At a time when there are more than 10 million open jobs in the United States, Ben Keenan keeps his ear to the ground about what’s happening in the government workforce.
He serves as Chief Strategy Officer for the Human Resources Enterprise in Iowa’s Department of Administrative Services, following 15 years of privatesector experience.
His concern isn’t just how many people are working, but who is working and what keeps them there — or keeps them away.
With retirements looming and younger generations moving in, Keenan said there are new expectations and that some critical demographics, such as mothers, have declined.
He also said data reveals what employees want, especially younger employees, and he believes agencies must take their values into account when aligning agency operations with workforce culture.
Great teams — whether in sports, the arts, research or government agencies — are built on relationships. There’s a family dynamic that involves trust, vulnerability and caring.
In Keenan’s view, solid relationships accelerate excellent work, and that’s crucial if an organization wants to be a powerful agency of the future. He believes employees should offer input about the culture they’d like to foster and about where change or more talent may be needed.
He said that in designing the future workforce, directors should pay attention to ideas that come up in a changing landscape and ask, “How can we make sure we’re meeting the needs of where we’re going instead of where we’ve been?”
Keenan envisions agencies that help people realize their full potential, with collaborative partnerships between employees and human resources departments.
“We want agencies to see HR as a muscle, and not a rubber band,” he said.
Worker strengths should be compatible with agency operations, and directors should be aware of how many tasks are on the table and which of them are priorities. Keenan wants agencies “to do the big thing, not the busy things.”
Keenan says that, over the past few years, he’s seen many government-sector positions receive no more than five qualified applicants.
What that tells him is that agencies aren’t offering what workers want. He cites cases in which a position may go unfilled, even if the pay is the same as a comparable private-sector job.
“Employees are telling us they want flexibility and more control of their time, and I think we’ll continue to see people tell us that time is more valuable than money,” he said.
For employees to contribute their best, they need to know their organizations value them, and not just during work hours. People want to spend time with their families, volunteer and cultivate their own lives. They want learning and development — a career trajectory.
“If those things aren’t offered, there’s going to be gaps in the workforce,” said Keenan.
He wants agencies to consider how future employees will prefer to work, including remote arrangements, so the positions aren’t drastically different from opportunities in the private sector.
“The more that employers think about their own flexibility in redesigning that experience and opening the walls of work up, the more successful they can be in capturing the workforce of the future,” he said.
Keenan recommends a few things agencies can do to attract and retain a strong, talented workforce:
- Be firm on destination, flexible on path. Instead of looking for perfection or an immediate answer, Keenan urges being open and simply moving in the right direction.
- Improve the focus on people. “The more we continue to invest in each other and ourselves that way, the higher performing product we can have together,” said Keenan.
- Hire for behavioral competencies. There always will be technical roles and competencies, but the human side should be the focus “because we always have to work together,” he said.
- Set workforce planning priorities. Sometimes our collective plates are too full. Keenan recommends assessing teams’ activities and determining which add clear value to agency operations.
- Create and maintain a trusted partnership between managers and HR. Hold regular follow-ups concerning action items, and confirm that measurements drive goals and outcomes.
- Use data to drive decisions. Hold conversations with employees about what changes in culture they’d like to see.
This article appears in our guide, “Agency of the Future: How New Possibilities are Emerging in the Present.” To read more about how agencies are anticipating future needs, download it here.