When I started my career as a 9-1-1 operator in 1998, it seemed to be a simpler time in the public safety world. Most agencies had operators/dispatchers who lived and worked in their own jurisdiction. We were government employees and although we weren’t represented by the same union/association as the officers, they often fought for our benefits right alongside of us. Since that time, it seems things are just getting more and more complicated. Many agencies have consolidated their communications to a regional hub and private companies are now being granted contracts to provide public safety telecommunications services. My former agency has faced furloughs, longevity cuts and pay freezes for several years now and the city council has just voted to continue this trend. My former co-workers now have more time off than ever. Unfortunately, it’s not paid and it’s not as if the work slows down because the city is trying to save money. But, I digress. My point is public telecommunications work used to be considered stable and safe and now there is a lot of gray.
Employees have a lot of stress to deal with and they have a lot of choices, for example, whether or not to even stay in this line of work. Great employees are leaving one agency for another or just plain leaving. Agencies are scrambling for ways to keep these employees. One of the ways communications managers are holding onto quality employees despite the attack on benefits and wages and the increase of work, responsibility and the “do more with less” attitude of city managers, is to insure an employee is engaged.
An engaged employee feels an emotional connection to their work and the agency’s mission. This is not the same thing as employee happiness or satisfaction. An employee that is just one of these things can easily be lured away by greener, happier pastures. It means he or she feels like an important part of the big picture. They believe they are part of the organization’s goals and have a personal stake in the agency and its successes. Even though public safety telecommunications operators appear to have a lot of autonomy, they often feel very little control in the work they do. Each time the phone rings or an officer clears they have a little power over how the interaction will pan out, at least from their side. But, on the whole, most operators working the floor do not feel as if they are part of a bigger team. Those agencies that have figured out ways to engage their employees, connecting them, become part of the statistics of satisfaction. In a recent paper, my good friend and police telecommunications supervisor stated these facts:
- Engaged employees are two and a half times more likely to feel like they can make a difference
- Engaged employees produce higher levels of customer satisfaction
- Engaged employees are two times as likely to stay in their jobs
- Engaged employees are more productive
- An engaged workforce reduces formal grievances
An engaged employee cares about things and in this care puts forth efforts that can’t be paid for. So, what can managers do to increase the amount of employee engagement? An article in the Ivey Business Journal stated there are 10 C’s of employment engagement. Here are three:
Having a connection to your work is hard to describe. It’s something that you feel on an emotional level. Being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher was one of the most incredible jobs I have ever done. Making a difference and bringing my best efforts to the table with every call or on every frequency is what I did because I felt connected to the bigger mission. I was the first first responder and it was important that I did my job well. I believe most operators feel this way all through their career. But what about being connected to the agency? Sometimes this is where organizations lose their best employees. “Leaders must show that they value employees,” Crime and Seijits explain in the journal article. Communications managers need to show their employees that they care about them. Even if an operator loves their job, if they feel like their supervisor or the shift supervisor or the commander doesn’t respect them or, as I heard once, that they are expendable, they will not work to their potential and quite possibly won’t stay.
I hear way too often, “they only time I get recognized is when I screw up.” If an operator makes a mistake, they usually hear it from the officers, their supervisors and their co-workers. Of course, this is all after they have spent numerous moments agonizing over their own internal brow-beating. But, what about all the wonderful things that are being done day in and day out, hour after hour at communications centers throughout the country? You don’t hear about those and an operator can go years without being told he or she is doing a good job and that it is appreciated. This is something that is easily remedied once supervisors understand how important it is. After all supervisors like to hear that they are doing something right every once in a while too. It doesn’t have to be a formal, written commendation for their file, although that is always nice. It can be a simple congratulations on a job well done (preferably in front of co-workers and other managers).
Having confidence in your leaders as a public safety telecommunications operator is imperative. This confidence means you trust that your supervisor has integrity, high ethics and performance standards. As a leader, you need to exhibit the quality of character and behaviors that you want your employees to emulate. Essentially, you want to be the kind of person that your employee wants to be. When this occurs, employees do well to imitate your modeling. I can think of dozens of examples where the supervisor’s off-duty and on-duty behaviors left their supervisees with little respect and no desire to be like that. It’s hard to feel part of a team when your leader is an embarrassment.
To ensure quality employees stay even during times of crisis, agency managers need to work on keeping them engaged. An emotionally connected employee is hard-working, loyal, and with that, a happy and satisfied employee. If managers have the power to make some changes to increase engagement, think about how wonderful an entire room full of life-saving engaged employees would be. Working in that environment would be pure bliss. It’s possible. It just takes some awareness and a little work.