Taking a Good Look: Workplace Environment and Women’s Empowerment

Our Office of Performance Management under City of Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) City Manager Troy Schulte has managed an employee surveys over several years to identify where there are opportunities for internal service improvement. In an analysis of the responses to the open-ended questions, however, they have identified a few common issues that do not seem to be the responsibility of any specific department or division. These systemic “environment” issues directly impact employee satisfaction and the quality of the workplace but are difficult to address since they do not fall into any specific portfolio of work.

With this in mind, the Women’s Empowerment Initiative (WE) gathered additional feedback through focus groups and new surveys to specifically seek feedback on opportunities for advancement within the organization and the potential challenges. As a result, a few key initiatives are underway to enhance the environment as a more family-friendly workplace. While these specific initiatives may not be applicable in your organization, the core ideas driving these first steps are universal to fostering a more equitable workplace:

It is not always easy to understand the impact of a policy change but be open to feedback and respond quickly.

WE has initiated a new dialogue within city departments and staff are now bringing forward unsolicited input to the table (a win!). Recently, it was brought to our attention that many of the benefits offered for prenatal and post-delivery care, including breastfeeding, had change – i.e. disappeared entirely. How can we as an organization promote wellness if we make it more expensive for nursing mothers to do so? After a quick investigation, we learned that it was a simple administrative oversight that changed these benefits.

When it comes to complex decisions around issues like healthcare, it is easy to see how a simple decision may have unanticipated outcomes. It is impossible to have all stakeholders at the table for key decisions impacting your workforce and an oversight may have gone unnoticed for so long that no one would even remember when these benefits were covered. By opening up and enabling feedback, we were able to quickly address this issue and reinstate the benefits.

Modernizing the public sector workplace may require some painstaking review of practices but we too must compete for the best talent.

Striking a healthy life-work balance is key to employee satisfaction and many in the private sector have tried numerous strategies to help their workforce attain this golden nugget. The reality of the modern workplace is that technology has changed a great many of our jobs. The demands of family, for both men and women, can create added stress for staff when there is no means to offer some flexibility as a manager. Ultimately, we must be available to service to our customers, the community, but we are currently investigating new alternatives to the traditional schedule that could offer more options to staff in all stages of their career and life. We are investigating the impact of flexible schedules and telecommuting on our organization, acknowledging that these strategies require a different approach to workforce management. While neither strategy is a panacea for employee satisfaction, it is critical to analyze our options, to evaluate the “why” (do we work 8AM-5PM because that’s the best schedule or because that’s how it has always been done?) and optimize the workplace whenever possible. We’ve all read the countless articles about the next generation demanding more from their workplace – we too want to compete as an employer of choice for the best talent and must make an effort to at least actively exclude these strategies if they don’t work for us.

Make your workplace environment a priority to retain talent.

It is easy to overlook environment issues that do not affect you directly. Since we know there is some disparity in the number of women that advance to management levels within our own organization, we hypothesize there are some environmental barriers that contribute to this. Are women not advancing upwards in the organization because we are not competing with other employers? Are we making it difficult for women to stay in our organization?

Some feedback we heard from the focus groups addressed the challenges of returning from maternity leave, an issue that typically impacts women earlier in their career with the City. It is one thing to reenter the workplace following the birth of a child but then having to ask for special accommodations when you are trying to compete can seem untenable. Since there was no policy providing guidance to managers and supervisors, staff were also not empowered to ask for what they are entitled to – in this case, facilities for nursing mothers. This issue may not have been a priority for any specific department but it has a systemic impact. We are now finalizing a new policy to provide these accommodations and creating supporting outreach to make sure new moms and their supervisors are aware of what they are entitled to have.

There is so much more we are planning to address through WE but, in the meantime, it is important to demonstrate how staff feedback is being used to improve our workplace environment. It will be interesting to see if these changes impact employee satisfaction in the next few years of employee survey feedback. While the public sector may not be able to offer every option to staff, we must do our due diligence to evaluate how our environment is shaping the experience of our workforce on an ongoing basis if we want to create equal opportunities for advancement, attract and retain the best talent.

Ashely Hand is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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