Tempe’s Tools

Jennifer Adams, LCSW
Deputy Public Works Manager
City of Tempe, Arizona
Member, APWA Diversity Committee
Chair, APWA Women in Public Works Subcommittee

In 2003, the Public Works Department in Tempe, Arizona recognized the need to better educate our supervisors and managers in order to promote a healthy, more productive and happy work environment. As a result, the department developed a set of tools that were designed to help us gain proficiencies and skills when working with our employees. The tools also promote an inclusive, nurturing, creative, equal opportunity department. Because of this extra effort and training, we feel that we have created empowered and productive employees who excel in providing high-quality services for our community. Several tools contributed to our success.

First tool: Supervisors Workshops. Quarterly, our managers, supervisors and leads gather for an inclusive and participatory training. The training sessions help to build skills in communication, facilitation, decision-making, team building, conflict resolution, employee development and performance enhancement, just to name a few. One of our many talented employees makes a small wooden toolbox which displays tools that symbolize our management’s strategies and philosophies. Each new supervisor is given a toolbox to display at his or her worksite. During our sessions, we add a new tool to the toolbox. After each training session is complete, the supervisors and leads return with their newfound knowledge and share it with their respective workgroups. This encourages everyone to interact in a positive manner and to understand the department’s goals and initiatives.

Second tool: 360° Communication. As managers, we recognize that it is not prudent to make decisions without full employee inclusion; therefore, we established a practice that our supervisors meet monthly with their entire workgroup. The emphasis at our 360° meetings is to encourage positive group interaction and problem solving. We know that our employees are the experts in their work area; so, during their meetings, they are able to share their expertise with other employees and supervisors. All members of the workgroup are encouraged to speak freely about their ideas and solutions which has proven to be especially helpful when dealing with problem solving, goal setting, and project implementation. As a result of this inclusive process, issues can be identified before they become troublesome. Some of the results we have experienced from implementing this inclusive process are: respect for one another, communication, patience, ownership, consensus, creativity and diversity which has led to much happier and productive workgroups.

Third tool: Conflict Resolution.

  • S relates to situation
  • O relates to openness
  • L relates to levels
  • V relates to volley ideas
  • E relates to employee safe haven

Sometimes employees have conflicts with other employees. In an attempt to solve this problem, we developed a conflict resolution tool called “SOLVE.” The “S” stands for what specifically is the “situation.” It is important to identify exactly what has caused the conflict because oftentimes, the conflict is so charged with emotion that the true situation may not be clear to both employees. The “O” is for “openness.” Most individuals are uncomfortable with conflict and often talk to many others before talking directly to the person with whom they have the conflict. As managers, when employees express conflict with other employees, we first listen to their concerns and then redirect them back to the other employee involved. The “L” is for “levels.” We strongly encourage employees to follow the chain of command when dealing with conflict. The “V” represents “volleying ideas” with the individuals involved in the conflict. The interaction is facilitated by one of our many in-house certified mediators. The “E” st ands for “employee safe haven.” Our organization offers several safe haven options including an individual within our own department. Employees can meet with the safe haven employee at any time and place they feel comfortable, which enables them to discuss concerns with the assurance of confidentiality. The safe haven representative listens, and then with the employee, brainstorms a handful of potential solutions. The employee is then prepared to return to the workgroup with the goal of implementing the solution.

Fourth tool: Performance Development Plan. The Performance Development Plan (PDP) is a simple, quick, consistent, effective, and interactive communication tool used between an employee and supervisor to evaluate work performance and goals. We first identify the department’s top priorities and then make the correlations between the department’s top priorities and objectives and the employee’s role that supports those top priorities. For example, one of the department’s top priorities is to respond to customer inquiries within one day in a professional and courteous manner. An employee’s goal related to that top priority would be to finish work assignments within 24 hours.

Fifth tool: Coaching and Mentoring. A coach is an individual who promotes and shapes the work environment by emphasizing continual growth and development of the employee’s knowledge and skills by listening and asking powerful questions. Through extensive supervisor workshop training, we have taught our supervisors how to be coaches and mentors. Our managers consistently reinforce the need to promote an employee’s growth potential. Managers and supervisors are required to be coaches and mentors with their employees by demonstrating that they truly care about the employee’s development and success by being enthusiastic, supportive, knowledgeable, patient, and confident in the employee’s abilities. Most of our employees report having an increased sense of empowerment and job satisfaction as a result of this management philosophy.

Sixth tool: Performance Improvement Plan. As with any organization, there are times when an employee is not performing job duties to the department’s expected standard. The Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is designed to correct an employee’s negative behavior, actions, or poor job performance. The supervisor, as a positive step, initiates the PIP by partnering with the employee to change the poor performance. The supervisor designs expectations in a clear and concise manner and then allows the employee to add any ideas he/she may have in an effort to resolve the unsatisfactory performance. The supervisor is expected to be direct and honest about the consequences should their employee choose not to succeed.

Seventh tool: Tuition Reimbursement. Our organization recognized the need for tuition reimbursement in order to promote succession planning and a stronger, more dynamic workforce. As a result, each employee is able to use $5,000 every calendar year for tuition and books. The only requirement for approval is that the course of study be related to a job within the city.

Eighth tool: Field Views. Regularly, the department manager and deputies go out into the field to listen to and talk with their employees. This approach allows employees to remain in their familiar environment and therefore promotes a more comfortable and relaxed atmosphere for communication. The manager gains an enormous amount of knowledge by seeing the job environment firsthand, which increases their ability to make positive and educated management decisions.

Ninth tool: Labor/Management Collaboration. Non-supervisory employees are represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU). We have designated a deputy manager who, with the SEIU representatives, uses a solution-focused approach to promote early intervention, problem solving and communication. On a bimonthly basis, the president and vice-president meet with the deputy manager to communicate and resolve any present or future potential issues. On a monthly basis, all the SEIU representatives meet with the manager and several deputies and engage in open and direct communications. This process enables everyone to better appreciate the issues facing all employees, so that we may focus on service to our community rather than issues in the workplace.

The nine tools we have outlined above are some of the most important tools we have identified for transforming our organization and for preparing us for the future. We found that implementing these creative tools has increased employee performance, and therefore, has improved the services we provide to the residents of our dynamic and diverse community.

Jennifer Adams, LCSW, can be reached at (480) 350-8835 or jennifer_adams@tempe.gov.

Photo captions:

Tempe’s toolbox legend

Annual Employee Appreciation Breakfast

Tempe’s toolbox with tools