Guelph Lab helping with our employee engagement

By Sam Laban

The People Table had a problem to tackle – the City hadn’t performed well in the 2012 employee engagement survey. In 2014, some departments and service areas had made positive strides, but others had been less successful so the overall picture hadn’t actually changed all that much. “Must do better.” Agreed. So, where to start?

The GuelphLab (which is where I work) is a joint-initaitive of the City and University and through the “lab”, the Table was able to tap resources at the University and access a researcher. They had a number of questions they wanted to answer before they started to think about possible solutions to “their” problem – what do we mean when we talk about engagement? What do we think improves or undermines engagement? And there were many others. The researcher – in this case a graduate student working through U of G’s Research Shop – was tasked with reviewing existing research to see how different academics answered these questions.

Here are some of the highlights from what he found:

  • one paper suggested that work places with high levels of trust don’t actually need to formally regulate employee’s behaviour as much
  • receiving feedback about performance is important but who provides the feedback isn’t necessarily – it could come from a supervisor, but peers and other teams members, or even clients / service users (citizens) are equally effective
  • accountability can be external and formal but it is also personal and internal – we can be held accountable for our work (by someone else or through formal policies) but we can also hold ourselves accountable

The results of this work were an important reference point for the Table.

Each member of the table had their own experience to draw on – that was another reference point (probably the most significant one). And, HR had experience as well as expertise and were working on different initiatives already. They were a resource and third reference point.

The People Table will be sharing some of their conclusions in future blog posts, but the important points here are that a) complex (“messy”) challenges like employee engagement often need to bring together different kinds of knowledge (experts AND those people “living it,” theory AND practice), and b) partnerships between the City and University can be a great way to do it.

In the world of universities this is called “community engaged scholarship” and the best examples generate value for the “community” and the University: in meeting a community need, students are able to build new skills and faculty can create new research knowledge with a focus on community problem- solving.

In Guelph, the University and the City actually have a long history of working together in this way. City staff have have worked with faculty and students to answer questions on everything from recreational resources, home retro-fit programs, older adult strategies and municipal budgeting processes, to clean water technologies, transit policy, digital services and community well-being. (Supporting these kinds of partnerships is one reason the GuelphLab was created).

The University’s “Atrium” is an open access database of books, articles, reports, image collections, theses, dissertations, presentations, videos, audio materials and more. Many of these (but not all) are the product of partnerships with the City and/or community. In fact, there are over 4000 entries related to the “City of Guelph.” Of these there are, for instance, 127 related to water, 26 related to transit, and 63 related to urban planning.

So, what can you do if you’re interested in…what other municipalities are doing? Or some best practices? Or different theories or models or definitions? Or evaluating a program you’re working on? Or any other question where you think research might be useful.

What’s important to remember is that one of the hallmarks of the City’s relationship with the University has been its variety. Projects have involved students or faculty members or staff, and sometimes all three. There have been delegations to council, multi-year collaborative projects, short and sweet research projects, training workshops and programs, and projects linked to student learning through regular credit courses, internships and practicuums. This doesn’t mean every project is a good fit, but we do have options.

If you’d like to explore a potential project, this summary document provides some suggestions about who to talk to. (You can also talk me of course