staffhub 2022 growing excellent staff robinson holbrook shea heining

Tim Holbrook, at podium, suggests giving employees a chance to talk, learn and get to know each other better. On the panel with him were, from left, Eric M. Robinson, Jon Heining and Elisabeth Shea.

3 Ways to Keep Your Staff Motivated and Happy

By Lesley Kennedy | Oct. 12, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

ATLANTA—Looking to improve staff morale and retention? It’s all about relationships, roles and goals.

That’s what Eric M. Robinson, a public service associate at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute, told a standing room-only audience during the session “Growing Excellent Staff” at NCSL Staff Hub 2022 ATL Oct. 10.

Retreats can offer a great return on investment, he says.

“They help build relationships, so folks feel better working with each other and about where they work,” Robinson says. “It’s also a time for them to define their roles so people can stay in their lanes, or better yet, understand how their jobs connect with other jobs. And, last but not least, they allow you to set goals, because when you set goals, it helps everyone understand the direction you’re going in.”

1 — Find Value in Team Building

For Tim Holbrook, deputy director and chief human resources officer for Kentucky’s Legislative Resource Commission, being charged with creating a unique way to support and recognize staff who often don’t get the opportunity to travel to professional development meetings or trainings brought a new opportunity to recognize administrative staff.

His team organized a two-day on-site retreat for about 80 employees in 2021 with the theme “The Value of You” and a budget of about $10,000.

“We wanted those folks to realize just how much we appreciated them,” Holbrook says. The retreat included a variety of breakout sessions focused on both work and personal topics. Building on the event’s success, a second retreat was held this year, with the theme “The Value of Us,” giving employees a chance to talk, learn and get to know each other better. The group heard from speakers, including a global orchestra director who talked about bringing people with diverse skills together to perform as a team, and had the option of joining activities such as creating artwork, throwing axes and playing an escape room game.

Appreciated details included binders filled with pertinent information, preordered customized lunches and gifts. And since many of the attendees normally answer phones, other staff filled in to cover their work so they could concentrate on the program. “Hopefully, that made a difference,” Holbrook says.

Seems it did: The reviews were raves. “It’s nice to remember why we chose to work here and how important we are,” one participant wrote.

2 — Upgrade Your Training

For the 20 attorneys in Elisabeth Shea’s agency, new-employee training includes everything from key policy issues to the legislative structure to the budget process to bill-drafting software. But the senior attorney for Wisconsin’s Legislative Reference Bureau says there wasn’t always standards in place for learning so many important skills.

“We have a very collegial environment, and we really value that kind of culture,” she says. “So, it’s important that’s true in the training.” Now her agency’s training takes place over a six- to eight-week period but for no longer than two to eight hours per week. And different colleagues take on training duties in their areas of expertise, while a host of tools—from manuals, in-person sessions and mock processes to refresher trainings and CLE opportunities—help meet people where they are.

“We understand people learn differently,” she says, noting some learn best when they can go to their office and figure things out by themselves, while others may prefer a lot of one-on-one time. “It has helped new people feel that they’re integrated and not completely overwhelmed.”

3 — Train, Retain, Have Fun

Jon Heining, general counsel for the Texas Legislative Council and former NCSL staff chair, says training and team building are key to retention.

Since the Texas Legislature meets every other year, his team can have a hiring season, followed by a training season. In the team’s training toolkit: an internal website filled with information, a robust manual and a style guide, among other resources. “They have lots of reading to do,” he says. They also work on an assigned series of bills, learning the process and best practices, and use a Slack channel, implemented during COVID, dedicated to helping attorneys with draft questions.

But after all the training, keeping staff with the organization is also important. About 10 years ago, once you reached a certain point in your career, the only way to earn more money was to take a management path, Heining says.

“We discovered that we had a lot of attorneys that would reach that cap and because they weren’t able to get into management or didn’t want to manage people, they would leave,” he says. “There was no more money that they could earn, there was no more recognition that they could obtain.”

So a second track was created for non-managerial attorneys and programmers who perform a high-level of drafting or production but are not required to serve in management and oversight roles. “And, oh, by the way, yes, we are going pay them more,” Heining says. “Hopefully in your state, the concept of paying people what they’re worth is not a radical concept.”

And it never hurts to throw in a dose of fun. The office offers opportunities to interact, such as a trivia contest, a continuous service ceremony, tailgate games or even just ordering sandwiches in for lunch. Once a month, the staff does a 3-mile-or-less, bike-to-lunch ride (of course, you can drive if you prefer).

“The idea is to really provide an opportunity to get some exercise, but mostly interact outside the office,” Heining says.

Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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