacles and solutions with your team over Zoom, the challenge is finding them.

And finally…

Say thanks

Possibly the easiest of tasks, but one that is the easiest to forget as well. Our appreciation of our staff’s efforts may be obvious to you but not be to them. A weekly calendar reminder to write a thank you email can do the trick, while also giving you a welcome mood boost through expressing your gratitude.