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Thread: Dealing with workplace morale in difficult times, and keeping your best planners

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    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Dealing with workplace morale in difficult times, and keeping your best planners

    I'm working on a session for an upcoming planning conference that aims to discuss techniques that help a department keep its morale up when things aren't going their way. We've all seen layoffs during the recession and know how those can hurt morale. Also, we've probably all seen an uptick in some people, including elected officials & interest groups, blaming the planners & their codes for preventing recovery.

    With each vacancy, departments are getting hundreds of applications for even the most basic entry-level position. How do you work to find the best talent within that stack of applications? Perhaps more importantly, how do you maintain that talented staff and keep them engaged & happy? For a new person without experience competing against experienced planners applying for entry position, how can they make themselves standout?

    I'd love to hear the Throbbing Brain's thoughts on this. While I've got a lot of experience with these topics, I'm geographically-limited and work in a state that has not suffered quite as much as others. Thanks!

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman GŲring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  2. #2
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I attended a brief session once about leadership in financially hard times and the main thing I remember from it (and which I now notice almost everywhere in my life) was the importance of open communication between leadership and the rest of staff, even if you don't know what the future will bring. Because (and this is the part I see everywhere) "in the absence of information, people will assume the worst." And it is so true - whether in a relationship, work, or anywhere in life. The not knowing is the hardest part and for whatever reason, our minds tend to migrate to the worst possible outcomes.

    This means that speculation about layoffs, what is being discussed among the higher ups, the financial status of the office, etc. can get quickly out of control and breed bad attitudes, an "us vs. them" mentality and generally negative workplace vibes. An informed and engaged staff is much happier knowing that they are resepcted, even if the times are hard. It makes them feel more like a part of a team and not like they are a pawn waiting to see if they will be booted next week. Keep them in the loop and respect their opinions and potential ideas for solutions.

    This doesn't pertain to the issue of applicants making themselves stand out, but does relate to how to treat existing staff.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post

    With each vacancy, departments are getting hundreds of applications for even the most basic entry-level position. How do you work to find the best talent within that stack of applications? Perhaps more importantly, how do you maintain that talented staff and keep them engaged & happy? For a new person without experience competing against experienced planners applying for entry position, how can they make themselves standout?
    You keep staff happy by giving them interesting stuff to do. If you have anything. It's old news, but when slow you rewrite code that needs it. As far as young people standing out in the stack of 300 applications, that is up to HR and whatever it is they do to pick people (whatever that is) if they don't have a good word from someone. Nothing new here, surely.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Around here the issue was just a general lack of leadership at the top that led to a great deal of complacency. This caused widespread issues of misconduct, incompetence, and possibly even corruption to occur in some departments without anyone in leadership really even being aware. Of course this blew up on the county a few months back so now there was a shake up at the top which has caused even more uncertainty and thus caused a huge drop in morale.

    In my particular department, the issue is we're just not being given any direction by the people at the top. The department aimlessly puts out fires as they occur but there's no larger goal we're moving toward. The department has apparently tried to spearhead numerous things over the years but has consistently had things shot down so they just stopped trying. Planning isn't popular around here but since it's been made so ineffective over the years, there has been no call to get rid of it either.

    So I guess what I've learned is that it's important to always have a larger goal to work toward. Aimlessly doing things as they come in isn't particularly satisfying. That's just difficult to do in some environments from what I've seen.

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    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post
    How do you work to find the best talent within that stack of applications?
    If you have the ability to ask a supplemental questions then ask about how they intergrate themselves into a culture or something truly off the wall. Have the rest of the staff help in crafting these questions. If you truly want to find the best people then it will take a lot of interviews. If you look a organizations that have low turnover and high employee satisfaction you will see they have a multi-tiered interview process. Yes its time consuming but if you want to keep your existing people happy you want to they need to work with capable people they enjoy spending time with.

    Perhaps more importantly, how do you maintain that talented staff and keep them engaged & happy?
    That is always difficult. Ensuring they are working with people they like and feel empowered to do their job are always pluses but different things motivate different people. Start by asking them what would keep them happy besides a 40% pay raise and a pool table in the break room.

    For a new person without experience competing against experienced planners applying for entry position, how can they make themselves standout?
    That is where the multi level interviews come in. There is nothing a graduate with a few internships can do to standout against someone that has 15 years experience on paper...but they can in a face to face meeting. I have always felt that fit with the team is just as important as skill set. People can learn to do many tasks but that can't unlearn being a jerk or being lazy.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

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    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Brocktoon View post
    Ensuring they are working with people they like and feel empowered to do their job are always pluses but different things motivate different people. Start by asking them what would keep them happy besides a 40% pay raise and a pool table in the break room.
    This is an important point that is so often overlooked. Sometimes the simplest things can make the difference between an OK job and a great one. Talk to your staff individually and try to understand their motivations and needs beyond the financial ones.

  7. #7
    If a manager is attending this session, there's a good chance they already have the personal qualities to encourage good morale within their department. Honest and humility on their part can go a long way in employee loyalty. Open communication, as others have said, and reasonableness, is something else I would emphasize. Unfortunately, the ones who need to hear this are probably too arrogant or stubborn or stupid to attend your session.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Morale is a tough one, and the manager plays a key role. It's also a 2 way street, however. If a staff person has a bad attitude its very hard to get through to him or her, and its not always the manager's fault if the bad attitude continues. A lot of public workers are watching the clock (see, for example, how many have the pension chart on the wall of their cube with dates circled.)

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    hehe.. looking back, I guess I can try to make a list of some of more demoralizing things I've seen or heard employers do to planners:

    1. tell the planner she is only doing planning because she can't hack it as a "designer" and because she knows she can never pass her AREs (to become an architect)

    2. announce two different payscales, one (superior one) for engineers and technical professionals and one (inferior one) for planners and others, then explain that this is due to the fact that firm managemenet "can't figure out what it is the planners actually do or what skills they have."

    3. give planners, architects and engineers their economy-driven salary reductions by automatically-generated email from the payroll management system, because management doesn't have the guts to face them in person. Subsequently, several planners at the same agency were laid off by email.

    4. announce to long-range planners (in a city government) that their department is getting merged with the permitting department because, in part, the long-range "planners are not sufficiently supportive of private developers and their needs."

    5. have the (teabagger) governor announce that the state will no longer do (regional) planning at all because planning is socialistic and against the principles of free enterprise.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Around here, no one knows what the planning department does. So all these calls that no one can answer in other departments somehow get funneled through this department which in turn get sent to the proper department.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian joshking2's avatar
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    The view from below

    How do you work to find the best talent within that stack of applications?

    Iíve only assisted with hiring positions in our office, but Iíve never been wrong with these questions: What kind of jobs has the applicant had before? Have they ever had a full time job before? Have they vigorously pursued internships? How responsive are they to emails or phone calls. Is the cover letter specific to your agency or does it look like a fill in the blank. What does the envelope look like? Is it hand written or machined? Ask to see a portfolio of work they have done.

    How do you maintain that talented staff and keep them engaged & happy:
    1. Be honest. Let the planner(s) you want to keep know this. The planners who skills are not crucial to the departmentís overall goals should know this as well. My Executive Director neglected to do this with me and my former boss so I kept looking for my one way ticket out of town. Well I had our roles reversed and indeed my former boss left (under pressure) to a job that more suited his set of skills and work ethic.
    2. Lead by example. We are all under pressure and long hours, donít be the last one in and the first one out.
    3. Give what you can. Raises are out of the question for almost all planners right now but can you be flexible with schedules right now? Longer lunch breaks?
    4. Donít forget the always important b!tch session. Never underestimate the power of a well-deserved happy hour. Listening and sympathizing with your employees will help them feel better about 60 hour work weeks and meager pay.

    For a new person without experience competing against experienced planners applying for entry position, how can they make themselves standout?

    A very good question. Iíve been screening applicants for an internship position at this agency and Iíve been wondering this myself.
    Transportation planning with **flair**

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