Kansas City Government Employees: 'Please Don’t Rush to Reopen'

Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City, Missouri Shutterstock/K Welschmeyer

COMMENTARY | What are public sector employee concerns about the return to work? Kansas City has a better idea than many other local governments based on multiple employee surveys.

The words “return to normal,” seem to be on everyone’s lips, as the nation tries to revive the virus-assaulted economy. How quickly or slowly should cities move? For local government leaders, a key component to this process needs to be: How should they think about their own employees as they move to reopen?

In assessing and understanding the needs and expectations of its own workforce, Kansas City, Missouri, has taken a far more data-driven, rational approach than many other places. According to What Works Cities, a national initiative that helps local government drive progress and solve problems through the effective use of data, Kansas City has been at the forefront of using stakeholder feedback. The coronavirus “is a great example of Kansas City leading on the use of data to inform what to do next. We know other cities are paying attention and closely following their results,” says Zachary Markovits, director of city progress at What Works Cities.  

During the two months when the city was operating under a stay-at-home order, it conducted four surveys, each at a two-week interval, specifically addressing city employees who have been teleworking. At first, the survey questions were geared to finding out what employees needed to keep doing their jobs—such as newly-purchased employer-supplied headsets, which were purchased by the city government to help new teleworkers cut out household noise.

After those surveys were completed on May 8, Kansas City expanded its survey group to all employees. It asked if they considered themselves or someone in their household to be in a high-risk category for coronavirus based on CDC guidelines. More than 50% of surveyed employees said yes. “That was a surprise,” says Kate Bender, senior management analyst with DataKC, a division of the city manager’s office that is focused on leveraging data to improve operations. The clear takeaway from employees: “Please don’t rush to reopen. Please move slowly,” says Bender. “That was one big takeaway.”

The telework surveys had indicated that the city wasn’t losing much by delaying some workers move back to city hall. In answering questions about their productivity, 92% of employees said they were either more productive working at home or just as productive; 72% of supervisors had similar views with only 14% saying their staff were less productive when working out of the office. Kansas City officials are now considering creating a permanent telework policy, which didn’t exist there before.

(Courtesy of DataKC)

Another important message from the most recent survey came from employees who had continued working at their normal locations in the previous two months, including maintenance crews, some court staff, managers and others. They reported that more coordinated attention needed to go to supplying Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). While 51% of these workers said they had been provided with the PPE they needed, 31% disagreed. Similarly, 53% said adequate safety measures had been put in place, but 25% disagreed.

The survey responses prompted a reexamination of the city’s purchasing experience in recent months and a follow up to see whether there were continued problems with delayed or missing PPE supplies. “As a result of the survey, we’re aiming for a more coordinated and standardized effort,” says Bender. “We’re looking at employees’ needs citywide. We don’t want employees in one department to feel that they have more or less access or that there are different guidelines for them.”

One advantage of the survey was that it showed a telling variation in how different departments performed. The average percentage of employees who were satisfied with their PPE provision only told part of the story. The range was wide with 75% of employees satisfied in the top department and 41% at the bottom. In both cases, Parks and Recreation came out ahead of everyone else, offering managers an opportunity to study what they did and “see what we can mimic,” says Bender.

The city’s parks remained open during the pandemic with more than half of its employees considered essential workers. Krista Morrison, department deputy director, credited a centralized approach to purchasing and distributing PPE as a key success factor. An emphasis on constant communication was also vital, she says. Every other Wednesday from mid-March through mid-May an all-staff call focused on ways to stay safe with employees invited to ask plentiful questions. “I think that contributed to the score difference,” says Morrison. “The message they were hearing from us constantly was, ‘We don’t want to put the staff’s health at risk.’”

As more people have gone back to work in an office setting, the city’s return-to-work committee prioritized direct, frequent communication with all employees about what is happening, using a multi-channel approach. Messages are sent by text for employees who work in the field and may not be checking email frequently.

Employees who want to continue telework are being accommodated. There’s a new “DeployKC” program to provide options of other work available for employees who are in too high of a risk category to safely return to an office, but cannot work successfully in their current jobs at home.

For cities that want to follow Kansas City, with more frequent surveying of employees, that city’s officials offer some advice. You can’t just ask the questions, but must actually address the answers you get back. Otherwise employees may feel frustrated or that filling out surveys is wasting their time. After the first two telecommuting surveys, employees received an email from the city manager that conveyed survey results and emphasized that those results were being used to make decisions.

Bender says it’s also important to accept the idea that asking employees for their satisfaction levels will sometimes yield negative results. “If you don’t ask the questions, the perceptions will still be there. You just don’t know what they are,” she says.

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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