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Workforce Focus: The Human Element of Increasing Employee Retention

Bill Panos on August 3, 2023 - in Articles, Column

The United States is expected to add as many as 1.5 million new infrastructure jobs each year through 2031. According to a Brookings analysis of BLS data (found at www.brookings.edu/articles/infrastructure-workforce/), an estimated 1.7 million additional workers will leave the industry during that time. Therefore, engineering consultant firms and transportation agencies are under immense workforce pressures and are turning to engagement strategies as a remedy, incorporating them into their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. A successful process requires a comprehensive understanding of team dynamics and individual skills. This understanding can foster a sense of inclusion as well as strengthen team performance and job satisfaction.

The vitality of employee engagement within the infrastructure sector can’t be overstressed, as it’s the cornerstone of team engagement, an attribute that aids in employee attraction and retention while bolstering business outcomes. At the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT), fully deployed engagement strategies led to a 15 percent decrease in turnover rates during the COVID pandemic. Unlike in pre-pandemic times, employees now are driven more by meaningful purpose, self-development, efficient mentorship and continuous dialog. If these elements are lacking on the job, they seek opportunities elsewhere. Our work at NDDOT reveals that managers should prioritize employee engagement above all else, fostering a shared understanding and common purpose among all stakeholders to amplify the business benefits.

Improve Employee Engagement

According to a Gallup study on management (bit.ly/43857lr), just 35 percent of U.S. employees and 15 percent globally felt engaged at work. This problem intensified during the COVID pandemic, necessitating a fresh approach. Gallup’s Q-12 framework, developed after 50 years of research, offers a “layered” roadmap to improve employee engagement. The methodology emphasizes clear expectations, availability of necessary resources, recognition, supervisor’s care, career-development encouragement, the validity of opinions, mission significance, the commitment of colleagues, workplace friendships, progress discussions and learning opportunities.

As teams begin to deliver upon the historic investment of the IIJA to significantly reframe the future of infrastructure in the United States, employee engagement is paramount. Healthy engagement within an organization demands persistent messaging, regular communication, multiple touchpoints and collaborative platforms. Weekly meetings provide an opportunity to discuss engagement themes, which can be classified and tailored to the meeting’s content. This customized approach to engagement during check-ins proves highly effective.

Mid-level managers play a pivotal role in the success of an engagement program. They necessitate additional organizational support and a shared understanding of engagement practices. The human resources and communications departments should collaborate to cultivate an organization-wide understanding of employee engagement language.

Additional Ways to Optimize Performance

Emotional integrity is a cornerstone of employee satisfaction and productivity, encouraging honesty with feelings and assumptions. Acknowledging and expressing emotions helps shape a positive work environment and increases employee engagement.

Flexible work hours enhance team engagement and contribute to a more enthusiastic and energetic workforce. This includes flextime in weekly scheduling, a compressed workweek, job sharing, remote or teleworking, shift swapping or a variable work week based on operational needs. During the pandemic, flexible work hours became necessary and continue to be a significant factor for job seekers. Such flexibility boosts productivity and loyalty, with remote employees working more days each year compared to office-based ones. In addition, flexible work arrangements allow employees to maintain a work-life balance as well as improve their mental and physical health.

Project creep and slipping deadlines could be managed more effectively by developing replicable time-management skills. Individuals often struggle with self-awareness and adaptability, crucial for overall time-management performance.

Teleworking contracts provide an alternative working location for employees while maintaining the same job functions. Employers must ensure that teleworking employees receive and share clarity and expectations regarding the terms of remote work; equal treatment and benefits as their in-office counterparts; privacy and security of sensitive organizational information; expense reimbursements; and legal liabilities. Furthermore, employers can access potential employees from a broader geographic range and improve work-life balance for employees.

Workspace optimization for work activities and social interaction is crucial. The current workforce seeks more flexibility regarding where, when and how they work. Workspaces must support diverse working styles and be easily adaptable to evolving needs. Ensuring a balance between focused work and collaboration is critical. Office spaces should have the latest technology to facilitate practical remote work.

Innovation is a crucial driver for attracting and retaining a workforce. Senior leaders are primarily responsible for fostering an innovation culture across all organizational functions. They should communicate how innovation is expected to add value, allocate resources for different types of innovation, manage tradeoffs and regularly evolve the innovation strategy.

Finally, employee diversity and a sense of belonging are pivotal for business resilience. Diverse teams yield a variety of perspectives and boost productivity: innovation and creativity are increased, often leading to improved decision-making; and there’s more representation and fairness, particularly when thinking about clients. We often see organizations with diverse teams perform better financially—there’s a strong enhancement to an organization’s reputation, and learning environments improve.

Don’t Miss the Opportunity

If planned and executed concurrently, these programs will work together to synthesize a workplace condition that significantly contributes to employee retention, attraction and workplace productivity.

The IIJA represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the United States to massively improve its infrastructure. To maximize this historic investment, it’s critical employers, infrastructure agencies and workforce leaders break out of dated “business-as-usual” practices, shifting the focus to improving employee engagement. To have the fuel to deliver upon our nation’s core infrastructure priorities, the infrastructure workforce must be authentically and positively engaged with the organizations they work for as well as their teams and leaders. 

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About Bill Panos

Bill Panos is a senior director for Bentley Systems and former director of both the North Dakota and Wyoming Department of Transportations; email: [email protected].

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