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Perspectives from hard hats & high vis vests: What outdoor staff think about their workplace

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Council Staff Survey

On a freezing winter’s day at 6 in the morning I recently travelled to a Council depot to present employee engagement survey results to their outdoor staff.
I usually arrive early to a presentation as it gives me a chance to informally chat with the attendees and develop some rapport. However, on this occasion, my attempts at small talk were met with hesitation. This became even more evident when a buddy of mine, also an outdoor worker, walked into the room. He took one look at me, and before I could say hello, he put his head down and hot-footed it to the back of the room.

Once my ego recovered from the rejection, I delivered the presentation with a better than expected level of interaction from the audience. But afterwards, I wondered what was behind the initial hesitation. I reflected back on some findings presented by Voice Project Director, Dr Peter Langford about leadership. In a large hierarchical organisation, Peter looked at how satisfied staff were with their leadership team and how this varied depending on what level of leadership was being assessed. This case study highlighted what we find in most organisations, that the higher the level of leadership being assessed, the lower the level of reported satisfaction from staff. Now, in the Council depot presentation, whilst I was introduced as an independent consultant, and I was dressed down in a polo and iron-free chinos (which, as an aside, are more crinkly and difficult to iron than any other pair of pants I’ve worn), my “buddy” later told me that there was still a lack of trust given I was hired by “management” to conduct the survey. Clearly, there was a culture of distrust between frontline staff and their leadership team. But I wondered. Does this generalise to other Councils? And does the view of leadership differ between indoor and outdoor staff?

Satisfaction With Council Leadership

Examining data from 14 recently surveyed Australian Councils, it appears that the pattern of diminishing trust in leadership is replicated. That is, the higher the level of leadership being assessed, the lower the level of satisfaction from staff.

Furthermore, looking at indoor staff versus outdoor staff, it is clear that outdoor staff are much less satisfied with Senior Leadership, with 49% of indoor staff providing favourable ratings versus only 39% of outdoor staff. However, when we look at Local Leadership, indoor and outdoor staff are equally satisfied with their work group leader, with 78% of indoor and outdoor staff reporting satisfaction.

Differences Between Indoor & Outdoor Staff

Whilst indoor and outdoor staff had different perceptions about Senior Leadership, this was by no means the greatest difference between the two groups. Much fewer outdoor staff believed in the mission of their Council, fewer believed their Council was ethical and many more expressed dissatisfaction about their Council’s recruitment and selection practices. In fact, outdoor staff showed lower satisfaction across 31 of the 36 practices measured. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Outdoor staff showed greater satisfaction with flexible work practices offered and were equally satisfied when it came to work-life balance, their workload, and their intention to stay at their Council.

So overall, it appears that the motivators are different. Indoor workers tend to be more in tune with the purpose of the organisation and feel more involved. Outdoor staff like the lifestyle, flexibility, and job security that working for a Council affords them. When I later chatted with my buddy about why he loves working at the Council he said
“Frank, it’s simple, I don’t take my work home with me”.

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